Rubin: My white sons, Huel’s black sons, different fear

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

We are both in the media, both suburbanites, both the fathers of two boys. But what we have told our sons about interactions with the police is different, because my kids are white.

My advice to my 27- and 21-year-olds could fit on a bumper sticker: Be polite, and don’t reach into the glove box until the officer is at your window. The conversation took 30 seconds.

For Huel Perkins, it’s more complicated, and the conversation never ends.

“What we tell them,” says the WJBK-TV (Channel 2) news anchor, “is ‘comply to survive.’ ”

It has been a horrid week in the United States, where “united” seems to be far more a name than a description.

Police shootings of two black men, one in Louisiana and one in Minnesota, that beg for investigation. Then a callous, cowardly attack on police officers who were escorting a protest march in Dallas.

Outrageous. Sickening. And worrisome on an extra level for Huel and Priscilla Perkins, whose experience and observation tells them that their polite young men will sometimes reflexively be seen as threats.

Jared Perkins, 23, graduated from Columbia College in Chicago. He is working in film editing, his passion, and was selected for a management trainee program with a clothing company.

He told his mother one cold day that he had dropped his phone as he was sprinting back to his dorm. His concern was the phone. Hers was his life.

“My first question was, ‘What were you doing running in downtown Chicago?’ ” she says. “People are going to think, ‘What’s he running from?’ That’s a high-risk behavior for a young black man.”

For a young white man as handsome and polished as Jared or 21-year-old Vincent, it’s a different assumption:

He must be late.

Suspicions run in both directions. There are places in Detroit where a young white man will be presumed to be cruising for drugs.

But we once had a black copy clerk at my newspaper whose job included delivering early editions to half a dozen editors in the Grosse Pointes, and he was pulled over so many times that the publisher finally had to give him a letter explaining who he was and what he was doing. We called it his Grosse Pointe Passport.

Statistics say that black drivers are more likely than others to be flagged and ticketed. Black parents tell their children they are more likely to be braced by authority figures because of whom they’re with or whom they resemble.

Then they tell them how to survive the experience. Ten white kids are probably over-loud, too, but their parents don’t need to warn them that they look like a gang.

“In the black community,” says Omar Perry, 39, of Southfield, “you’ve got a whole set of rules.”

In a car, for instance, no more than one passenger. No broken taillights or other invitations to a traffic stop. Put your hands on the steering wheel, then reach over with your left, remove the key from the ignition and drop it on the seat.

With a white parent, “You tell your son, ‘Have a good evening,’ ” Detroiter Tyrone Gardenhire says. He’s 45, a friend of Perry from the human resources department at the Veterans Administration and his lunch partner at Campus Martius.

“We give our sons a laundry list.”

For any parent, fear arrives with the first cry in the delivery room. Sometimes it’s justified and sometimes it might not be. It’s real and ominous either way.

“I’m worried about the unlawful people, too,” Priscilla Perkins says, but you expect violence and unpredictability from them. Kids don’t become hashtags until someone who was supposed to protect them does something else entirely.

Huel Perkins reminds his young men that police officers are also people, subject to fear and frustration and all the things that can turn a simple situation tragic.

He makes it a point to engage, saying hello and asking questions, letting them know he sees more than a uniform.

The beat cop isn’t walking a one-way street. “We all have to work to create trust,” he says, “and to make this society better.”

Some weeks, that seems hopeless. Those are probably the weeks we need to work harder.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn