Ed Baptist

Ithaca, N.Y. — Cornell’s Edward Baptist, a white history professor, has published a column detailing a conversation with his son — who is African-American — about how to encounter the police.

Baptist, the author of books on American slavery, said in the column that he had what has been termed “The Talk” with his son four days before the death of Michael Brown. Brown’s death has set off unrest and outrage in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ed Baptist

Here’s what Baptist wrote on the website Public Seminar, in a column titled, “Ferguson and Fatherhood: My Turn to Give The Talk:”

“… every adult who has to give The Talk is in the same dilemma. We love this young man, more than we love our own lives. We have worked for years to bring him to this point. We don’t want to see the fear of white racism take his brilliant joy from him. Yet now we must tell him that we cannot protect him from the people who are officially supposed to protect him. We cannot even honestly guarantee that the information we give him will enable him to protect himself from them. … 

Four days later, I heard about Michael Brown.

I had wild thoughts. I would equip my son with a GoPro camera that would automatically livestream any possible encounters with the law back to a secure server. But even though I think cameras attached to cops on the job are one of the few good ideas to come out of this disaster, we can’t attach cameras to our adolescent children 24/7. Nor should we.

My most frightening feeling, however, said this: No one out there values my son’s life.

And that’s true. When the chips are down, law enforcement agencies and legislatures and the broad white public identify more with the fear and aggression of the police than with the terror and rage that young black people and their parents have to experience. History justifies the parents’ fear: from slavery to Reconstruction night riders, to Jim Crow lynchers, to the massive increase in policing and incarceration that has shaped the United States so powerfully over the course of my lifetime.

Baptist’s column can be read in full here.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.