In 2002, Michael Green extracted a single promise from me during the year I spent reporting about his life after he spent 13 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
Green, who is African-American, knew I’d be giving a lot of speeches about his story, including at high schools in Cleveland. He saw an opportunity to save lives.
“Tell the boys,” he said to me over and over. “Tell the boys this comes from me: If the police stop you, don’t ever run. Take your hands out of your pockets. Immediately. Put your hands over your head. Immediately. Stand perfectly still, and keep your opinions to yourself.”
“You have to promise,” he said. “You have to warn them.”
I’ve written about this promise a number of times over the years. I do that because I want to keep my word and share the warning in as large a forum as possible. If I’m honest with myself, though, I have to admit I also do it because I want to feel a little less guilty about my unearned privilege as a white woman. As a white mother, to be precise. My worries never rival those of most African-American mothers. Most days, I’d rather not think about that. Again, such privilege.
A decade ago, neither Green nor I knew to warn about the likes of George Zimmerman. He was no cop, despite his fancy notions of himself as a civilian enforcer. Instead, he was empowered by a law cooked up by the National Rifle Association and a certainty in his right to pursue an unarmed teenager who fit his description of a suspect. Some warned that this could happen, but we all should have seen it coming.
Earlier this week, in a speech to the NAACP, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described a family ritual all too familiar to many in the audience. His father sat him down. The talk his father gave, Holder said, was “about how, as a young black man, I should interact with the police, what to say and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way that I thought was unwarranted. Now, I’m sure my father felt certain at that time that my parents’ generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children.”
Some family traditions just won’t die in this country. After Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, Holder sat his own 15-year-old son down.
“This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down,” he said. “But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father, and it is my responsibility not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone but to make him aware of the world that he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.”
Ever since the verdict was announced and Zimmerman walked free, I’ve been trying to write this column. How can I not have something to say about this? Yet every approach feels wrong. I feel conspicuously white – and defensive – embarrassingly eager to talk about how I raised my children to be better than their parents and their grandparents before them, how they never see race before face, how they never think to describe their friends by the color of their skin.
Just saying that out loud makes me wince. Oh, great. Another obnoxious white liberal celebrating her own good intentions.
I keep fighting the urge to explain myself to my black friends, to offer evidence of how I could have turned out worse than this clumsy version of me.
There are many, many times when I miss my father, but this week isn’t one of them. I’m glad not to have that conversation that rips open old wounds and launches another round of estrangement. He once grounded me for an entire summer after he found out about my seventh-grade crush on a black boy.
“We don’t mix,” he yelled, eyes bulging, fists flexing at his side. I look back on that summer as the first time I realized my beloved father was wrong, just wrong, and I no longer wanted to be just like him.
After more than a decade as a columnist, I know what’s coming. Just telling that story will trigger another round of angry emails. Some white readers will demand to know what kind of daughter says such things about her father.
On and on it goes.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.