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Parents of black teens find Trayvon Martin case hits close to home

By Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — When their son was about to enter his teens, Paul and Jeanne Miller of Flossmoor decided it was time to have the talk.

As a black male, they told him, some people will make judgments about you and view you with suspicion based solely on your race.

Recently, as Jeremy, 16, was preparing to get his driver’s license, his father told him what to do if he were ever stopped by police: Keep your hands visible on the steering wheel at all times.

And when he asked to take part in “Assassins,” a popular suburban game where teens stalk each other with air soft guns, his parents’ answer was an unequivocal no, lest someone mistake the toy that fires plastic bullets for a real weapon.

The story of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death in Sanford, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, has struck a particularly sensitive chord with black parents such as the Millers, many of whom said they live with a nagging fear that their teenage boys could be harassed or attacked.

“We live in a fairly affluent interracial neighborhood with fantastic people who don’t see color, but I know there are people out there who do,” said Paul Miller. “I constantly tell him ‘Don’t forget you’re black.’ I don’t want him to run into that guy who does see color one day when he’s walking down the street.”

Martin was shot to death last month by a man on a neighborhood watch patrol who confronted the black teenager because he thought he looked suspicious in the gated community. Martin, who was unarmed, was walking back to his father’s house after going to the store for a can of tea and candy.

George Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defense when he shot Martin, and was not charged in the shooting, prompting protests across the country, including two in Chicago on Friday and one scheduled at noon Saturday at Daley Plaza.

The case once again placed a spotlight on race in America and forced discussions about the negative perceptions some people have regarding black men. The recurring theme at many of the rallies has been that Trayvon could have been the son of any black in America.

On Friday, President Barack Obama weighed in, saying “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

“When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids,” Obama said. “And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”

With the election of Obama four years ago, some people mistakenly believe America is now a post-racial country, according to Cathy Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. But many young black men remain the targets of the racism that still exists, she said.

“The reality is that many Americans…perceive young black men to be ‘suspicious’ individuals who will rob them, confront them and carry a firearm to threaten their safety, independent of whether it is true or not,” said Cohen.

“Young black men go through the world being harassed, watched and stereotyped. They live with that every day, and far too many of us have ignored their reality,” she said.

Marguerite Alston, of Chicago Heights, said she rarely allows her 16-year-old son to walk home from school, but when he does, she insists that he goes with a group.

“At least there is another set of eyes if there’s a problem,” she said. “Someone can go and get help.”

Sometimes, however, she worries when her son asks to go to a mall with a group of black peers, fearing that they could be accused of making trouble even if they are not.

“I know they are good kids, but it’s like a red flag goes up in people’s mind when they see a group of black boys,” said Alston. “The first thing they think about is what they see on the news or what they’ve heard about. And just that quickly, something could go wrong.”

Michael said he is familiar with the suspicious look to which his mother is referring.

“Sometimes when you are in certain areas that don’t have a lot of black young men around, people might watch you a little more and it can be uncomfortable,” he said. “It makes me feel like I don’t belong there. Not necessarily scared, but it makes me feel out of place.”

Alston and her husband, Jeff, started talking to their son as a pre-teen. Growing up with five brothers, she said, her mother had the same conversations with them and stressed the importance of telling her own son how to avoid racially charged confrontations.

Black men long have claimed that they are unfairly harassed by police while driving, particularly in predominantly white neighborhoods. It has become so common that it is referred to as “driving while black.”

There are tools their children can use to lessen the chances that a routine police stop could escalate into violence, they said, but there is no way to prepare them for situations such as the one that left Martin, who was wearing a hoodie and talking on a cell phone, dead.

“I have a group of kids who get stopped just walking down the street. Their pants are not even hanging off their behind. They don’t have on any hoodies. They’re just going through everyday life,” said Cecil Reddit, who mentors teenage boys and facilitates a fathers support group for Family Focus Lawndale. The challenge for many parents is how to prepare the boys without frightening them or making them feel their parents are being overly protective. It is also important, they said, not to make them feel as though they are less important than anyone else.

“I get very angry about this because as Americans, we are all men,” said Reddit. “We should be able to live the same way everyone else is doing and not be targeted for these types of things, but it is reality.”

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