How Racialized Policing Has Affected Multiple Generations of Our Family – Our son, “Ben” (whose name we’ve kept private at his request) is just a kid—a shy, squirmy, and anxious preteen who loves Star Wars and sticks close to his mom. But because he’s also just a Black kid, Ben’s not afforded the luxury of losing himself completely in any escapist sci-fi realm—nor can he trust that his mom will always be able to protect him.

How Racialized Policing Has Affected Multiple Generations of Our Family

For that reason, he’s heard versions of “The Talk” more times than he’s seen The Rise of Skywalker.

“Listen,” we began slowly as we offered yet another presentation of The Talk.  Ben and his sisters had heard our spiel seven, maybe eight times already.  Events demanded a refresher.

On Jan. 3, 2023, a Black school teacher from Washington, DC was pulled over while on holiday in Los Angeles. Reacting to what appeared to be a panic attic, LAPD officers tased Keenan Anderson six times in the span of 42 seconds. The vacationing motorist, who pleaded “please, sir, don’t do this” and exclaimed “they’re trying to George Floyd me,” died several hours later.

Then, on January 7, 2023, Memphis police stopped Tyre Nichols for alleged reckless driving. The officers issued “dozens of contradictory and unachievable orders,” and then brutally and lethally beat the twenty-nine-year-old man. Amid the chaos and violence, Nichols cried out for his mother, a woman whose home stood a mere 100 yards away.

Young. Black. Male. Panic-Stricken. Devoted to his mother.

While we know those attributes apply to so many loving, joyful, and spirited sons, brothers, dads, and husbands, our thoughts turned squarely to Ben.

“We’ve told you this before….  But if the police ever stop the car, sit perfectly still,” we explain. “Don’t scream.  Don’t wiggle.  Don’t unbuckle your seatbelt.  Don’t dig into your backpack.  Don’t reach for Mom!”

“But….”

“No buts.”

Our lawyerly middle child is a tireless and inventive debater.  He tried again: “But….”

“Listen, there’s nothing to argue. We just need your help to get through a situation like this.”

The barrister-in-training wasn’t done.  “Wait….” His face lit up.  Ben had the answer; at least he thought he did.

With theatrics reserved for the likes of a Jedi Perry Mason, Ben slowly rolled up his sleeves to show us his rail-thin—and walnut-colored—arms.  “Look,” he insisted, “it’s possible they’ll think I’m White.  You guys see it, right?  Right?”

Our faces made clear we were anything but bowled over. Still, our Padawan persisted, selling it the best he could. We wanted to credit his ingenuity and his survival instincts. But we couldn’t indulge him. Deflated, horrified, and simply saddened, all we could do was shake our heads.

“Maybe we can let them know I’m biracial? Maybe they’ll…they’ll just know!”   Ben was now bargaining, urgently, pathetically.  He stared intently at his unmistakably White dad, hoping he would agree to punch his privilege ticket.  But I (Jon) just looked down at the floor.

I (Toni) was likewise no help. I reminded Ben of what the latter already knew: He’s the spitting image of me—and thus unmistakably Black. “Ben, you and I… the police aren’t going to give either one of us a pass,” I explained.

In all of our previous renditions of The Talk, passing never came up.  The thought hadn’t even crossed our minds, in part because Ben has always identified as Black and in part because we never thought he could get away with it.  And, in all of our previous renditions, we never brought up Wiley—Ben’s maternal great-grandfather.

When Wiley began practicing law in the Jim Crow South, he’d regularly receive frantic calls. Someone’s son, brother, or cousin had been arrested—on trumped-up charges—and was now being held in a backwater county jail. Knowing it’d prove unhelpful (and likely dangerous) for a young Black attorney to barge into those sheriff’s offices demanding justice, Wiley worked the phones.

Pretending to be just another good ol’ boy on the other end of the line, Wiley laid it on thick.  Mimicking the patois of the White men who so strenuously opposed his bar admission, Wiley introduced himself as a country lawyer from “up a-ways.”  He’d ask “how’s the “fishin’ down there,” feign excitement about “huntin’ season,” and commiserate with the sheriff over “no-good civil rights agitators stirring up ‘our Blacks.’”

Then, and only then, did he get down to business.  Wiley claimed that the detainee in question was kin to one of his domestics.  And this domestic, he advised, was so struck with worry that she was useless around the house.  Then came the closing: As one (strongly implied) White man to another, would the sheriff do him a favor and “let the ‘boy’ go.”

According to family lore, Wiley’s magic worked every time.

That story had always filled Wiley’s children and grandchildren with pride.  This time, though, Ben’s desperate gambit soured my (Toni’s) memory; the customary feeling was now outstripped by heartache.

Wiley’s strategic passing as White in 1950s Arkansas was plucky and daring, a selfless, stopgap measure en route to full racial equality.  Thanks to the then-burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, passing would soon be passé.

Ben’s recent plea to pass hit us very differently.  His plan was clunky and implausible.  Unable to conceal his coloring behind Ma Bell’s skirt, as Wiley once could thanks to his savvy telephonic advocacy, Ben wasn’t going to fool anyone.  What’s more, that once-promising future of full racial equality looks far less bright today as powerful strains of White nationalism re-infect our politics and constitutional jurisprudence.  (Indeed, since this particular exchange with Ben, we’ve had to repeat and recast The Talk, now adding doorsteps and one’s own home to an ever-expanding list of danger zones.)

Today’s rollback in civil rights further links Wiley and Ben.  Wiley spent his career in the trenches, integrating schools in Little Rock, defending Mississippi Freedom Riders, expanding voting rights in Georgia, and readying the next generation of Black lawyers as Dean of Howard University’s storied law school.

In between Wiley and Ben, there’s us.  We’re the beneficiaries of Wiley’s battles: The granddaughter of a civil rights lawyer and the grandson of Eastern European refugees; an interracial, interfaith couple whose love blossomed while in school together—surely the segregationists’ greatest fear—and yielded three wonderful kids.  Yet the Wiley-to-Ben link is not shiny and sturdy, but tarnished and frayed.  For here we are, living not in the deep red south but in bright blue California, some 70 years later, parents to a young Black male feeling Wiley’s same sense of urgency to outfox the good ol’ boys with badges.

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