Chaz Beasley can still remember the first time he was pulled over by law enforcement.
He was young, driving his cousin home in his 1997 Ford Contour — maybe just a little too fast, he said — when the cops pulled up behind him.
“The police never told us why we were stopped. They just used their flashlights to search the vehicle,” recalled Beasley, a former state representative for North Carolina.
After a quick search, the cops told Beasley he could go on his way. But Beasley will never forget his response to seeing those flashing lights in his rearview mirror.
“The first thing that I did was what my grandfather told me to do: I turned the lights on in my car and I had my hands on the steering wheel,” said Beasley. “I hate to say it this way, but in many ways it was very much like training that they had given me.”
That training — which implores young Black Americans to keep their lights on and hands on the steering wheel if stopped by police, as well as to be courteous and always be clear about what they’re doing before they make any movement — is common among Black families. Often referred to as “the talk,” it has drawn increased awareness in the wake of Tyre Nichols’s death — and now many Black Americans are hoping that renewed attention will lead to long-desired reforms.
Nichols was pulled over at a traffic stop and beaten by five former Memphis Police Department officers back in January. He later died as a result of his injuries. The 29-year-old’s death sparked outrage across the country and fueled new calls for law enforcement accountability.
President Biden addressed the issue during his annual State of the Union speech last week, acknowledging Nichols’s parents, who were in attendance, and noting that “the talk” isn’t something most white parents need to have with their children.
“Most of us in here have never had to have ‘the talk’ — ‘the talk’ — that brown and Black parents have had to have with their children,” Biden said. “Beau, Hunter, Ashley — my children — I never had to have the talk with them. I never had to tell them, ‘If a police officer pulls you over, turn your interior lights on right away. Don’t reach for your license. Keep your hands on the steering wheel.’”
Biden’s speech resonated with Black Americans watching last week. Many expressed hope that hearing a president so openly acknowledge “the talk” could lead to reform.
“I’ve never heard a @POTUS reference “the talk” in a #SOTU,” tweeted Colmon Elridge, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “My son texted me from his room ‘I hope @JoeBiden talking about that makes us safer.’”
The mention of “the talk” also spread across party lines, with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele speaking about his own experience of “the talk” with his sons on MSNBC’s The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart.
“It wasn’t just about police encounters, it was about life encounters,” Steele said. “These are real-life stories and real-life experiences that continue for a lot of African Americans today.”
Conversations about “the talk,” and how its necessity for Black families underscored the need for reforms, picked up after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Many Black families shared that they have had this conversation more than once with their children.
Michael Blake, a former state representative in New York and former Democratic National Committee vice chairman, told The Hill how his mother always worried over her four sons.
“She would say ‘Precious, I just want you home,’” Blake said.
Studies have shown that Black drivers are more likely to be stopped than white drivers. In some cities, like Chicago, Black drivers are seven times more likely to be stopped than white drivers. On top of that, a 2021 study by the American Psychological Association found that police officers were less likely to speak respectfully to Black drivers than white drivers.
“The reality is, you could be doing everything right and it could quickly go toward violence,” Blake said.
In 2021, comedian Trevor Noah used his platform on The Daily Show to break down “the talk.”
“Black people have more education around policing than actual police. Like, no cop starts training at eight years old,” Noah said.
“So, we know that Black people know what’s at stake, and have methods of how to handle being pulled over by police. But ‘the talk’ still hasn’t been able to prevent police violence against Black people. So maybe it’s not Black people who need a talk about how to act around the police. Maybe, just maybe, police need a talk about how to act around Black people,” Noah added.
Biden, along with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Democrats around the country, has been calling for police reform since graphic video footage of Nichols’s beating was released to the public last month.
At his funeral, Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, pleaded with Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a sweeping police reform bill that would ban all levels of law enforcement from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants. It would also end qualified immunity and prohibit racial and religious profiling by law enforcement officers.
Regarding Biden’s speech last week, Blake noted that country has heard presidents talk about police violence before. It’s not enough to simply highlight the racial discrepancies.
“There needs to be recognition of transparency around the training documents of our officers,” Blake said. “I don’t care that they’re being trained, I want to know what they’re being trained.”
Change also means forbidding the Department of Justice from giving grants to departments that hire fired or suspended officers, he added.
“We now have to be very disciplined around the financial protections around these officers, demand transparency of what they are being trained and have a clear understanding that someone who has been suspended or fired should not be allowed to be transferred to another department,” he said.
But before any of that can happen, said Beasley, the former state lawmaker from North Carolina, many still need to acknowledge that there is an issue with police violence.
“I really think we got to remember just how hard not only it is for the families that are dealing with the loss of a loved one to the circumstances, but also that there are some people out there that are not operating in good faith that don’t actually want this problem to get resolved,” Beasley said. “They just want to use it to score political points, and that’s unfortunate because it dishonors the legacy of people who have died for no reason.”