David J. Knight is an affiliated researcher with the Justice in Schools Project at Harvard University and a public school teacher in Boston.
The moments of protest and frenzied media coverage that followed the deaths of Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and too many others always bring me to the same thought: We have a problem with how we talk about the lives of young black males.
Yes, those who work in the media, education and criminal justice are complicit. But so are the rest of us. The issue strikes closer to home than we realize.
Several years ago, I was at an orientation for new teachers. I had just gotten a job teaching middle school in Boston and was attending a workshop on educating African American boys. The facilitator, a black man himself, began by asking all the black men in the room to stand. Unsure where he was headed, I got up out of my chair. A few other young professionals did so as well.
“Everyone, I’d like you to take a good look at these men,” the facilitator said. “Take a good long look, because they are an endangered species.”
At these words, my chest tightened. Forced to remain standing while he spoke, I fixed my eyes on the floor — anywhere but on the faces staring at me.
As the facilitator recited a string of damning statistics about black males, I felt ashamed. Then, ashamed of feeling ashamed. But ultimately the experience left me deeply unsettled. Endangered? How could he put me in that position?
The truth is, I am privileged. By then I’d had 24 years of living under my belt — years filled with accolades, graduation parties, college acceptances and global experiences — that helped me realize a life beyond the rhetoric.
But many black males get this message — they are “endangered,” they are “vulnerable” or “at risk” — when they are much younger. They hear it in middle and high school, certainly, and sometimes they hear it in the third and fourth grades. Think about the effect such stark words could have on any young person’s psyche, regardless of race. Suddenly, your destiny is no longer your own, and it doesn’t matter who you are: Your fate is tied to a long history of racially fraught struggle. Worse, you are told you’re on the losing side, the side where blackness connotes limitation.
And you learn that you will either defy statistics or, more likely, live up to them.
We even hear the rhetoric in media. The highly praised 2005 documentary “The Boys of Baraka,” which followed a group of 12-year-old males from Baltimore to a Kenyan boarding school, plays into these pathologizing statistics. “As young men in Baltimore city, most of you have about three choices,” the school’s recruiter says to a room full of sixth-graders. “Three things that might happen to you by the time you turn 18.” She goes on to describe their three possibilities: Prison, death or graduation.
Three choices. How would this sound to you if you were a 12-year-old in the inner city? How does it sound to you now? In both cases, I’d wager, the response likely reinforces a reductionist and limited view of what is possible in the lives of young black males.
The problem, though, is that statistics bemoaning racial inequalities say little about individuals and much more about the institutions and systems that perpetuate them. And it all gets worse when journalists, scientists, educators and even activists employ racial statistics to bolster their own claims.
This was never clearer than during media coverage of the trial of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Often during the media barrage, racial statistics — namely, that blacks are more likely to be killed by other blacks — were trotted out to suggest that black-on-black crime is a larger issue than institutionalized racism in our communities. Resting on a subtext that blacks are more prone to violence than people of other races, some insisted that Martin’s death was an outlier and not much more.
The effect of such racial messages on social perception can be shockingly far-reaching. In a recent study, Stanford psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found that whites who were exposed to highly disproportionate incarceration rates between whites and blacks subsequently expressed greater concern about crime and became more likely to support the harsh penalties that perpetuate those racial disparities (such as California’s “three strikes” law).
“Many legal advocates and social activists assume that bombarding the public with images and statistics documenting the plight of minorities will motivate people to fight inequality,” they write. “Our results call this assumption into question. . . . Perhaps motivating the public to work toward an equal society requires something more than the evidence of inequality itself.”
The question before us is not simply about how we use statistics but a deeper concern with how our discourse about young black males needs to change. We can start by presenting larger, more complex stories about the lives they lead — not out of political correctness but in a sincere effort to achieve authenticity.
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