After Trayvon, Reminding My Black Sons To Be Careful

After Trayvon, “Divorce Court” judge Lynn Toler gives her sons a lesson she wishes she didn’t have to.

When I talked to my 16-year-old son recently about Trayvon Martin, I did not discuss the nuances of information about the case I didn’t have. As a judge, I know you can’t make judgments based on newscasts; you have to have the facts. The legal case at the heart of this story is truly a matter for the courts.

But in my home I am not a judge; I am a mother with two black sons to raise. As such, Trayvon’s death was not a distant tragedy or a legal abstraction, but the springboard for another lesson on what I call The Asterisk Rule.

The Asterisk Rule is a guideline I created for my sons. It says that because you are black, an asterisk accompanies your every action. It says that you are less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. It says that if you falter, the powers that be will more likely see criminality than youthful indiscretion. As a result you have to be more careful, less cavalier and be prepared for harsher judgment in everything you do.

The Asterisk Rule contradicts everything I believe in as a jurist. It stands in direct opposition to the great pride I have in a country whose president, had he been born 150 years ago, would have been a slave. In fact, the rule is a loathsome thing, but as a mother I have an obligation to share it with my sons.

I raised it again not too long ago, after an incident that I believe speaks to the everyday experiences of blacks in America, and may help explain why blacks and whites feel so differently about this case.

Only a few days after our Trayvon conversation, my son—let’s call him Mr. 16—took a bag of 69-cent chips from a basket full of them sitting on a table in one of his classes. “Had he asked,” his teacher later told me, “I would have given them to him.” But since he didn’t, she was “so terribly sorry” to inform me he would be criminally charged with theft. I assume she was not satisfied with the school’s other disciplinary options for that act—suspension or removal from class.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed in the principal’s office and Mr. 16 only served a three-day suspension. My husband and I were livid—more with Mr. 16 than with his teacher. We had taught him never to give anyone an opportunity to act on prejudices they may or may not have. And we didn’t disagree that the teacher had the right to punish him—the question was to what degree.

It wasn’t our first questionable encounter with this teacher. Earlier on in the semester we met with her to speak about Mr. 16‘s grades. When she discovered I was a judge, she exclaimed with incredulity, “So that means you went to law school?” It was the same tone I once heard from a job interviewer, who said to me, “I can’t believe you are so articulate!”

I can’t prove that race played a part in any of these things. Maybe I shouldn’t have assumed that my bachelor's degree in English from Harvard would have foretold my ability to speak the language. Maybe my son’s teacher would have been surprised that any one of her students’ parents went to law school. And maybe Mr. 16 needed to be cuffed and caged for stuffing those chips down his pants in an attempt to make his friends laugh.

But I think not. I think we are all human and we feel before we think. I believe we all have prejudices we know nothing about. We fear what we don’t know, and we tend to group things and people in huge boxes of generalizations we never scrutinize.

I have no reason to believe George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon after trailing him through a housing complex, is a racist. In fact, I believe most people aren’t racist, our nation’s rough and angry racial history notwithstanding. But you do not have to be a racist in order for race to play a role in your actions. After all, everyone assesses information through the prism of his or her own perspective.

So what’s my perspective? We live in Arizona, and Mr. 16 is usually the only black wherever he goes. He is also a cut-up and a character. I don’t want him to find himself in a position where his youthful mischief is perceived as a physical threat. I don’t want to have to fight the system I so admire to make sure the consequences of his acts are proportionate to any wrong that he may do. With my Asterisk Rule, I realize I am really holding my son to a higher standard, but I have to. I can’t fix the world and I don’t want to lose him.