Michael Brown and Black Men

Charles M. Blow, New York Times, August 13, 2014

The killing of Michael Brown has tapped into something bigger than Michael Brown.

Brown was the unarmed 18-year-old black man who was shot to death Saturday by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo. There are conflicting accounts of the events that led to the shooting. {snip}

There is an eerie echo in it all–a sense of tragedy too often repeated. And yet the sheer morbid, wrenching rhythm of it belies a larger phenomenon, one obscured by its vastness, one that can be seen only when one steps back and looks from a distance and with data: The criminalization of black and brown bodies–particularly male ones–from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released “the first comprehensive look at civil rights from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years.” As the report put it: “The 2011-2012 release shows that access to . . . preschool programs is not a reality for much of the country. In addition, students of color are suspended more often than white students, and black and Latino students are significantly more likely to have teachers with less experience who aren’t paid as much as their colleagues in other schools.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, remarking on the data, said: “This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool.”

But, of course, this criminalization stalks these children throughout their school careers.

{snip}

A 2010 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that while the average suspension rate for middle school students in 18 of the nation’s largest school districts was 11.2 percent in 2006, the rate for black male students was 28.3 percent, by far the highest of any subgroup by race, ethnicity or gender. {snip}

And these disparities can have a severe impact on a child’s likelihood of graduating. According to a report from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University that looked at Florida students, “Being suspended even once in 9th grade is associated with a two-fold increase in the risk for dropping out.”

Black male dropout rates are more than one and a half times those of white males, and when you look at the percentage of black men who graduate on time–in four years, not including those who possibly go on to get G.E.D.s, transfer to other schools or fail grades–the numbers are truly horrific. Only about half of these black men graduate on time.

Now, the snowball is rolling. The bias of the educational system bleeds easily into the bias of the criminal justice system–from cops to courts to correctional facilities. The school-to-prison pipeline is complete.

A May report by the Brookings Institution found: “There is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-thirties.”

This is in part because trending policing disparities are particularly troubling in places like Missouri. As the editorial board of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out this week: “Last year, for the 11th time in the 14 years that data has been collected, the disparity index that measures potential racial profiling by law enforcement in the state got worse. Black Missourians were 66 percent more likely in 2013 to be stopped by police, and blacks and Hispanics were both more likely to be searched, even though the likelihood of finding contraband was higher among whites.”

And this is the reality if the child actually survives the journey. That is if he has the internal fortitude to continue to stand with the weight on his shoulders. That is if he doesn’t find himself on the wrong end of a gun barrel. That is if his parents can imbue in him a sense of value while the world endeavors to imbue in him a sense of worthlessness.

Parents can teach children how to interact with authority and how to mitigate the threat response their very being elicits. They can wrap them in love to safeguard them against the bitterness of racial suspicion.

It can be done. It is often done. But it is heartbreaking nonetheless. What psychic damage does it do to the black mind when one must come to own and manage the fear of the black body?

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