This is the situation that Van Williams presents to his 14-year-old son, Christian, at the dining room table of their Wichita home in the middle of July: What would you do if you saw the flashing lights of a police car behind you as you were driving?
The answer comes almost instantaneously to Christian, a soon-to-be freshman at Wichita Collegiate School who has a permit to practice driving under adult supervision.
Would you think that you were being pulled over for violating a traffic law? Or something else?
A traffic law.
Would you be afraid?
Maybe a little.
What do you think you would say when the officer approached?
Good answer, Van says.
Driving a vehicle is a rite of passage into adulthood for teenagers in Kansas. Eventually Christian will be driving by himself. As a father, Van wants to teach his son how to grow into a new world of opportunity and responsibility.
But to do that, Van will talk with his son about race, something that not every parent has to deal with when it comes to driving. Van is black and his wife, Kristi, is white, and together they’ve raised children of different races in their blended family. As a biracial kid, Christian is growing up in a country – even as it grows increasingly multiracial and multiethnic – where he might face different risks and challenges behind the wheel than his eldest sister, Kelsey, who is white. (Kelsey now lives in New York; Christian’s other elder sister, Brooke, is black, and is completing a doctoral program in psychology at the University of Houston.)
That reality calls for such acts of parental leadership that are all too easy to feel conflicted about. On one hand, Van feels a responsibility to make sure his son knows about his rights and how to protect himself behind the wheel and while traveling to environs where people don’t know him.
But he also feels resentment toward the fact that he needs to have the talk with Christian. How many of Christian’s peers, especially his white ones, are having to sit down and talk with their parents about how to stay safe in their interactions with police? It doesn’t seem fair that he should have to think about more things than they do.
And yet, with this reporter at the table observing and interjecting questions, Van and Christian talk. It’s not really the talk, as if there’s just one occasion when this exchange of knowledge happens. As Van recalls, his mother and other family members over time prepared him for driving by conversing. This talk, which comes after a weekend of basketball tournament games, is one of perhaps many moments for learning.
Van is clear that he wants his son to see the police as being there to protect him. His day job is as a spokesman for the city of Wichita, and Van has had the opportunity to get to know a lot of good officers. I’ve had great interactions with law enforcement, he says, mentioning a recent out-of-town traffic stop where the officer treated him respectfully and let him off with a warning.
On the other hand, there’s well-documented history when it comes to incidents of police brutality toward black people, as well as long histories of systemic and institutional racism in this country. Haunting video recordings of black men being killed by police in seemingly routine traffic stops are a social media click away these days. There are tough, complicated interpretations to be considered here, too.
Father and son have already talked about the importance of being polite and using titles of respect for elders – yes, sir and no, ma’am – who also show respect. They talk about the importance of obeying the law and de-escalating any potential conflicts. Van mentions the need for Christian to be aware of his surroundings, and cognizant of when he’s in a place where people don’t know him by reputation.
If any of this is news to Christian, it doesn’t seem like it. He says he appreciates having the facts and being informed. He’s already plugged into the goings-on of the world through social media news. He hails from a family, an extended family even, that is knowledgeable and has deep discussions about issues such as race, gender and diversity.
Van recently finished a master’s degree in public administration at Wichita State University where he wrote a 30-page paper examining police-community relations, for which he interviewed academics studying the issue as well as police officers, including Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay. Hearing the insights of reasonable, intelligent people only gives you a bit of hope about it, he says.
One of the comments that struck a chord with Van was the concept of having local law enforcement officers be seen as the Wichita Protection Department, emphasizing their role in protecting people rather than arresting them. When people see the police in that light, we’ve just made progress, Van says.
But even though Christian has a wide knowledge base to draw on, the idea that someone would treat him differently because of race seems distant from his daily life of being a teenager, going to school and playing basketball. He’s witnessed a teammate get called a racial epithet. But of his own experiences, he says: I’ve never really had an encounter. It seems kind of foreign.
Maybe he never will face a tough situation, and Van says he’ll be thankful if that turns out to be the case. But in his city, state and nation in the year 2017, hope for that outcome is necessary but not sufficient. It takes hope, preparation and knowledge to deal with the world as it presently is.
To responsibly practice for reality, Van says, you give your kids a balanced, informed and accurate view of race in America, and race in terms of law enforcement.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.