Tracey Wolff never had a problem with her 19-year-old son’s individualism: his “crazy” hair and unshaven face. But this week his look suddenly seemed more worrying.

When she thinks of Trayvon Martin and his cropped hair and smooth face, Ms. Wolff says, she wonders, “If that can happen to the clean-cut kid who looks like a good student, then what’s going to happen to my son, who dresses sloppy?” She is considering talking to him about reconsidering his look.

“I don’t want to tell him how to dress,” she added. “He’s a grown man; do what you want to do, but keep in mind these are the things going on.”

On cable news programmes and in protests around the country, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Sanford, Florida, has been fodder for an intellectual discussion on race and justice. But for many black residents, the verdict has spawned conversations far more personal and raw: discussions of sad pragmatism between parents and their children.

In the spotlight

The intimacy of the Martin case for black Americans was drawn into the spotlight this week when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said during an NAACP convention that he had had a conversation with his 15-year-old son about the case, much the way his father once counselled him about how to interact with the police.

Similar conversations are being held across the country, including here in this racially mixed St. Louis suburb. Longtime residents said racial tensions were not historically a problem in University City, where just over 50 per cent of the residents are white and 41 per cent are black. But some said the Martin case had rattled their sense of security.

Powerful force

Missouri, like many States, allows residents to carry concealed weapons with a permit. It also allows people to use deadly force in defence of their homes or vehicles without a duty to retreat. “They’re still showing racism is powerful and still alive,” Ashley Gaither (22) said, referring to the acquittal of Mr. Zimmerman, who had said he was acting in self-defence. Speaking of her three-year-old son, Isaiah, Ms. Gaither added: “It’s just sad. It’s already going to be hard for him being a young black male growing up.”

The whole situation, added Ms. Gaither, a nurse’s assistant “would just make me sceptical about what crowd of white people I put him around”.

Lesley Grice (35), who was visiting a friend here but lives in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb that has a history of rocky race relations, said she had asked her 18-year-old son to stop wearing hoodies, a request that did not go over so well. “He’s like, ‘That’s what I like to wear’,” she said.

Ms. Grice, a housekeeper, said she had also told her son that, when he was talking to adults, to keep his hands in place so it was clear that he was not reaching for anything.

Shannon Merritt (35) said the Martin case provided a larger teachable moment for her 19-year-old brother and 18-year-old son. One of the first things she did after the verdict, she said, was to tell her brother: “Please stay in school; just work, try not to be a statistic.”

Her daughter cried, Ms. Merritt said. Her daughter also became curious about the historic struggles blacks have faced in this country. They researched that topic and the uphill battle women have waged for rights such as the freedom to vote.

“I’m going to help with the movement,” Ms. Merritt said her daughter told her. — New York Times News Service

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