Black-ish Shows How to Have an Honestly Painful Discussion About Racism and Police Brutality With Our Kids

ABC comedy show Black-ish moves to the darker side of embracing ethnic identity in last night’s episode called “Hope”, wherein the children are inquisitive about a highly publicized case of police brutality and a black teenager, leaving Dre and Bow uncertain as to how best to direct their questions.

The show follows the story of 'Dre Johnson,' played by Anthony Anderson, who allegedly has it all: a great job, a beautiful life named Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), four kids, and a nice home in a classy neighborhood. Being a black man, he’s beginning to question if his success has exposed his family to cultural assimilation. With guidance from his father (special guest-star Lawrence Fishburne), Dre begins the work of developing an ethnic identity for the members of his family, so that they can simultaneously embrace the future while continuing to honor their cultural background.

The show typically tackles light-hearted issues like the Christmas being cancelled because the children have an unruly expectancy of extravagant gifts (season 2, episode 10) or young men doing silly things to impress girls (season 1, episode 23).

The episode opens with Dre narrating saying, “It’s a big world. And from place to place it’s pretty different. But no matter where we’re from the experiences, conversations, and images we see have an effect on us.” While watching scenes from an ongoing court case on television, their youngest son, Jack poses the innocent question of "Why the people are so mad?” Grandma Ruby states that the fact cannot be ignored that police have a problem with black people, though the eldest son, Junior, recognizes the nuance of police having a place in society and the skyrocketing number of police fatalities. He cites Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a profound piece of literature wherein Coates addresses his own fifteen-year old son, Samori, about the difficulty and challenges he is bound to face being a black man in this society (if you haven’t read it yet, you really should).

Grandma Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin).

Grandma Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin).

When the eldest daughter Zoe enters the scene, she counts off a long string of instances of police violence, suspecting that one of them will be on the news right now: an unarmed man shot in the back; someone shot at a traffic stop. Mildly comical, this moment really drives home how many black lives have been mindlessly taken by the police, how many innumerable cases there are, the unarmed guy who was selling CDs and was  37 times, and the guy who was choked for selling cigarettes. Simultaneously, the mission of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as one seeking to keep each of these lives distinct in our memories seems all the more challenging. When Zoe jokingly, says she needs to go do her Spanish homework before “my teacher tases me”, Dre puts his foot down: her gibe is not funny, and is in fact indicative of why they need to watch the news together. Despite the parental instinct to protect one’s children, these kids have to be told what’s going on – especially when young black faces are at the center of the target. As Dre says, “They’re not just children- they’re black children.”

Dre, as well as their grandfather Pops Johnson, recognizes that this story isn’t new: just as Coates says, the same story is now being played out in front of cameras. Brief homage is paid to James Baldwin and Malcolm X. Rainbow’s desire to let her kids hold onto their innocence is heart-wrenching, because while that would be possible in an ideal world, we are not living in an ideal world. As Dre recognizes, there is a wedge being driven by our technology between parental control and what’s going on in the world: “Between gossip blogs, 24 hour news and social media it’s become impossible to control what our kids sees.” Though Bow hoped that the case would turn out favorably and that justice would be served due to favorably inclined evidence, the police in this case are not indicted. Just like police brutality isn’t new, neither is the notion of police getting off scot-free for crimes hardly anyone believes they didn’t commit.

Dre poses a very real question: how do we keep hope alive when everything around us wants to drag us down? Bow tries to play devil’s advocate: being anti-police brutality does not necessitate being anti-police. Though grandma is ready to join the riot, rioting should not be the answer. While watching the news, a segment comes up where Coates himself is speaking, reasserting how customary these acts of police brutality have become – what’s happening today is not new. As per usual, the victim was painted as the real criminal in the defense of the cops. This isn’t new either: in fact, it is uncomfortable how commonplace, demonizing black victims has become, particularly when white criminals are always spoken of in terms of the great things they have done prior to their “misdemeanor”.

It's one thing to be respectful towards the police; it's another to entirely supplicate oneself in order to avoid wrongful persecution. When Ruby tells the children that the only words they need to know when it comes to police are “Yes sir. No sir. Thank you, sir,” she is reminding us how tenuous black citizenship really is.  As Dre says, “The system is rigged against us,” even if black assailants obey the cops, there is no guarantee that they will survive arrest unscathed.  Dre reminds us that though hope made the black community believe in Obama – and believe that change would come once the U.S was under the authority of a black president – hope has been snatched away from black people before and it likely will be again. In fact, it is no coincidence that the #BlackLivesMatter movement arose under a black president.

In a tender and emotional moment between the two eldest children, Junior wants to go down to the riot but Zoe can only see the potential danger that would come from it: he could be arrested, he could be killed and their parents could be the next people standing at the podium. When she dissolves into tears, it is emblematic of the crisis living in every single black person at every moment. Zoe’s sentiment of feeling lost is heartbreaking because her generation is the one being attacked – the hopelessness is pervasive and frightening. The unity and resiliency that the entire family shows in the culmination of the episode – including the decision to attend the riot – is so powerful, because it oftentimes feels impossible to be strong when the battle feels constant. But it is possible to stay strong, to have hope, and to not give up.

After last night’s episode, Black-ish was one of the top trending topics on Twitter. Many who had defaulted high hopes for the show praised the tact used to deal with this heavy topic that for many hits too close to home. This episode was powerful, important, relevant, and necessary. As much as we may which to deny racism, to deny that police violence has been blatantly racist, we can’t deny Sandra Bland. We can’t deny Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, Cameron Tillman, Ezell Ford or the hundreds of other innocent people who lost their lives because they were black.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates’ novel concludes: “I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors.  Struggle for wisdom.”


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