“The talk”

African-American leaders and pundits are tripping over themselves talking about “the talk.” For example, in his Dallas speech, President Obama referred to black parents giving their children “’the talk’ about how to respond if stopped by a police officer — ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir.'”

Is there evidence that black parents give their children such a talk more often than white parents? I haven’t seen any.

Nor have I seen evidence that “the talk,” if widely given in the African-American community, is having the desired effect. Michael Brown wasn’t saying “yes sir, no sir” when he twice attacked Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, first in Wilson’s police car and later on the street. Freddy Gray wasn’t saying “yes sir, no sir” when he made a scene and then threw himself about in the police van in West Baltimore.

How about the black teenagers in McKinney, Texas who crashed a pool party and then refused to disperse when the police arrived and told them to? One of the kids repeatedly disobeyed reasonable police orders. Yes, one officer badly overreacted to this incident. However, my point for purposes of this post is that the behavior of the teenagers suggests that either they didn’t get “the talk” or didn’t take it seriously.

Heather Mac Donald’s new book, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, documents what she calls “the virulent antipolice campaign that began with a now-discredited narrative about a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.” Even assuming that many African-American parents are giving “the talk,” a competing and seemingly more powerful narrative has taken hold.

Mac Donald describes how, in Cincinnati, a small riot broke out in late July 2015 when the police arrived at a drive-by shooting scene where a four-year-old girl had been shot in the head and critically injured. African-American bystanders loudly cursed at officers who had started arresting suspects at the scene on outstanding warrants.

The next month in Ferguson, 18-year-old Tyrone Harris opened fire at police officers, according to law-enforcement officials, and was shot and wounded by police in response. A mostly black crowd pelted the cops with frozen water bottles and rocks, wounding three officers, while destroying three police cars and damaging businesses, Ferguson police said. Some protesters reportedly chanted, “We’re ready for what? We’re ready for war.”

The same month, in Birmingham, Alabama, an officer was beaten unconscious with his own gun by a suspect in a car stop. There was gloating on social media. “Pistol whipped his ass to sleep,” read one Twitter post. The officer later said that he had refrained from using force to defend himself for fear of a media backlash for alleged racism.

All of this is a long way from “yes sir, no sir.”

I’m not saying that “the talk” is an urban legend. I assume that well-to-do black politicians and pundits are telling the truth when they describe the advice they give their children, and that a non-trivial number of other black parents are giving the same kind of advice.

But the political point I think these politicians and pundits are trying to make — that “the talk” is given because more than a few police officers are racists looking for an excuse to hurt black kids — depends, among other things, on the claim that the talk is common — more common in black households than white ones. This claim may be true, but as noted, I haven’t evidence come across to back it up.

Talking about “the talk” also obscures a crucial point in the debate about crime, police, and the criminal justice system — the role of the breakdown of black families. I agree with Roger Clegg that the catastrophic out-of-wedlock birthrate among African Americans is the main driver of racial disparities in our country, including disparities in crime rates and the amount and nature of encounters with the police.

President Obama said nothing about this problem in his Dallas talk even though, controversially, he chose a memorial service for slain police officers to talk, big picture, about race problems in America.

Talking about “the talk,” seems like a way to air brush problematic parenting out of the picture. I can’t say that this is being done consciously. However, I do believe that Obama is doing the nation a disservice when he brings up “the talk” but excludes from his discussion more relevant events that are occurring in black households.

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