Writing about how “in America, black children don’t get to be children,” Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, broke my heart in one paragraph. Not because I was shocked by what she wrote, but because I know she is right.
America does not extend the fundamental elements of childhood to black boys and girls. Black childhood is considered innately inferior, dangerous and indistinguishable from black adulthood. Black children are not afforded the same presumption of innocence as white children, especially in life-or-death situations.
The presumption of danger and guilt foisted on black boys and teenagers is enraging. What I wrote in July 2013 after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, remains true in the wake of last week’s grand jury decision to not charge former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed Michael Brown. Because of assumptions and suspicions, African American kids have to be “perfect” in how they dress and how they comport themselves in public at all times.
Tamir Rice is among the litany of lost lives Patton details in her gripping op-ed. The video of his killing on Nov. 22 by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann in a local park is startling not only because a child is killed but also by how quickly it happened. Just two seconds. The police cruiser had barely stopped and the cop was barely out of the car before he shot Tamir dead. A 911 call about “a guy in here with a pistol, pointing it at everybody” brought them to the park. The caller’s admonition that the gun is “probably fake” apparently never made it to the officers.
To make matters worse, Tamir wasn’t even thought of as a child. “Shots fired, male down, um, black male, maybe 20,” one of the officers said when calling in the shooting. Tamir was 12 years old. As Patton wrote, “Regardless of the case, the police officers’ actions in these cases are consistent and predictable: This was not a child. He was a threat. I was afraid and had to defend myself. The child, stripped of childhood, is framed as a menace that overrides probable cause.”
This impairment is not solely suffered by law enforcement. When the picture of a smiling 16-year-old Trayvon taken six months before his death in 2012 was released by his family, racists and others who should have known better peddled what they said was his “current picture.” That photo was of a then-31-year-old rapper named Game.
Even death provides no respite from society’s default negative judgment of young black men and boys. An injustice aided and abetted by their inability to tell their side of the story. They must have lived a life beyond reproach — one void of the bad choices and mistakes all teenagers make which teach life lessons and build character — for folks to not believe he or she deserved to die.
“I’m sure young Michael Brown is innocent and just misunderstood,” wrote Kansas City, Mo., police officer Marc Catron under a picture he posted on Facebook of a young man with a wad of money in his mouth and pointing a gun at the camera who resembled Brown. It wasn’t Brown. It was Joda Cain who stood accused of killing his great-grandmother in Oregon in 2013.
But Brown did shoplift cigarillos from a convenience store, video of which was provided unsolicited by the Ferguson police department after his death. In addition, Brown was described by Wilson in his grand jury testimony at various points as a “demon,” “aggravated,” “aggressive,” “angry,” “big,” “Hulk Hogan” and “bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” You’ll recall that an unarmed Trayvon walking back to his father’s girlfriend’s apartment from a convenience store was viewed as a “real suspicious guy” who was “up to no good” by Zimmerman. And in death, Trayvon’s adolescent bad choices were used to smear him, too.
“[N]o one knows our children like we do,” Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, told Michael Skolnik, editor in chief of globalgrind.com, during an impromptu dinner in New York City over the weekend. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that line since I read it. Skolnik tells me that McSpadden was talking about them and their respective children. But I took it to be a lament of every parent of a black child. No one knows our African American children like we do. In America, black children are just that, children. It’s a damned shame people’s fears and prejudices blinds them to that fact. It’s a crying shame black kids must suffer because of it.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj