When he asked whether black people “do most crimes”—no, it breaks down more by poverty than by race, but African-Americans are convicted at a higher rate and sentenced more harshly—it broke our hearts. Where would he get such an idea? From the ether. From TV, movies, and video games. The subtler biases about race are poisons in the cultural water, even in the People’s Republic of Cambridge. When he angrily asked why President Obama didn’t just pass a law stopping things like what happened to Trayvon Martin, we did not have the heart to tell him that President Obama gets threatening hate letters, just as Jackie Robinson did.
Watching him suffer through the movie, and struggle afterwards to talk about the pain it caused him—no parent intentionally puts their child through this kind of misery. But at age 10, our boy is already more than 5 feet tall. His feet are a men’s size 10. He’s a full head taller than the other kids in his grade, and as sturdy as a linebacker. I have no doubt whatsoever that my little man is, at best, two years away from the day when some people start locking their car doors as he walks alone down the street, or from the moment when police will more quickly see him as a suspect than a victim—yes, even here in Cambridge. I feel sick about it, but my little man walks around in a skin that will attract fear and unreasoning contempt, and since we will not always be there to protect him, we have to prepare him.
He was upset when I mentioned that when my white uncle and African-American aunt first married in 1958—the same year Mildred Jeter married Richard Loving—their marriage was illegal in more than 20 states. So I told him that one of the things I love most about our country is that, again and again, we've realized that we were mistreating particular groups of people and have then worked hard to make it better. African-Americans, women, immigrants, Jews, now lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and soon, I hope, Muslims: My most passionate patriotism springs from that imperfect but steady effort to transform our social climate from hatred to welcome.
Still there’s something horrifyingly vulnerable about being unable to protect my child from a kind of hatred that I have never faced—and that he doesn’t yet really grasp is out there. As close as we may be to our African-American and biracial friends and family, my wife and I haven’t been followed around stores or had strange children curiously touch our hair. We may exchange exasperated glances with other black kids’ parents (of whatever races) when coaches mix up the names of the African-American kids on the team, but it’s not happening to us. And while we may work hard to ensure that he has black adults in his life, and black men close enough to lean on, it’s scary to know that he has to walk into this without a parent who can intimately identify.
When he asked, we told him that, yes, dangerous and threatening words had been flung at us—dyke, homo, goddamn lezzie, phrases that came out so fast I could feel again how deeply they're seared into us. We explained how we had felt and responded when such words were said, and how long it had been since we’d heard them. He might be alone, in our family, in facing race prejudice, which will become so much keener and more dangerous in just two or three years. But I felt, for a moment, that we were able at least to give him a model of facing down mistrust and even hatred without letting it sink you.
He didn’t want to sleep alone that night, so we let him camp out on our bedroom floor. As he got ready for bed, my little guy started a chant of “USA! USA! Except 20 states!” No, I corrected him. “All the states are OK now. They fixed their laws. Black and white can be married anywhere in the country.” I knew I was telling a little (if you’ll excuse the phrase) white lie: Voter ID laws and the disenfranchisement of felons disproportionately affect black people; mini-DOMA laws ban recognition of his moms’ marriage in half the American states. But there are limits to what you can load onto a 10-year-old in a single day.