Two 17 years olds, one a victim, one a perpetrator, yet each faces a similar outcome: the promise of life cut short. They are icons of a national crisis – an epidemic – for young Black males. Choose the stats you want: schools, jobs, prisons. In everyone of them young males with heavily pigmented skin look down a road to a future that goes nowhere. If you cannot handle a ball better than the rest or you are not MENSA material, the game looks over before you begin. (MENSA is a society for those with IQ’s in the top 2% of the population.)
Trayvon is dead for Walking While Black. Nicholas will never walk free again after being stopped for breaking into a car and then shooting to death St Petersburg Officer David S. Crawford. There is no excuse for Nicholas to be carrying a gun. There is no excuse for Trayvon to have to face a gun with a can of ice tea and a bag of candy. But why are two 17 year old Black males face to face with guns? Why are they icons of a common experience for black and brown youth across the country? The lines that connect these two youth are complex, but the dots connect.
A rash of liberal gun laws allow citizens to protect themselves from bodily threat with deadily force. The laws beg the question: who is the expected threat? Rationalizations about carjackers, home invaders or crack addicts are diversions from talking about the emotional base driving the fear that motivates the purchase of a personal weapon. Crime rates are down. There are no statistics saying the probability of severe or deadly harm are increasing for the general population. The one exception is with brown and black male youth. The homicide rate for black male teenagers is 20 times higher than for white non-hispanic male teens; the non-white hispanic rate is six times that of whites.
This year the Florida legislature tried to prevent doctors from counseling parents and youth about the health risk that guns present. That death from gunshot represents one of the biggest threats to young people did not matter. The right to bear arms has taken on something other than a rational idea. Let’s be clear: the greatest danger of death from gunshot is not toward white youth – unless the issue is suicide. Then young white males kill themselves four times more often than other youth (gender identification figures in many of these suicides). The numbers suggest that color plays a major role in liberal gun laws, whether intentionally or not. Guns are killing black and brown youth, or landing them long sentences in America’s prisons. White people may be arming themselves, but people of color are dying from the arms at astronomical rates. This pattern of abnormally high violent death among blacks reminds one of similar phenomenon during the Jim Crow, Reconstruction and Ante-Bellum eras.
For many black and brown youth, profiling is a daily experience. When they leave home, their mothers warn them of how not to stand out so that trouble might avoid them. They are questioned routinely about their behavior by police and adult authorities. In school, there are few if any roles models. (Another article will have to trace how a lack of role models involves bias in criminalization, prosecution and imprisonment). Black and brown male youth drop out of high school at an alarmingly high rate; some cases warrant investigation into whether there are efforts to push academic non-performers out of school in order to improve high stakes test scores. But we do not question our educational methods; we question the abilities of youth of color.
We know now that Trayvon had a good reason for being where he was: visiting his dad. But that reason was not good enough to protect him. As a dad, I simply shudder at this thought. To think my children would be put into danger simply by visiting me is far more frightening to me than the rare possibility of facing a violent offender. No gun can protect me or my children from the former fear. This is what racial profiling produces, irrational and unjustifiable fears that actually harm our youth.
It’s time for a new set of suspicions. We should be suspicious of anyone who is suspicious of other people. Suspicion needs to be turned inside out so that we can see its seams and learn who the target really is. Suspicion needs to be turned on itself. Why are we suspicious? Are there reasons that stand the test of legal rights? Or is a suspicion born of some other cause? Intimidating someone whose skin pigment or language accent differs from mine so that they leave the space I want to control is not a valid and acceptable reason for suspicion. Nor does the logic hold that since we arrest a higher ratio of people of color then we should be appropriately more suspicious of them. We simply arrest a higher ratio by default. Whites have a similar pattern of drug use rates as other populations, but felony incarcerations reflect the opposite reality.
I keep thinking of Trayvon lying dead a 100 feet from his father’s front door in the drizzling rain. Then his body is whisked away to the morgue. His parents file a missing person’s report the next day. A day or two later, someone visits them with a headshot photo of their dead son for identification. I like to think that in my neighborhood the police would have knocked on every door until they were certain whether anyone knew this dead boy. I like to think that, if it were my dead son, he would get that kind of honor. His life would be valued. Trayvon’s life was not treated with value. Ideas deeply embedded in society robbed him of his value. But with his death, a new spirit is being born. This spirit is generating the long waiting conversation on how privilege for some shortens life for others.
A friend and dialogue partner told me that “Justice has come to Sanford. It may not know it yet, but it will know it soon enough.” I believe him. In Trayvon’s death we have the opportunity to ask: what are we doing to our young males of color? That question can occupy us for a good while. I hope our answer will be: whatever went before, we’re going to value their lives going forward.