For black parents in Pasadena, shootings give fresh relevance to ‘The Talk’


When Martin A. Gordon talks to his 19-year-old son about the history of race relations in America, he invokes the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr.and the watershed moments of the civil rights era. It’s a story of hard-won rights that fills the ‘60s-era activist with pride.

Then the conversation turns urgently personal, survival its theme: On the wrong street, at the wrong time of day, he tells his son, pride might be his undoing. “I know my son can be a moment away from being killed if he acts the wrong way, if he’s arrogant,” Gordon said. “He started to learn about this as a child.”

Gordon was speaking in a Pasadena church, blocks from where an unarmed black college student, Kendrec McDade, was fatally shot March 24 by two white police officers pursuing two men who they mistakenly believed were armed robbers. Police say the incident began when the 19-year-old McDade and a friend stole a backpack from a car, and the owner lied to police, telling them the thieves were armed.

The incident, which remains under investigation, followed the controversial shooting death of an unarmed black teen in Florida by a neighborhood watch leader. For many black parents, the shootings have given fresh relevance to a painful generations-old conversation. “The Talk,” some call it.

“Certain things are a reality for him — he needed to understand that early on,” Jim Collins, a longtime Pasadena resident, recalled of his conversation with his son. “The Talk is because they have to know what to do and not do.”

Parents say some version of the conversation, ubiquitous in African American life, is necessary regardless of how high they climb on the socioeconomic ladder. It is about learning to say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” when a policeman pulls you over, no matter how unjustified the stop seems. It is about keeping your hands on the steering wheel and giving officers no cause for panic. It is about swallowing your anger and pride and coming home alive.

Gordon, an activist with the Pasadena Community Coalition, said he worries when his son stays out late. “If I wake up and he’s not there, I go, ‘Oh, boy,’” Gordon said.

He said he speaks at seminars, instructing black youths about how to handle themselves around police. He wants them to know their rights, but also to be respectful.

“Just because you asserted your rights doesn’t mean you won’t get your butt kicked,” Gordon said. “You can be dead and no one’s there to speak for your rights. That’s what scares me most.”

In Pasadena, such conversations unfold against the backdrop of a long, fraught racial history. This is the place where baseball legend Jackie Robinson grew up, and left in disgust.

“We saw movies from segregated balconies, swam in a municipal pool only on Tuesdays, and were permitted in the YWCA one night a week,” Robinson wrote about the city’s treatment of blacks. “In certain respects, Pasadenans were less understanding than Southerners and even more hostile.”

This is the place where the city-owned pool was not desegregated until 1947, and where the Board of Education in 1970 employed busing to satisfy a school desegregation order, one of the first school systems outside the Deep South to do so. It is where police went door to door handing out business cards in hopes of improving community rapport after the 2009 shooting of a black man.

The memories are long at Luke Walker’s barbershop on North Fair Oaks in the heart of black Pasadena, not far from the site of the McDade killing. Recent conversations have circled around the wearily familiar subject of relations with police.

Walker, 71, an Arkansas native who remembers his father going door to door selling poll tax certificates in their tiny Southern town, began cutting hair in Pasadena in the late 1960s. He’s seen generations of black families grow up in his shop, where the walls are hung with photos of King, Malcolm X and Barack Obama.

He has seen troubled young men grow into good citizens. “You don’t know what you’re taking away from the community when you kill our kids,” Walker said. “That kid could be the one who cures a disease, and you might have that disease.”

He said police once pulled a gun on him in nearby San Marino, when he was showing a friend some of the beautiful homes. “If I’d made any move, I could have been shot,” he said. “I think they see us first as villains.”

Walker said that when his grandson, now 20, was learning to drive a few years ago, he started hammering home certain realities about dealing with police.

“I tell him one of the worst things to do is be belligerent with police,” Walker said. “Whether you’re right or not.”

In the shopping plaza parking lot outside the barbershop, Collins sits in his car wearing a Tuskegee Airmen cap. “Things are far better with police, but being careful with the police can save your life,” he said.

Collins, 64, said he has a good relationship with the Pasadena police and believes that young men in hooded sweatshirts and saggy pants are a recipe for trouble. But he added: “I drive slowly because truth is, I don’t want to be stopped, and that’s what I told the kids.”

Joe C. Hopkins, the 70-year-old publisher of the Pasadena Journal and a civil rights attorney, keeps a sign in his office that reads “Whites/Colored.” With arrows pointing in opposite directions, the sign once adorned a municipal building.

He has three grown sons, one of whom is a police officer. He said he never gave them The Talk in a formal sense. It was more like a series of conversations over the years.

“I got the message across over time,” Hopkins said, regarding how to handle a police encounter. “I always told them, ‘Just answer the questions and you will be safer.’”

He said the controversy about hoodies reminds him of how black leather jackets were once supposed to signify a dangerous character, and that there is no excuse for prejudging those who wear them. But he added, “Parents need to tell kids the truth is, their dress, language — and thinking they can do whatever they want — can get them killed.”

Hopkins said he has met with Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez to discuss the McDade incident, which began when a 911 caller told police he had been robbed by two men at gunpoint.

Police said that the caller later admitted he lied about the gun but that McDade had served as a lookout when the caller’s backpack was stolen from his car. “If the police officers reasonably believed that Mr. McDade had a deadly weapon and would use it on the officers, the officers have a right to use deadly force,” Hopkins said. “Obviously the loss of a young man is a tragedy.”

Pasadena’s history of racial segregation, and strained relations between the community and the police, are not distant memories, Hopkins said. But he sees signs of progress. He praised Sanchez’s effort to allay community anxieties in the wake of the shooting.

Added Joe Brown, president of the Pasadena chapter of the NAACP: “Our race relations have improved significantly, I’d say, over the last year and a half. We’ve been working hard at that. We’ve not allowed situations such as this to come between us.”

Pasadena Police Lt. Phlunte Riddle, a 28-year veteran, is the daughter-in-law of the city’s first African American officer, Ralph Riddle, who joined the department in 1946. The urban race riots of the 1960s intensified the push to diversify the department, as did a consent decree in the 1980s requiring the hiring of more minorities.

Now, in a city of roughly 140,000 residents where African Americans make up 11% of the population, the department’s black officers comprise 17% of the force. She said the department engages in myriad community outreach efforts, most recently with the chief’s attempt to open a dialogue with residents about the McDade shooting.

“So, we hope that citizens do not feel that their survival is in jeopardy,” Riddle said.