Being young, black, and safe

The Lindner family: Parents Donna and Steven with Sam and Sophia.
The Lindner family: Parents Donna and Steven with Sam and Sophia. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 21, 2013

Whenever 13-year-old Samuel Lindner goes out with his friends, his parents remind him to "act like you've been somewhere."

The phrase has been a constant in the Lindner household since Sam was in preschool. It means he should present himself with confidence, bred of education and experience. Be polite, on his best behavior, and make smart choices.

On the surface, the advice sounds like typical parental nagging. But Sam, his 15-year-old sister, Sophia, and his parents know those five words connote much more - a set of unwritten rules that can mean the difference between success or failure, even life or death. The Lindners, who live in Ardmore, are African American - and that simple fact adds layers of concerns for the welfare of their children.

"Sam knows racism exists, and he understands why," says Steven Lindner, 48, a Lower Merion commissioner and corporate trainer. "But that doesn't make it any easier. . . . We don't want him to fester over it. We just want him to be aware of these situations."

The Lindners and other African American parents say they need look no further than the daily headlines to validate their heightened awareness. This month, Trayvon Martin would have celebrated his 18th birthday. Instead, the Florida teenager's death a year ago next week remains a stark reminder to black parents of the dangers their children face.

The Lindners tell Sam not to travel in groups of teens - to avoid any suspicion of hooliganism. And whenever Sam or Sophia head to the store, the mantra is: "Don't forget to get a receipt. Don't forget to get a bag." Because, the Lindners have told their children, blacks too often are profiled as shoplifters.

"It does make me angry," Sam says, his usually soft-spoken voice rising a notch. "But just certain times when I'm going to have to let it go."

His mother, Donna Lindner, 44, a school administrator on the Main Line, says: "I think these conversations are essential. The costs are too high to take a chance."

Even in an era some have described as "post-racial," young black men in particular can seem under societal siege, whether it's the stop-and-frisk policies of police in Philadelphia and New York City, or, most notably, the shooting of Martin.

George Zimmerman, 29, is scheduled to stand trial in June on the charge of second-degree murder in the Feb. 26 shooting of Martin, who was returning to the gated community after walking to a store for candy. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, thought him suspicious, followed him and ultimately killed him. Zimmerman has said he shot in self-defense.

The incident was recently added to a "survival skills" curriculum for young black boys and men to be offered at Temple University this spring, said David Miller, chief visionary officer of the Urban Leadership Institute in Baltimore. Called Dare to Be King, the program offers techniques for de-escalating heated situations. It serves as "a blueprint to teach African American adolescent males the 'rules of engagement' in the community," according to the program's website.

"What happened to [Martin] is not new," says Miller. "This is a historical challenge in the African American community. There are few places in America where black men and black boys are safe."

Clinical psychologist Howard Stevenson devotes much space to navigating racial profiling in his two books: Playing with Anger: Teaching Coping Skills to African American Boys through Athletics and Culture and Stickin' To, Watchin' Over, and Gettin' With: An African American Parent's Guide to Discipline.

African American parents need to teach their children very specific survival skills, he says, just as parents teach children how to "stop, drop, and roll" to extinguish flames or how to distinguish the difference between "good touch/bad touch."

In Stickin' To, Stevenson recounts a conversation he had with his then 9-year-old son, Bryan. He tells the boy to be polite to police, even when they treat him rudely. His son asks why.

"Because some cops - not all cops, but some cops - don't always care about you or know you to be the sweet, adorable boy that I know and love. Unfortunately, some cops think that Black boys are angry and aggressive and will fight them."

Stevenson, also an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, goes on to tell his son to always use "sir" to make the police officer less scared of him and less likely to hurt him.

In his book, Stevenson advises parents to have these conversations early and often. Parents, he says, may talk to their children about racism but often fail to practice specific situations. "It's admitting something that may be hard to face," he says, "that somehow you live in a different world than others do, somehow you are not equal."

When Donna Lindner's son was born, one of the first thoughts she had was, "How am I going to convince people that he is not the person they think he is?"

Adds Steven Lindner: "No matter where he goes, there's a perception: He's the black kid."

And that label comes with its share of baggage. At Boy Scout summer camp, Sam says, counselors assumed he could not swim. He jumped in the pool and earned his badge.

Often, the Lindners look for ways to improve the odds against their son. Steven Lindner has made a point to introduce him to Lower Merion police officers - a preemptive move. "Sometimes, I'll go down my list," he says. "What do you do in this situation? What do you do in that situation?"

At the mall, Sam has watched his father go into a store in his suit and tie and then return to that store in jeans and sneakers. "We get very different treatment," Steven Lindner says. "My way of letting him know profiling exists is by doing these examples."

For generations, African American parents have imparted "special knowledge" to their children, says Richard Cooper, an assistant clinical professor at the Center for Social Work Education at Widener University and host of The Karamu on WURD-AM (900). "It's a very common but sad commentary that these discourses happen."

That knowledge can include hands positioned at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel while driving, no visible tattoos, hands out of pockets when inside a store - and the seemingly ubiquitous caution against hoodies, a garment that has become shorthand for young black males up to no good.

The goal, says social psychologist Sonja Peterson-Lewis, is to ensure that black children do not "attract the wrong type of attention."

In the 1990s, Peterson-Lewis, an associate professor of African American studies at Temple University, looked at black families in suburban school districts. Topics discussed included the way the children were taught to speak (no sass), walk (no swagger), and interact.

"Children were told not to look adults in the eye when talking to them, particularly in black and white relations," Peterson-Lewis says. "You don't want to be labeled an 'uppity Negro.' "

Black children, she notes, are often schooled to avoid certain neighborhoods after dark, echoing the "sundown towns" common in pre-civil-rights America.

The overriding rule: Mind your own business. "You don't have to be doing anything threatening for people to feel threatened by you," Peterson-Lewis says.

"It sounds like a cramping of style," she allows. "These parents had to choose between safety measures and letting their young people be exposed to the imperative of childhood."

In many ways, African American children are expected to assume a double consciousness.

"I have two completely different lives," says Sophia Lindner. She has one way of behaving in her private-school world and another when she is among other African Americans. "At school, I do have to sound more formal," she says.

And sometimes, her white friends buy into stereotypes, such as the time they ducked while driving through an urban area.

"I try not to get too mad," she says. "It's not their fault that they were raised in such a way that they're not aware."

Sam also has one level of comfort in his all-African American Boy Scout troop and another at a white classmate's pool party, where he says he alone was chastised for going down the slide on his stomach, even though his friends had done the same. "It's a different set of rules," Sam says.

While overt racism may be harder to find these days, the daily, subtler slights known as micro-aggressions can harm all the same, especially as they pile up over time, explains clinical psychologist Sanjay Nath, director of the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University. "Parents should really be aware of the way some of these things can impact self-esteem and identity."

That's why Donna and Steven Lindner tell their children that society's critical response is not targeted at them as individuals.

"Our intention is not so much to prepare our children for the worst," Donna Lindner says, "but to empower them so that when they're put in those situations where they could be made to feel less than, they have the confidence and knowledge and power to be more than."

The sons of Tanya Banks, 52, have heard these types of messages since they were 5 years old and going out for peewee football. "I've told them, 'It's a big world out there, and not everybody is going to welcome you,' " says Banks, a nurse who also has her own production company.

Banks remembers when her son, now 22 and a boxer, was jogging near Penn and was stopped by cops who questioned why he was running. "I'm thinking, if he was Caucasian, would they have stopped him?" she says.

Banks also tells her sons not to drive with a car full of friends. "I tell them to travel a little light. If you are three or four in a car, the police automatically assume you're up to no good."

She has heard from her children: "It's a free country. Why can't I have friends in the car?"

But Banks keeps at it. Don't carry too much money with you. Travel with a clear purpose. Dress conservatively.

Montrell L. Patterson, 41, of Tioga, is acting in a short film called "I Am Trayvon Martin," which is on YouTube ( http://youtu.be/EpiEpnuyopA). "I'm teaching my son he will be judged for his appearance," he says. Joshua Patterson is 6 years old. His father already chides him about wearing a hooded sweatshirt outdoors.

"We're always representing something," he says.

Largely because of segregated neighborhoods and schools, many in the majority community have limited experiences with black males, says Charles Williams, the Stoneleigh Fellow and an associate teaching professor in psychology and education at Drexel University. He also directs its Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence.

The goal for blacks, then, is "to convey a message very quickly, 'I mean you no harm.' "

At the youngest ages, boys are drilled on coming across as not only polite but extremely deferential.

"It's a burden," Williams allows. "It's a lot of work, and it's very stressful . . . . A lot of young people rebel against it. [But] I'm convinced that that speech, in its many iterations, has saved lives."


Contact Lini S. Kadaba at Lkadaba@gmail.com.

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