LOS ANGELES—When her sons were small, it was easy to keep up with their friends. Their friends had basketballs, they got basketballs. Their friends had snowboards, they got snowboards.
But the boys’ recent request gave Karen Stevenson pause.
The 12-year-old twins wanted paintball guns, the kind their private school buddies already owned. But their classmates are white, and the Stevenson boys are black.
“When I saw pictures [of paintball guns] on the Internet, my heart almost stopped,” Stevenson said. “My problem is, from a distance they look like real guns.
“The boys told me, ‘Why can’t we have one? Bobby has one.’ I had to tell them, ‘No one is going to mistake little blond-haired Bobby running around in his backyard with a paintball gun. But we’re black. We live in L.A. Somebody will think you’re running around with an AK-47.’ And I can’t afford to have somebody make that mistake.
“If you’re the mother of boys—black boys—in this city, that’s the kind of thing you have to think about.”
Stevenson, an attorney, lives comfortably with her sons in Baldwin Hills, a middle-class neighborhood in southwest Los Angeles that, while not the suburbs, is certainly not the ‘hood. But she knows that privilege doesn’t equal protection.
Nationally, black teenage boys are five times as likely as white teen boys to be killed. In Los Angeles County, homicide accounts for two of every three deaths among young black men, compared with one in seven for whites, two in five for Latinos, and one in four for Asian Americans.
In high-crime neighborhoods, children grow up aware of the ambient presence of danger. They wear neutral colors to avoid being mistaken for gang members. They learn to duck at the sound of gunfire. Their worried parents order them straight home from school, make them stay off the streets and play inside.
For middle- and upper-class black parents, the tightrope walk is different. Their neighborhoods may be safer, their schools integrated, their children sheltered. But steering their boys through adolescence means keeping them tethered to uncomfortable realities of race.