My chest is tight and there is a pit in my stomach. The hairs on my arms are standing on end. My heart is racing. I’m pleading in my mind, “Somebody make this stop!” This is surreal. But…THIS HAPPENED TO REAL PEOPLE. I’m watching Episode 1 of When They See Us, a mini-series about five teens from Harlem who were trapped in a nightmare when they were falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park.
This show is the embodiment of my worst fears for the men in my life.
One wrong interaction with the criminal justice system can derail or end their life. Some of you reading this will never understand how viscerally black women fear the seemingly far-fetched mistreatment recounted in the mini-series. I have not endured this personally, but I know that it can happen to my loved ones just as quickly as it happened to these young men. It is a constant, nagging fear that history and the present have etched into the DNA of black women. This fear is so real I proactively told my neighbors who my cousin was and that he was in town for a job search, just in case I wasn’t with him.
I’m sickened and somewhat ashamed that I felt I needed to verify where he belonged. He belongs wherever he wants to go.
However, the last thing I needed was someone calling the cops on a “suspicious black male” out walking my Yorkie. You might chuckle a bit at that visual but an interaction gone awry could cost him his life. If you don’t understand that, I’m writing this for you.
The helplessness and then rage I felt watching some of the scenes in When They See Us was palpable. No doubt this is due to the brilliant film-making by Ava DuVernay but more than that, the content is based on harsh realities. Ebony Flake and I created Ms. X Factor as space for discussions about issues affecting Gen X, multicultural women. The aunties and mothers in this mini-series are us so here are a few things we want everyone to know…
Our boys deserve an assumption of innocence just like yours do
According to research published by the American Psychological Association, black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty, and face police violence if accused of a crime.
Author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles states, “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
Education and wealth don’t protect them
There is a common misconception that well dressed, professional black men don’t face the same challenges. However, according to a National Geographic article, blacks and Hispanics worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. Everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich is affected.
“It’s been more times than I care to remember,” said Robert F. Smith, a private equity titan and philanthropist, when asked how often he thinks he has been racially profiled. Smith is listed by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest African American, yet, he dreads being pulled over just as everyday black men do. “A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped,” he said. “And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”
The narrative about who they are needs to change
According to a CNN article by Wilcox et al. “overly negative depictions and attitudes regarding black men are important because they shape how black men are treated, and how black men view their potential.” This is underscored by Alan Jenkins of Opportunity Agenda, a social justice organization, who noted that “Research and experience show that expectations and biases on the part of potential employers, teachers, health care providers, police officers, and other stakeholders influence the life outcomes of millions of black males.” The truth is many black boys and men are thriving despite having the deck stacked against them on multiple fronts. There is a need to show them as the caring big brothers, loving sons, exceptional fathers, community leaders that they are.
Unthinkable travesties of justice, like these boys experienced, are happening all around us and they often don’t make the news. I don’t know how to fix this insidious mess, but I do know for sure that it starts with the world honoring the humanity of black boys and men. This series makes it clear that these young men were children caught up in a terrible situation not the cold-blooded monsters the media portrayed.