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Explaining The Zimmerman Verdict To Your Kids


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. We are going to continue talking about the George Zimmerman verdict. And we noted earlier that because the verdict came in on a Saturday night, many parents watched the news with their children and found themselves grappling immediately with their own feelings, as well as those of their children.

So we've asked a diverse group of parents - many of them are regulars - to let us listen to some of the conversations they've been having. With us now are three of our regular parenting contributors. Glenn Ivey is a former state's attorney in suburban Maryland, a practicing attorney and a dad of six, which includes five boys. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker. She's the cofounder of a parenting support group. She's one of our regular contributors and also the wife of Glenn Ivey. Leslie Morgan Steiner is author, most recently of "Crazy Love" and "Mommy Wars," and she's a mom of three, including a teenage boy. Also with us, Kristen Howerton. Her blog is called "Rage Against the Minivan," and she's a mom of four, two boys and two girls, and her two sons are both of color. Welcome to you all. Thank you both so much for speaking with us. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

GLENN IVEY: Thank you.

JOLENE IVEY: Thank you, Michel.



MARTIN: Glenn, I'm going to start with you. Did you talk to the boys about this?

G. IVEY: Oh, yeah, you know, I think you got, there are five of them, so you get different reactions from different boys. But they tended to not be shocked by the verdict. You know, Alex, my oldest, in particular, was like, you know, dad, come on, you know, you really thought an all-white jury in Florida was going to come back with a conviction? And...

MARTIN: Did you? As a former prosecutor, did you?

G. IVEY: I kind of hoped that there would at least be a conviction on manslaughter. I thought there was enough evidence. I've handled cases like that here and in D.C. and in Maryland, and you know, they can go either way, but I thought there was enough there for this case.

MARTIN: I just want to mention that one member of the jury - five members of the jury were white and the sixth, I believe, either biracial or of Latina heritage, not sure how she self-identifies. Jolene, what about you? Did you have feelings that you had to grapple with about this? And how did you talk about it with the boys?

J. IVEY: You know, it was just so awful. We all felt so bad, just sick to my stomach, woke up with a headache the next day. It's just been really, really difficult for our family. I can only imagine what it's like for Trayvon's parents, you know, who know him and love him. And for us, you know, it's more theoretical, but we look at our own children. And we've already had to teach them how to behave with police officers, you know, to be extra polite, to be extra deferential, in order to keep themselves safe from the police.

Well, what are we supposed to teach them about the rest of the world? And when they encounter other white people who might be fearful of them just because they're a black teenage boy, OK, how are they supposed to behave? Are they supposed to, again, be extra deferential just to keep that other person feeling comfortable so that they don't end up getting killed? I mean, that's what our 20-year-old seems to think. And he says it makes him sad. But he wasn't surprised at all by the verdict either.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? I know you have, if you don't mind my mentioning, you have a 16-year-old. Did this come up?

STEINER: Yes, my 16-year-old son is an avid basketball player. And he was at basketball team camp this weekend. And I had a real heavy heart talking to him about it. He wasn't surprised, but he said that hearing the verdict on Saturday night was like when you play a game and give it your all and you're down ten points the whole time. You think you're going to lose, but when you hear the final buzzer, you still feel that bitter disappointment.

MARTIN: Did you feel - I know, Leslie, you have an interesting kind of story here, because your family, you're white, your family is white, but your son has also played on a number of sports teams that are very integrated. And in some cases, he's been the only white kid on the team in a couple of cases. And I just, you know, wonder, do you think that this is on his mind because of those experiences or because of where you live? Because there are a lot of people who are tweeting and saying, I just don't get it, I don't understand. I mean, they're sad because a child is dead, but they don't understand why people think race is a part of it. And I'm just wondering...

STEINER: Oh, no, he totally gets it. And I don't know if he would get it if he hadn't been so immersed in the basketball teams that he's played on. And he's been not just the only white player on the team, but for many, many years, probably the better part of the decade, been the only white player in the gym. And so he's been a minority and he's seen this culture. And I think it's been really eye-opening for him and for us. And I think the hardest thing that we talked about regarding Trayvon was that the complex reality that this would never happen to my son because he has blonde hair and white skin.

You know, when he found out about the verdict, he was walking into the lobby of the team camp dorm to get Twizzlers out of the vending machine wearing a gray hoodie, and he still knows that he's never going to be targeted by the police or a vigilante just because he's white. And he, I think he has a very profound sense that that's wrong and that's not the kind of country he wants to live in.

MARTIN: Kristen Howerton, I hope you don't mind my mentioning that you are white but your two sons are both black. You tweeted, quote, today brings heaviness that is oppressive, still processing how to best prepare them and still angry I have to, end quote. I want to mention here again, your boys are young, the oldest of the young ones are ripe, it's just eight, right. But what thoughts do you have now?

HOWERTON: Yeah, I mean, definitely there's a huge heaviness. You know, when I heard the verdict, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. And, you know, I think that it dealt a heavy blow for our black youth. I think it spoke a message that said that, you know, there is not justice for this kind of thing. And I will say, I was heartened to see in the protests last night that the crowds were very diverse. And, you know, we've been, my husband and I have really been processing at what point do we talk with our boys. We've not talked to them about it yet. They're six and eight. They're still pretty young. They're still in that stage of kind of concrete operational thinking. But certainly, when we do talk to them about that, you know, I'm hopeful that the people who are outraged and protesting will help them understand that this doesn't reflect everyone in America.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, our parents are here. We're talking about the Zimmerman trial verdict. I'm joined by Kristen Howerton - that's who was speaking just now - Leslie Morgan Steiner, Jolene Ivey and Glenn Ivey. You know, a lot of people have been talking about the talk, you know, Glenn Ivey, that many African-American parents, parents of color and Latino parents, too, have with their sons, in particular, but also, you know, with their daughters about - and Jolene was just talking about this - how to behave in a way to minimize suspicion. I wonder, is that even quaint?

I mean, Jolene, you heard Jolene grappling with this. I mean, what talk do I have, since this was not a person of law enforcement, this was not a person acting under code of law. Clearly he felt that he had a right to pursue the teenager. Is there another talk that you think you should have at this point?

G. IVEY: Frankly, I wouldn't know what to say, because these situations - I actually had one of these myself when I was 18. And, you know, it was a group of us, a basketball team. We're coming out from a party, and a guy comes out of his house with a gun and confronts us with it and says, one of you all hit my car. And I said - I was the captain of team, so I spoke up, you know - we're just coming out of the party. We couldn't have hit your car, 'cause we're just leaving now. And that just seemed to make him angrier. And I think one of us would have been shot that night but for the fact that his wife came out to the porch and called to him and sort of talked him down. And, you know, those are dynamic situations.

You don't know who you're dealing with. You don't know why they're mad at you sometimes. And because you don't know them, you don't know how to talk them through it. So it's not like a cop where there's a process. You know, if I say this, yes sir, for example, you know, it backs him down a little bit. If I keep my hands where he can see them, he comes down a little bit. If I give him only what he asked for when he asked for it, he comes down a little bit. But in this kind of a scenario, it's hard to know. And the George Zimmerman one, you know, based on what we've heard, I don't know that you could say, well, instead of doing this, Trayvon Martin should have done that. I just don't know what it would be.

MARTIN: One commentator, Charles Blow, who's a columnist for the New York Times wrote, well, you know, when Trayvon Martin was on the phone with his friend, Rachel Jeantel, he indicated that she said, run, 'cause this person is following you, and you are frightened, run. And then we've all been told, well, don't run...

G. IVEY: Right....

MARTIN: ...And so what Charles Blow said...

G. IVEY: ...'Cause you can't outrun a bullet.

MARTIN: Yeah, well, at what speed can I tell my children to walk so that they will not be deemed suspicious.

G. IVEY: It's just hard to know. I mean, if, you know, if you stay and confront him, you know, we know what happened with that. If you run, does that help? If you try to talk him out of it? It's hard to know. So it's, you know, I think this is one where you just have to trust your kids and their instincts in the moment, because these are dynamic situations, and they have to be, you know, they're going to have to improvise sometimes.

MARTIN: I have to ask about the question of the entire. I mean, Leslie raised this question. I mean, she said that, you know, her son realizes he can walk around in a hoodie and some sweats and people aren't going to deem him suspicious. But what about that? I mean, that is one of the issues people raised in the beginning of this. They say, well, you know what, if you don't want to arouse suspicion, don't act in a way that causes other people to feel that way. And you can understand how disgusting that might feel to some people that say, why do I have to dress to alleviate your suspicions?

But the fact is that, you know, African-Americans have been engaging in what my colleague Michele Norris called sartorial activism for some time now, being clear, being sure to dress in a way that will be as conservative as possible. Jolene, what about that? Is that a valid point to make to your kids, that you need to dress a certain way, wear the, you know, the golf shirt and the khakis at all times?

J. IVEY: If I can just keep them with a belt on and their pants up above the crack, I'm happy, and that's really my goal. Our oldest son is, has been on job interviews lately. And we saw him yesterday, he has a nice fresh haircut. And I complimented him, and he said, yeah, I really thought that if I'm going to be looking for a job then I really have to come correct. And so, you know, I appreciate that he knows that already as a young person. But I think your clothes are important, but they shouldn't make you a target of violence. And I don't think a hoodie will qualify as something I would tell my kids do not wear, because heck, poor Trayvon was out in a cool, rainy night. It was February. It was the end of February.

Even in Florida, that can be chilly. And the rain, of course, he's going to put his hood on. And I would never have told my kids, but you can't wear that. The only thing I would tell them to do is keep their pants up and keep the belt around. These days, that would be my only thing I would demand.

MARTIN: Kristen, have you started any of this talk at all? And I'm guessing that this is new to you, not having been raised in this milieu. But you do teach diversity. That is something that you teach and think about. I mean, have you started the talk, even though your boys are young, and what kind of talks have you had?

HOWERTON: Oh, absolutely we've started the talk, and it's always, you know, trying to navigate what's developmentally appropriate at each stage. But we've actually, we've had lots of talks about racism and prejudice and that kind of thing. And, you know, I think it's a developing conversation, kind of like sexuality with kids. I think it's, you know, it's just a required thing. And yes, it is somewhat new to me, just because I'm white. I didn't grow up in that.

And so as a white parent, you know, I really do look to other black parents to help me figure this out. And, you know, I'm constantly reading and asking questions, and, you know, my hope also is that, in addition to the talk that my husband and I can have with them, that we have strong black men in their lives who can also steer them and encourage them, as well.

MARTIN: There are people who feel that, you know, that we, the collective we, are all making too much of this. There are people, I know that people have said to you, Kristen, why don't you just raise them to be human beings? What do you say to them?

HOWERTON: Well, you know, that's a lovely idea. I mean, wow, that would be great, but we don't live in that world. And, you know, Trayvon, I think if there's any redemption from this awful tragedy, I hope it's that people can stop having those notions and people can wake up and realize that our black youth, our young black men are being stereotyped in ways that can be life or death. So, you know, when people say that to me, I feel that they are lacking in empathy, and I feel that they are refusing to listen to the experiences of others.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner, you wrote that one NPR listener, Angel, tweeted that she watched the verdict with her son, who is white, and she wrote that he cried and said, I hate that I won the cosmic lottery and I can't share. What do you say about that? Your son has now noticed these things. Your family, you, your family, you've all noticed these things. What now? What do you do with that?

STEINER: Well, I don't think that we as a country are making too much of this. I think that we should be making a lot of it, because it's a story, to me, about what it's like to be an African- American teenager in the U.S. today, and it's not a pretty story. And we all should be talking about it. And I think that, you know, as a white mom, it never occurred to me to talk to my children about how to dress when they're out on the street, except to look OK, but not, you know, not to be afraid of the police or afraid of a vigilante.

And I think what would I ask anybody who's listening, who is a parent and who's never even thought to have a conversation about race with their kids or about the police to stop and think, how fair is that? And what have you or your kid done to have this unearned privilege? And what we can we all do together to make our country more fair? Because it's going to be better for everybody if this type of tragedy never happens again.

MARTIN: Jolene, what would you hope would result from this?

J. IVEY: I would hope that my children would be able to stop assuming that the worst is going to happen. I really hope that they're going to be able to grow up, and at least we, Glenn and I, were hopeful and optimistic, maybe, that Zimmerman would be found guilty of something. And instead, our kids looked at us like we're crazy, and say, why would you think that's going to happen?

So I think it's so sad that our children, who I would like to think are growing up in a world that's going to make them more optimistic, instead their experiences have made them more pessimistic than we are.

MARTIN: Glenn, what about you? What would you hope would happen as a result from this?

G. IVEY: You know, it's hard to say without sounding naive, I think, a little bit. You know, you hope it turns from, you know, maybe a moment into a movement, that there's some sort of ongoing effort that builds up into raising these issues politically and socially and culturally in a way that they can be addressed.

But, you know, the reality is these types of shootings have been taking place day after day, year after year, for decades in the United States. And, you know, this one achieved a level of visibility that the vast majority don't. But it's hard for me to sit here and tell this audience or my children, for that matter, I think it's, you know, going to change in the near future.

MARTIN: You've dedicated your life to the law.

G. IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Does this make you question that dedication?

G. IVEY: No, I mean, I think it's a challenge that, you know, you try to do what you can to deal with it. And, you know, you hope that you'll have a chance as a lawyer to do something with it. But we all, whether you're a lawyer or not, I think, can have, you know, look to find ways to address this and do what you can.

MARTIN: Glenn Ivey is an attorney and father of six. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker and cofounder of a parenting support group. And Glenn and Jolene are husband and wife. Leslie Morgan Steiner is author of "Crazy Love" and "Mommy Wars." She's a mom of three. She was with us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire. Kristen Howerton blogs at "Rage Against the Minivan." She's a mom of four. She was with us from Irvine, California. I thank you all so much for speaking with us today.

STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

G. IVEY: Thank you.

J. IVEY: Thank you.

HOWERTON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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