In the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death in the back of a police van while handcuffed and shackled, Baltimore teenagers, tired of being targeted, took to the city's streets on the afternoon of Monday, April 27. Some were accused of breaking into stores and stealing, other accused of throwing rocks at the police (who threw rocks back). As the protest against yet another instance of black murder by cop intensified, Twitter users coined the hashtag #BaltimoreUprising.
The Baltimore city police commissioner hailed one mother's actions that day, when she physically disciplined her teenage son for participating in the protests. He "wish[ed he had more parents who took charge of their kids tonight," turning what was Toya Graham's fear that her son would become another Freddie Gray into an indictment of all other black parents who were supposedly unable to control their children.
The hypocrisy of his words was all too apparent: Surely Freddie Gray's parents wished the police commissioner had control of his officers the night Freddie died. No matter how much property damage the multi-day protest caused, it pales to the cost of Baltimore's police conduct problem; since 2011, Baltimore has paid more than $5 million to victims of police brutality.
But what does #BaltimoreUprising mean for Palo Alto? Palo Alto is not Baltimore. And while statistics on police-involved shootings are notoriously hard to come by for any police department, never, in the eight years I've lived here, have I heard of a police shooting here.
But the fear apparent in Ms. Graham's actions reflected a sentiment shared by black parents across the country, including here in Palo Alto.
Black parents must teach our children how to get along in this world as black, part of which is encapsulated in "The Talk." The Talk explains how to behave around the police when they are Driving or Walking or Playing While Black -- always be polite, say "yes, officer," follow directions to a T, keep your hands on the steering wheel or wall, out of your pockets, and move very slowly. Never argue with an officer. Never run from an officer. Failure to do any of those things could get you arrested.
Failure could get you killed.
Now, I admit, my fears of my sons being killed by the Palo Alto police are low. But I do fear the threat of other types of bias and prejudice. These threats on our physical and mental well-being -- micro-aggressions, as we sociologists call them -- stem from the same mentality that sees black bodies as less than fully deserving of compassion and respect when it comes to the police.
The findings of a recent experiment by Stanford University psychologists illustrates how black bodies are judged more harshly and are less likely to be afforded the benefit of the doubt than their nonblack counterparts. In the study, actual K-12 teachers were presented with details of misbehavior by a student. The researchers used names to suggest the race and gender of the student. Teachers were asked to rate, among other things, the severity of the punishment each child should receive for the misbehavior.
The results show that while teachers perceived similarly the first infraction by black boys and white boys, by the second infraction, teachers were more likely to see the black boys' behavior as indicative of a pattern of deviance. As a result, the teachers were more likely to see themselves suspending that black male student down the line.
While district-level data on school discipline is hard to find (and even harder to disaggregate by race), anecdotally, I constantly hear stories from black parents in this area that affirm the study's findings. There's the parent whose black son was pulled out of class by a truant officer who questioned him accusingly about why another chronically absent child was missing school. There's the parent whose second-grade black son was forced to write an apology letter for sexual harassment after he placed his hand in a girl's seat right before she sat down, an act that he intended to be funny, not threatening. (He's 7.) There are the parents who found themselves called to the school more than a few times because their kindergartener had a hard time sitting still on the carpet.
The perception of black bodies as troublesome is also felt outside of Palo Alto schools and into the streets of our suburb. A black high school boy was interrogated outside of his classroom by the managers of a nearby shop who claimed he stole something during his lunch break. (He did not.) A Caltrain conductor kicked a 12-year-old black boy, riding the train alone for the first time, off the train because he purchased the wrong ticket.
Despite his tears, his mother's pleading on the phone in an attempt to explain to the conductor what happened, and the fact that he was only one stop away from home, he was left crying at a station by himself. Every single black man I know that lives in Palo Alto has been pulled over by the police more than once.
So what does Baltimore mean for Palo Alto? A 2013 study found that, in comparison to white boys, black boys as young as 10 are perceived to be older than they are, guiltier of the crime of which they are accused, and more likely to encounter police force if accused of a crime.
My son will be 10 in six months.
Baltimore means that I see my child in Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice, the last a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun shot dead by Cleveland police. I can see that if my son makes just one silly decision to get himself in trouble at school, his actions are going to be judged more harshly than those of his friends. If the mistake happens to be outside of school, that judgment just might turn violent.
So, even though those young men lost their lives many miles away and under different circumstances, I can still see their faces in Palo Alto. All I have to do is look into the face of my son.
LaToya Baldwin Clark is a lawyer, sociologist, and a child and parent advocate. She lives in Palo Alto, and two of her children attend school in the Palo Alto Unified School District.