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Opinion The everyday trauma of being a black man in America

DeJuan Patterson and Lucy McBath are interviewed by The Post’s Jonathan Capehart on the “Cape Up” podcast. (Carol Alderman/The Washington Post)

In different ways, Lucia “Lucy” McBath and DeJuan Patterson are victims of gun violence. And compounding their trauma is the pernicious omnipresence of race. I met them while moderating a panel on “race, violence and access to the American Dream” at the Center for American Progress on Oct. 24. What happened when I had them sit down to record the 13th episode of “Cape Up” resulted in the most powerful interview I think I’ve ever done.

McBath is the mother of Jordan Davis, the unarmed 17-year-old African American murdered by a man who shot into his car after an argument over loud music coming from his car at a Florida gas station in November 2012. She is now the faith and community outreach leader at Everytown for Gun Safety. Patterson was 17 years old when he was shot in the head by a thief and then treated like a criminal by the police who arrived on the scene in the summer of 2005. The Baltimore native is now a community activist who started the BeMore Group.


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The conversation between McBath and Patterson is one between a mother and a son. Both grieving. Both using their sorrow and anger to tackle gun violence and race and force us all to see the intersectionality of both. And it was McBath’s discussion of her having the talk with Jordan about the killing of Trayvon Martin that drove the dialogue.

Jordan says, “Mom, why did that man gun down Trayvon? He wasn’t doing anything. Why did he gun him down?” And it was just very disheartening to have to say to my son, “Baby, there are people in this country that do not value you as a young black male, that don’t value black men in this country. And you’ve got to be very careful where you go, what you do. You cannot walk freely in this country, like white America.”
. . . And I kept saying, “Jordan, in the event that you are in an argument or a verbal confrontation with anyone, stand down. Stand down, because nowadays . . .” And this is exactly what I said, “People will not use reasonable conflict resolution. They will take their guns out and they will shoot you.” And Jordan distinctly said, “Mom, that’s not gonna happen to me. That’s not gonna happen to me. I can take care of myself.” And there’s not a day that goes by that that conversation does not haunt at my heart and my soul, because in the end, no matter how much we did to protect him, to care for him, to raise him the way that we were supposed to raise him, in the end, in America, as a young black male, he was not free or safe.

Patterson said he didn’t have “the talk” at home and wasn’t “taught to police myself.” The reason is now universally accepted truth. “Because as I grew older,” he said, “I learned that it was learned behavior that the police would treat us like this.” Instead, he said he has the talk with other people. And then the 28-year-old dubbed the “walking angel” delivered a cri de coeur that articulated every emotion I’ve felt from the killing of Trayvon to the litany of videos chronicling the last breath of a black life.

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So now I’m having the talk with other people who wanna try to police me and my being when I speak on the incident. It’s like, “Well, you were shot, and police can see this, maybe you should’ve did XYZ. Or you should’ve . . .” They tried to tell me all the ways that I should’ve behaved, and it enrages me because, I’m saying, “I have a bullet in my head, blood-stained clothes, gushing. But you’re telling me that I am still a threat to you. You’re still trying to police me and my being. So, why should I have to always make you feel more comfortable with just me existing?” So no, I cannot submit to, “Hey, let me go ahead, and make sure everybody else is comfortable.” And I’m uncomfortable in my own skin every single day. . . .
I actually wrote a piece about this. How being a young black man, or black man period, we’re constantly under attack from every angle from the workplace to school, back at home, to even some of our personal relationships where we wanna lean on someone. And then they’re always telling us to man up and suppress these emotions. We’re always, constantly been policed for our emotions. And I can’t . . . I refuse to do that, because that little, that being inside me can’t live. . . . What’s the purpose of living if I’m dying to just to stay alive every day?

Through tears, McBath responded in a way only a mother, a black mother, Jordan’s mother could.

This is so painful, so completely painful. Because as I’m watching him and listening to him, I see the moral injury in him, that he will live with for the rest of his life. And I’m looking at him as he were my child, that if Jordan were alive today, he would still be suffering the same way, and that makes me angry. That makes me angry that our young black men have to live this way. It’s just not right.

Patterson offered a common-sense prescription he knows will be difficult to fill. “I believe we start having these conversations beyond ourselves. We know what we’re going through, and how it makes us feel,” he said. “We have to stop being afraid of making people feel uncomfortable. When you’re uncomfortable, you grow.”

Listen to the podcast to hear McBath and Patterson discuss the meaning of “Black Lives Matter” and how the African American community needs to deal with the collective trauma it is suffering. But you don’t want to miss McBath’s rejoinder to the “what the hell do you have to lose” appeal of Donald Trump.

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