Black Boys in Crisis: The Cautionary Deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

Fast forward to the mid-2010s, and the discussion over the disparity in the treatment of black males has reached a fever pitch. The current wave of protests can be traced to an incident that happened on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. On the evening of that day, a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was walking back from his neighborhood convenience store after buying a pack of Skittles when he was followed and confronted by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain.

The subsequent events are shrouded in conflicting witness reports and evidence. What is certain is that a few minutes later the unarmed Martin lay dead, shot by Zimmerman. The case sparked national attention when Zimmerman was released under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. There were also indications that Zimmerman had targeted Martin in part because of his skin color, saying in his 911 call: “And he’s a black male . . . Something’s wrong with him . . . These assholes, they always get away.”

The Trayvon Martin case was the first in a series of violent incidents involving young black men that captured the attention of the nation. In 2014, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Once again, the actual moment of the shooting was shrouded in conflicting eyewitness reports; what was clear was that a young, unarmed black man had been shot at close range. The incident led to days of riots and unrest in Ferguson and protest marches across the nation.

A few months later, Eric Garner, another African-American man, was choked to death on a New York sidewalk after police tried to arrest him for selling cigarettes without a license. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a catchphrase, chanted by protestors across the United States. The officer who performed the stranglehold on Garner was acquitted by a jury.

Following these and other incidents across the nation, which claimed the lives of Jonathan Ferrell, Alton Sterling, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Freddie Gray, Eric Harris, Samuel DuBose, and many others, a movement called Black Lives Matter sprang up. It quickly spread on social media under the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. The movement, which has chapters across the nation but is decentralized by design, aims to heighten awareness of the toll racial discrimination has taken on young black men.

Just about every black man in America can tell a story about a time he was racially discriminated against in a law-enforcement situation. We learn from our fathers how to act when police officers approach the car: hold your empty hands outside the window, don’t make eye contact, keep your voice low and respectful. We teach the same things to our sons. However, far too often, those tactics aren’t enough. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras means that, in recent years, police officers have been caught shooting unarmed black men and planting guns by their side, or brutalizing men who clearly have their hands raised. Or in an incident in North Carolina, violently arresting a black man who was doing nothing more than sitting on his mother’s porch, waiting for her to come home.

The statistics are excruciatingly clear: In a recent report entitled “The Science of Justice: Race, Arrests, and Police Use of Force,” the Center for Policing Equity looked at racial disparities in police actions. They studied nearly twenty thousand police reports from twelve large urban areas (a million inhabitants or more) over the last thirty years. What they discovered was alarming: Even when they controlled the data carefully for arrest demographics, there were significant discrepancies in the use of police force when arresting blacks and whites. In fact, the report indicates that African Americans are nearly four times as likely to experience violence during an arrest as white Americans.

What does this atmosphere do to the mentality of a young black male? It means that the police are no longer helpful neighborhood assistants to be called in an emergency. It means that the police are an entity to be feared and avoided. It means that the world is fraught with danger, and out to get him.

In his National Book Award–winning Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes an elegiac, lovely, terrifying, and terrified missive to his fifteen-year-old son. He describes the omnipresent fear of young black men: “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid . . . The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my West Baltimore neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world.”

Coates recounts a moment when he was taking his son to see Howl’s Moving Castle and a white woman shoved the boy. When he admonished her, a white man came to her defense and told Coates: “I could have you arrested.” In that moment, he knew he’d stepped outside his bounds and endangered his son by trying to protect him. However, upon further reflection, he realized that he and his son were both victims of an age-old American narrative that black bodies were less valuable than white bodies. A narrative that said they could be shoved around and arrested by the presiding powers; that, years after the abolition of slavery, they were confined by invisible fetters, whereas white bodies were free.

Racial profiling is a national epidemic. Though the history of African Americans in the United States is one of unrelenting discrimination, only in recent decades have researchers started to gather evidence of the profiling of blacks and other minorities. In many areas, African-American drivers are stopped much more frequently than whites. For example, on the Maryland Interstate 95, 77 percent of the drivers stopped by traffic police were black, though only 17 percent of total drivers were black. The majority of those stopped were not charged with a crime, indicating that racial discrimination was the primary motive in stopping the drivers.

Some high-profile incidents have served to bring the issue of “shopping while black” to the public. As just one example, in an Eddie Bauer store in 1997, three black youth were accused of stealing clothing that they had previously bought at the store. One of the boys was forced to take off his shirt and leave it in the store. The boys sued and received a settlement totaling a million dollars.

The racism is often systemic and comes from high up in the management echelons. For example, an employee at a store called The Children’s Place accused her employer of racist directives. According to the employee, she was told not to give shopping bags to black shoppers, not to offer perks, and not to talk about sales with them. That case as well resulted in a sizable settlement against the store.

A study in Madison, Wisconsin, indicated that black shoppers are discriminated against, often from the moment they walk in the door: “Customers are monitored closely, and without even the pretense of subtlety as they pass from area to area in the store. Employees of color, who develop personal clientele to target for sales and other customer promotions, are held in suspicion and questioned about the amount of time spent with customers, but only those who happen to be of color. Customers of color are regularly asked to provide more proof of identification than is asked of other customers.”

Because of the discrimination and aggression that black boys face on a daily basis, we need to provide them with the resources and support that they need to be successful. We can’t sit idly by while an entire generation of black boys are targeted as pubic enemy number one.

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