One of the most interesting calls I got was from a black former Philadelphia police officer who has a teenage son. While on the job, Richard Safford said he often came across young black men mouthing off to adults, pretending to be tougher than they are; he'd later see those same kids crying to their mothers about missing their fathers, he said.
"Why doesn't anyone write about the games that black young men play that bring about bad things happening?" Safford asked. "When I grew up, we were taught to respect adults. Kids today, being raised by single mothers, aren't taught that. They don't know how to deal with a challenge from male adults, white or black. And too often when it's a white adult dealing with black kids, it can go bad."
As the recent case of Jordan Davis tragically illustrated. Michael Dunn, who said Davis and friends called him a cracker and spewed threats when he told them to turn down their music, was convicted for almost killing the friends in the car with Davis that day. But a jury deadlocked on whether Dunn was justified in killing the 17-year-old Davis.
"I have mixed emotions," the Philly officer said. "Yes, the man was wrong and should have done like many of us and walked away. But the kids should also not have been playing games."
Games? When white kids act with adolescent recklessness, we say that they're sowing their oats or that boys will be boys. But for black kids, the stakes of a rite of passage can be higher, and often deadly.
All across this country, this is the heartbreaking discussion black parents have to have with their teenage kids - telling them that being black in America means they must watch how they dress, how they move, how they behave. It means being deferential to authority and suffering indignities in silence rather than face the risks of speaking out.
And the bigger issue is that there are too many guns in the hands of people who are convinced that they will be that one gun owner who will act responsibly when faced with a perceived threat and who prove time (George Zimmerman) and time (Dunn) again that they are not.
But back to the Philly cop's point. Safford wasn't defending Dunn or saying Davis brought it on himself. He was saying that Dunn and Davis were both acting on social constructs of the "Dangerous Black Kid."
White Guy may only know Black Kid from the media, and you don't often see Black Kid in the media (since "The Cosby Show" went off the air) doing anything but the perp walk.
Black Kid responds to the message he's gotten since birth, that he's some intimidating bogeyman. And what kid isn't going to use whatever perceived power he has?
Jordan Davis was a good kid. But he was a kid, feeling his way, finding his place and voice in the world. Michael Dunn was a racist with a gun who saw a car full of "Dangerous Black Kids" and pumped 10 bullets into it. He later said he thought they had a gun. They didn't.
Following the verdict, writer Jamie Nesbitt Golden kicked off the hashtag #DangerousBlackKids, with the caption: "Here's [a] potential future threat to society walking into the living room" with a photo of her son.
The hashtag went viral as thousands of tweets challenged the racial fear that dehumanizes black children and often ends with a white man turning his gun on a unarmed black teenager.
In response to the verdict, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a heartbreaking essay entitled "Black Boy Interrupted."
"I think of dying at 17, in my loudness, in my vanity, which is to say in my human youth, and I tremble. I was barely anything. I understood barely anything. When Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis, he obliterated a time-stream, devastated an open range of changes. . . . Michael Dunn killed a boy, and too robbed a man of his chance to be."
Another reader called last week's column, "More race-baiting drivel."
No. It's another opportunity to talk about what needs to change so that we don't find ourselves here again. Or as Eric Deggans, the NPR TV critic, so eloquently tweeted, so that a young black man is "allowed to indulge in the follies of youth and become a man."
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