Listening In on 'The Talk': What Eric Holder Told His Son About Trayvon

In a speech to the NAACP, the attorney general questioned "stand your ground" laws and recounted telling his 15-year-old son about life as a black man in America.
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One of the extraordinary results of the Trayvon Martin trial verdict is that a number of prominent African-Americans have shared the complex conversations they've felt compelled to have with their kids about justice, race, and staying safe in a world where some strangers see the people they still think of as their babies as threats. Has the United States ever had a conversation this open about what everyone is calling "the talk"?

Melissa Harris-Perry and Joy Reid of MSNBC spoke frankly about their feelings during a panel on Harris-Perry's show on Sunday with Jelani Cobb, and the show host and Tulane professor followed up with a piece about texting with her 11-year-old as the news broke and trying to comfort her rattled child and go on air at the same time.

Now Attorney General Eric Holder has weighed in, telling America about the conversation he had with his own teenage son after the teenage Martin was shot. Holder spoke Tuesday before the NAACP annual convention in Orlando, Fla. From his remarks as prepared for delivery:

Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly -- and openly -- about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.

Years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation -- which is no doubt familiar to many of you -- about how as a young black man I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted. I'm sure my father felt certain -- at the time -- that my parents' generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children.

Since those days, our country has indeed changed for the better. The fact that I stand before you as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States, serving in the Administration of our first African American president, proves that. Yet, for all the progress we've seen, recent events demonstrate that we still have much more work to do -- and much further to go. The news of Trayvon Martin's death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father's words so many years ago. And they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man -- when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I'm sure I wasn't speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C.  I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.

Trayvon's death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15 year old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.

As important as it was, I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure that the kind of talk I had with my son isn't the only conversation that we engage in as a result of these tragic events.

Holder also directly addressed the "stand your ground" laws, calling into question what good they do:

Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation's attention, it's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if - and the "if" is important - no safe retreat is available.

But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety. The list of resulting tragedies is long and - unfortunately - has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation - we must stand our ground - to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.
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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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