The Talk, Part 1: Slow Down


This post first appeared on the Dad Will Do It Blog.
Me and Dad at an awards ceremony back in 2013.

Watch your speed: You’re young, you’re black and you’re driving a red car.

It was the mantra my father spouted — almost endlessly — since I first sat behind the wheel of my apple red Pontiac Grand Am.

“How fast did you go” was his first question each time I visited home. “Slow down” was how he ended every phone conversation.

On a December night in 2014, well past 10 p.m., his words played in my head like a record on repeat.

I didn’t watch my speed.

Instead, as I left Charlotte and cruised down Interstate 77 on my way home, my foot rested on the gas harder than it should, and the S.C. Highway Patrol trooper perched on the side of the road clocked me at going over 80 mph in a 55.

He pulled me to the side of the road but there was a problem. My driver’s side window fell off its track and was stuck. It couldn’t go down.

I was culpable: I was speeding. I had a busted window. I was caught.

I’m not griping about the ticket (which he kindly reduced).

I’m explaining why, in that moment, I nearly hyperventilated in a cop’s face because my window couldn’t go down. The only way I could communicate with this white man with a gun was to open the door.

I was scared.

Me, in childhood — before I understood that skin color could shape perceptions.

Three months earlier, a Highway Patrol trooper shot an unarmed black man at a Columbia, S.C., gas station because he thought the victim was reaching for a gun. There was no gun. The victim was trying to grab his driver’s license.

That was the context swirling in my mind. Any wrong move, I thought, and this won’t end well.

Plus, I knew the stats: African-Americans are victims in 26 percent of police shootings, according to the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. And while police killings of black Americans has declined by more than 70 percent over the last 40 to 50 years, African-Americans are still more likely than other race to die in encounters with policemen.

So there we were: Me, the trooper and my defunct window.

I raised my hands in the air, like Dad taught me, and shouted to the trooper that the window wouldn’t go down. He nodded in understanding. My heart jumped into my throat.

I opened the door slowly. He requested my license and registration. I explained every move before I made it; my eyes were fixed on his holster. I fumbled for my paperwork.

Moments passed and he drove away after handing me the slip of paper that said I owed $81.

I lived.

‘Yes sir, no ma’am’

I’ve never had an overly hostile encounter with police (testy, yes — lethal, no). Yet, I do feel like a member of an endangered species.

Interactions with police for people who look like me — whose skin is darker, nose is wider, facial features, more pronounced — have a history of not going well. Add that to the oft-tense relationship between the police and black community, and it’s a toxic cocktail of fear on both sides that, when these two kinds of people meet, can erupt with deadly results.

It’s been like this for decades.

Again, childhood, when ignorance most certainly is bliss.

Starting in childhood — before I had a license, much less my own car — my parents indoctrinated me with a prescription of behaviors for when (never if, always when) I get stopped by police:

“Say yes sir…no ma’am.”

“Never put your hands in your pockets — put them up so the officer can clearly see them.”

“Keep your wallet out so you’re not doing too much reaching.”

“Don’t mouth off or catch an attitude. Keep your emotions in check.Always keep your emotions in check.”

I personally know white people raised with the same degree of deference to police. In the South, hospitality, respect and adherence to authority are cultural dogma.

But here’s where I felt we differed. My parents took it a step further:

“Remember, it doesn’t matter how well-educated you are or how well you can speak. They see your skin first.”

The bottle

Dad’s skin was on display in 1999, when my family and I still lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was the same year four plainclothes New York Police Department officers shot at Amadou Diallo 41 times; 19 bullets hit his body before he died.

Amadou Diallo. Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News

My father went to the store and grabbed a drink. He wrapped it in a brown paper bag. Officers spotted him, accused him of carrying an open seal container of alcohol and threw him against a metal rolling gate, the kind business owners use to shutter their storefronts at the end of the day.

The police would soon discover that it was a glass bottle of grapefruit juice.

My dad has no criminal past. He’s worked on Wall Street and in the World Trade Center.

But why should that matter when his skin is black?

We’re still talking

I don’t believe all police are homicidal and hungry for a kill. I know and respect good cops.

When I was a reporter, I wrote about and interviewed them all the time. Two weeks ago, I called one for advice. More times than not, they’re heroes.

And I’m aware of what happens to these heroes when they kill someone: The emotional backlash is devastating. I know when they adorn the badge, they’re faced with two choices: Home or the casket.

Dad with the fam a few years before police threw him against a fence.

But I also know two black men were gunned down by police in the span of two days. This, after Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald.

Today, I drive a silver Honda and blend in a little easier with other motorists on the road. I check my speed but not nearly as often as I should. I don’t slouch in my seat or blast my speakers.

Does it matter when a broken tail light or toy gun or chewing gum or cigarette is enough for a bullet to the chest? Does it matter when perception and bias take hold of the trigger, and skin color creates the assumption that I’m armed?

I visited my parents last weekend. Dad greeted me at the back door.

Guess what he asked.