When I was a kid, around 10 or 11, I loved fantasy novels, especially The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. I read these books over and over, and with my friend Michael would act out the various scenes of the books. We would run around the yard with toy swords and trash can lids for shields, battling monsters until it got too dark to play any longer.
One day we were pretending we were wizards, casting spells and dispensing vague wisdom to our imaginary comrades. As part of our costumes we made hoods out of pillow cases, and were blithely going about our business when my dad came home. He looked at us playing, and yelled for us to take those hoods off at once. Then he told Michael to go home, and he made me come inside and sit down for a lecture.
I was confused, and only became more so as he talked about prejudice and racism and the history of the South. He told me about his own upbringing, and about how blacks were treated in his small town. He told me about his time in the military, and how it changed his views of race. He was disturbed that Michael and I had been pretending we were in the Ku Klux Klan. I did not know what the Klan was, and was surprised to hear about it.
Before that, I did not really know what racism was, because it was not modeled for me by my parents. I was blissfully ignorant of how immersed I was in a society where race was a huge factor in how people were evaluated. The day I had that talk with my dad in a small south Georgia town was in the summer of 1977 or 1978. Racism was still a strong force there.
Now, in the spring of 2012, racism is still with us, though perhaps in a more subtle fashion. The case of Trayvon Martin is receiving a lot of scrutiny, and how it will play out is unknown. What is certain though is that many in our society view a young, black male as inherently suspect. As a class these youngsters are perceived as more prone to crime and other antisocial behaviors. He was suspected by his killer of being high on drugs and up to no good. There is debate about his appearance, and questions about the photos used to represent him in the media. But the bottom line is that how he was dressed, how tall he was, or whether he had gold teeth doesn’t matter.
This myth about young black men is not borne out by the facts though. As Mike Males, a researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, notes in a recent op-ed in Politico, “The latest figures from the FBI, Bureau of Justice Statistics and public health agencies show that among black youth, rates of robbery and serious property offenses are the lowest in more than 40 years. Rates of murder and rape are now lower than when nationwide crime statistics first appeared in 1965 — and those were far less complete than today’s. Assault rates are lower than when this crime statistic was expanded to include domestic violence and new offenses a quarter-century ago.”
No one argues that violence and crime are not problems in this segment of the population. They are still more likely to be victims of violence, and are definitely overrepresented in contact with law enforcement, convictions, and incarceration. But these facts do not make up the totality of their reality. By far the majority of these youngsters will not commit a crime, nor will they be victimized. Most of them are not drug dealers or addicts. Most of them are not anti social. Yet this is the stereotype that they live with, and that is perpetuated by the media and politicians.
As Males points out, it is not just conservatives who are painting this picture. The president himself, in a 2008 speech, “deplored African-Americans’ ‘epidemic of violence’ that he blamed on an ‘entire generation of young men in our society.’”
And it is not only Fox News that uses this image to titillate. CNN's show "Deadly Lessons," accused African-Americans of perpetrating “a growing culture of violence, especially among young people,” a culture described by one commentator as “a generation of folks that do not value life.” Even Geraldo Rivera’s recent comments about how dangerous it is to wear a hoodie are based on a twisted view of who young black men really are.
So, let’s take a deep breath and look at the facts. Let’s not greet each young black man that we meet with fear or suspicion. It is overwhelmingly likely that he is someone you will want to know. Let’s start making room for that in our lives. It is 2012, and far overdue.