Ky. Voices: The conversation black parents still have with their children

Reginald Thomas of Lexington is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kentucky State University.
Reginald Thomas of Lexington is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kentucky State University.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently told a crowd at an NAACP convention of a conversation his father had with him when he was young. His father talked about the presence of racism and how Holder should act when confronted with such attitudes, particularly from police.

Hearing Holder mention this brought back the same conversation my mother had with me once I became a teenager. Her message: There would be times when I should expect different and unfair treatment solely because I was black. My response should not be to act out in anger, but to remain calm and in control.

When my daughter and two sons reached adolescence, I had the very same conversation with them.

Most black parents have this conversation with their children because of the lessons of history. No parent wants to get a phone call or a visit at the front door late at night that a "mistake" has happened and his or her child is dead.

The jury decision in the Trayvon Martin murder trial reopened old wounds of race that had been stitched in hopes of being healed. When a 17-year-old child walking home is killed by a grown man who does not like his looks and then that same man is able to go free, the scars of racial injustice remain evident upon the visage of America.

One way to attend those wounds is to re-examine the "stand your ground" laws that created the legal enviroment that allowed a not quilty verdict for shooter George Zimmerman. While adopted in order to prevent individuals from having a duty to retreat, these laws have had the sad consequence of encouraging perpetrators to use deadly force when, absent such law, deadly force is not permissible.

In Zimmerman's case, he was allowed to initially go free and unchallenged after shooting Martin. Moreover, in the end he was found free of any wrongdoing because he was believed to have been acting in self-defense. This was so even though there would not have been any confrontation if Martin had simply been allowed to walk home and if Zimmerman had simply complied with the request of the police dispatcher to remain in his car.

Kentucky, and the 19 other states with such laws, should revise them so, at a minimum, one who initiates a confrontation in a purely public setting is denied the shield. It just makes sense to deny a person who started a fight the ability to kill someone on the claim that he had the right to stand his ground.

The other step in healing is to challenge ourselves as a country to remove racial disparities in our social systems. The truth is, whites and blacks still live in different Americas. To be sure, life is definitely better for blacks than it was 50 years ago prior to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today blacks have opportunities for advancement and achievement that did not exist in years past. I, myself, am a beneficiary of the struggles and sacrifices of the civil rights movement and have attained access denied my parents.

However, when I am informed that the state unemployment rate of blacks doubles that of whites, I know that skin color is significant in obtaining a job. When I read about the achievement gaps in Fayette County public schools between black students and white students, I know that race influences educational success. When statistics in Kentucky reveal that the percentage of blacks in prison is greater than the percentage of blacks in the state, I know that race matters in our criminal justice system.

Frank and honest dialogue about race and its social consequences must begin here in Lexington and across the country. The meeting at the Carnegie Center over a week ago was a good first step in bringing a diverse crowd together to talk about the Martin case and its relevance to our community. Such dialogue must continue and it is necessary that our police, educators, government and business leaders, join in such civic engagement if we really want to make race a non-factor in our city.

These and other efforts must be intentional and ongoing if we are ever to live in a post-racial society. Real equality will never exist so long as our social institutions mandate unequal outcomes. If any good can come from the death of Trayvon Martin, it should be a recognition that race continues to influence our actions and attitudes, and a commitment to work collectively to end those biases.