It happens after every instance of police brutality or racial profiling hits the news cycle: African-American parents contemplate having “the talk” with their kids about what to do — and what not to do — should they find themselves confronted by law enforcement. But for some upper-middle-class black families, “the talk,” like all aspects of race relations in the U.S., is not so simple.
On Feb. 24, the popular ABC sitcom “Black-ish,” starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as prosperous black parents raising their four children in a wealthy, predominantly white suburb, will confront the issue of police brutality. Creator Kenya Barris says the show is not “chasing headlines” but rather depicting a dilemma any African-American family “would naturally be going through” over an issue that has recently risen to the forefront of civil rights issues in the U.S.
With comedy having a history of being able to hit home when it comes to controversial topics, the upcoming episode could spark a new conversation in some middle- and upper-class African-American families who feel their economic success has made them exempt from, or oblivious to, certain brands of injustice.
“The issue is that, initially, when black people enter the middle class or the wealthy class, they presume they have bought themselves out of the conflicts that exist between poor blacks and the police and, basically, the criminal justice system,” Lawrence Otis Graham, author of “Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class,” told International Business Times over the phone from Los Angeles. “Then, it becomes an even bigger issue because we are often the only blacks in all-white neighborhoods and schools or shopping in affluent areas.”
Statistics confirm a shaky relationship between law enforcement and African-Americans in the U.S., regardless of location or income level. African-Americans are six times more likely to spend time in prison and three times more likely to be pulled over driving. In New York City, where African-Americans make up about 25 percent of the population, as much as 54 percent of “stop-and-frisk” street interrogations include black people. More than 81 percent of those stops were later deemed totally innocent.
“There is always a perception that somehow black, upper-middle-class folks are untouched by these realities, and we know that is not the case,” says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African & African American Studies and the director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “It is typically more random than that.”
While middle- and upper-class black children may grow up feeling safe from, or even unaware of, the tension often present between African-Americans and the police, eventually they will see something on the news that tells a different story. That disparity is exactly what “Black-ish” hopes to address.
“What we’re really taking on is the notion of, how do you talk to your kids about what they’re seeing?’” Barris said of the upcoming episode, noting that his own kids “were seeing people in the streets mad and they were like, ‘What’s going on? Why are these people so angry?’ It was this big division at my house, because I had my feelings that I wanted to spout out, but my wife had her feelings and the biggest thing is how do you talk about your frustrations and your angers but at the same time not take away your kids’ hope and ability to still want to grow and thrive within a world that they have to live in?”
What Barris is explaining, in no uncertain terms, is “the talk.”
Never run down the street when there is a police officer around. When you go into a store, always get a receipt and always leave your backpack at the front. Say “hi” to the clerk or the manager right away when you walk in the door. Never wear a hoodie. These are some of the many rules Graham tells his sons to teach them how to steer clear of unpleasant encounters with law enforcement.
However, for some families who have been lulled into a “false sense of security,” as Graham puts it, that talk can come far too late.
“The conversation is different in that [middle and upper class families] don’t discuss any of this until something happens to one of their kids,” said Graham, pointing to the 2012 shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin as an example. “That was probably the first time many middle class families talked about it because they said, ‘That could be my child.’”
Neal added: “Middle class parents are much less likely to have that talk because the expectation is their kids are never going to be in that kind of environment. Presumably, they are going to be in more controlled environments than lower class kids and poor kids. Those controlled environments are thought to be able to protect them from those kinds of things.”
That wait, however, can be problematic, if not dangerous.
“Once you talk about kids starting to drive cars and, particularly, going to college, those protections disappear,” says Neal.
Graham adds that the lack of familiarity with the police once those protections do, in fact, disappear can compound the issue and leave young black men and women vulnerable.
“Most upper-class blacks have never had much interaction with the police,” says Graham. “You might see a patrol car come by, but they are not walking your community like you see in poorer areas. Because of that when we do have an interaction it escalates very quickly.”
Neal asserts that as far as talking to their kids is concerned, the sooner the better for African-American parents.
“As someone who grew up working-class in the Bronx, I don’t think it is ever too early to have that conversation, as soon as they are old enough to be aware of these realities,” says Neal.
So, could “Black-ish” help facilitate “the talk” in middle- and upper-class families? It certainly seems uniquely qualified. Perhaps not surprisingly, the show draws an attentive audience of black families. While it pulls in 5.3 percent of the television audience on average during its Wednesday time slot, compared with the 7.6 percent netted by its long-running lead-in, “Modern Family,” “Black-ish” commands nearly 9 percent of the black audience, compared with the 4.44 percent garnered by “Modern Family,” according to Nielsen.
Naeemah Clark, an associate professor in the School of Communications at Elon University in North Carolina who studies diversity in the media, says, whether it be the “N” word or guns, “Black-ish” has a proven track record of handling these issues well.
Watch "Black-ish" tackle the "N" word in Season 2 below:
“This show has become is a great place to have a conversation,” says Naeemah, who does not believe any African Americans parents think they can avoid "the talk," but admits some may hear the harsh truth too late. “To have that conversation is so important. They show different sides and don’t say who is right and who is wrong, they just say what it is.”
The fact that “Black-ish” is a comedy doesn't hurt.
“The effect of comedies that do issues tend to be in the category of consciousness raising with these incredibly familiar and beloved characters because we see them week after week for months or years or maybe a decade,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of Pop Culture at Syracuse University in New York, who says television shows like “Modern Family” have been integral to shifting attitudes toward LGBTQ issues. “It can frame those issues in ways that go down smoother than conversations on the news might go down. They are a spoonful of sugar to help the serious medicine go down.”
Graham agrees that the disarming nature of a comedy tackling police brutality could have an immense impact on the conversations being held in middle class and upper class black families.
“It is a happily surprising decision [for the show to address police brutality], because, despite the fact that they are a comedy and [depict a family that lives] in this affluent neighborhood and their kids are in these all white schools, they are still subject to being treated differently by law enforcement,” say Graham. “When it is a drama, you think the intent is to shock you. This is not a scary thing to talk about; it is a part of normal life. Even though this is a happy family, bad things can happen.”
In the end, “Black-ish,” the only network sitcom centered on a black family, might have an obligation to tackle the issue.
“What do we constantly hear in the news? ‘Every black family has to have this conversation,’” Thompson added. “What kind of state of affairs is that? It is not a good state of affairs, but it is the state of affairs. If “Black-ish” isn’t going to do deal with that reality in a comedy, who is?