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How Many Black Boys Have to Die?

Stephen Menendian, assistant director, Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley | August 14, 2014

Although the “facts” are still in dispute, it’s not presumptuous to add Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri to the list of young black men and boys killed by overzealous police or armed civilians: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis and so many more, including young women like Renisha McBride.

The ultimate tragedy is that each of these deaths seems to have done little to prevent the next. As I wrote two years ago, each death reopens a conversation on race framed to ask all of the wrong questions. I predicted that “until we start asking the right questions, I fear there will be more Trayvon Martins.” 

This list reminds us that these deaths are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pattern – a picture we can only make out if we step back for a broader view. A series of similar incidents occurred across the nation in the late 1960s, triggering the “urban disturbances” that were the focus of the famous “Kerner Commission” Report on Civil Disorders. The report is as startling in its description and analysis of events that parallel today as it is in the relevance of the recommendations it advanced.

The Commission was established for the purpose of investigating the causes of the late 1960s riots, and the Report is a comprehensive analysis of both the specific incidents at issue and the more general conditions that led to the combustible environment. Consider the chapter dedicated to the issue of policing and the community, described as a “primary cause” of the “disorders” surveyed in the Report. The Report observed that “[t]he patrolman comes to see the city through a windshield and hear about it over a police radio. To him, the area increasingly comes to consist only of law breakers. To the ghetto resident, the policeman comes increasingly to be only an enforcer.”

The Kerner Commission Report expressed concern that many police neither reside nor grew up in these environments, widening the gulf between police and the communities they serve. This remains the case today, with no more vivid an illustration that Ferguson, MO. Ferguson is a predominantly black community, and yet just three of the fifty-three police officers on the municipal force are African-American.

Consider, especially, the remarks of the 1968 authors of the Report when they assert that the incidents it documented were not “the crude acts of an earlier time,” alluding to explicitly racist police behavior, but that police misconduct — whether described as brutality, harassment or merely verbal abuse and discourtesy — was a motivating factor that contributed to the civil disorders of that decade. In the context of the era of stop-and-frisk (83 percent stopped were black or Hispanic), and the criminalization of poverty, it’s worth considering the applicability Commission’s observation, nearly 50 years later, that “Negroes firmly believe that police brutality and harassment occur repeatedly in Negro neighborhoods.”

The explanation for what’s happening is no secret, but it doesn’t seem to have seeped into the broader consciousness. In his 2005 book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell deconstructed the shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo in New York City, and explained the critical causal force, implicit or unconscious bias, as measured by the implicit association test.

Most Americans, even those who embrace egalitarian norms, harbor unconscious negative associations with black bodies. It is on account of these pervasive and yet unconscious, culturally embedded associations that black boys are not only automatically viewed with suspicion, but as criminals, regardless of who they are. The internet meme #iftheygunnedmedown not only illustrates the portrayal of black men and boys, but the perception as well.

We need to begin by addressing the pervasiveness of these unconscious biases, first by acknowledging them, and secondly by working to reduce them or ameliorate their impact. Police academies and law enforcement agencies not only need more diverse staff, but they need implicit bias training for officers. They need to measure, track and address implicit bias, enhance officer supervision and create accountability measures.

Only efforts like these can repair and strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color that will ultimately prevent the senseless deaths of boys like Michael Brown and more, I fear, to come.

Protests in Ferguson, MO after an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by Ferguson police. Photo credit: Southern Poverty Law Cetner

Protests in Ferguson, Mo. after an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by Ferguson police. (Photo credit: Southern Poverty Law Center)


Comments to “How Many Black Boys Have to Die?

  1. It sucks to be us (putting it in layman’s terms). Isolation and being rejected by society without having your own community established that can embrace you has caused a seismic shift in our own perceptions of ourselves (blacks/black males in particular)and the various coping mechanisms that were incorporated throughout our history in America.

    I’m turning 40 and I’ve been dealing with it as long as I can remember. Now take it for whatever it’s worth, I have an AA, BS and MBA and have been at the same company for 15 years. That has helped me to establish an economic footprint somewhat (beats what the majority of us go through). I’ve experienced a broad range of discrimination (you name it, I’ve dealt with it) since I was quite young. It’s hard to articulate just how hopeless at a macro level the black male experience is. We can discuss the degradation in blighted communities of color the world over, the lack of family structure, etc. until we’re completely exhausted, but one thing won’t change from my perspective… I see the hopelessness of a world through my brethren and my own eyes, who either don’t have the gumption and clarity to push through, establishing a life within a nation who doesn’t care nor respect them and can’t empathize with nothing remotely related to them.

    Us versus everyone else is truly the root cause for it all. We are literally in psychological prison camps. The isolation is real and ongoing.

    I have a daughter, but I now wish to have no more children, especially a black boy. I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I was responsible for birthing him, ultimately having to release him so that he is subject to the cruelties of this society and it’s subsequent judgement of him, day in and day out, through the media, his every day interactions with humanity who initially branded him as 3/5ths of a person, fixed that (Slavery) by instituting sharecropping/Jim Crow and segregation. Raped the women religiously (for hundreds of years) creating two classes of people, (light skin versus dark skin/house negro versus field negro) which continue to act as a divide amongst the community to this very day. Don’t allow them to read or learn to help transition them to become contributing members of society during the Industrial Revolution (leading to more poverty). Throw in the lynchings, the Tuskegee experiment, redlining in housing, creation of ghettos/projects (concentration camps) with minimal opportunity, police brutality, the so-called War on Drugs (which proved that blacks use the least amount of drugs as a percentage but were the highest percentage prosecuted and given the longest sentences Crack versus Powder), institutional discrimination.

    When we did try and take steps to be self sufficient (Rosewood, Black Wall Street in Oklahoma) the jealous whites burned it to the ground and massacred the residents. I could go on and on, but sometimes you have to quantify so that your audience can understand the context of a situation before rendering judgement.

    Man in closing, I am just trying to survive. If I can make it to old age without having my civil rights severely violated (they’ve been trampled on in numerous instances) being shot and/or jailed without just cause, I’ve considered it a life well lived from my perspective.

    Lastly, black on black crime and crime in general is a tragedy. Just try to consider what has taken place, from the first moment the slave ships landed on Plymouth Rock until November of 2014. I would daresay that it trumps the Holocaust in it’s scope and brevity in terms of time.


  2. During President Obama’s final years in office, the White House could/should convene a national dialogue on race, thoughtfully structured so as to optimize useful public engagement. Your thoughts?

    • Moderator, nothing else has worked yet in this new century, so any new ideas to “optimize useful public engagement”, especially including getting the majority of We The People to believe in voting once again is worth the effort.

      One major problem was discussed by Robert Reich in “The Disease of American Democracy” where he made two conclusions that must be addressed:

      “—- political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphing from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.” And,

      “The only way back toward a democracy and economy that work for the majority is for most of us to get politically active once again, becoming organized and mobilized.”

      Yes, we most definitely need a new forum that all sides shall respect and want to participate in to solve our most destructive problems, including race. The last political group to do that produced the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, so maybe we should use them as a role model for public engagement.

  3. QUESTION: How Can We Save The World When We Can’t Save Ourselves?

    This has to be the most important question in the history of civilization and we have no answer today.

    Humans keep proving that we are the Most Violent and Self Destructive species on the planet and there is no way we can prevent it.

    This is the worst possible legacy we keep passing on to future generations, we have absolutely no educational, religious, social or economic institutions that know how to end our reign of terror against ourselves.

  4. The killing of African American and men of color men by police is NOT an isolated incident. The writer of the article gave several examples of other similar incidents demonstrating that this is a pattern.

    Yes, black on black gun violence is also a pattern. Given a toxic mix of guns, racism, institutionalized unemployment and poverty is that a surprise? Where do the guns come from? They began their journey in gun factories owned by rich white people and then sold into these communities by other less rich white people.

    The US Constitution is drenched in the blood of millions of people — black, white and people of color — killed by guns. As long as Americans insist on living under the tyranny of the Gun and until life is measured for all its full worth – this slaughter will continue and poor people of color will be its main victims. The gun worshipers of this country are the ammosexual curse of America. When people socially shun guns and gun owners and value the right to life without fear of gun violence, greater than the so-called right to bear arms, and establish gun-free zones, house by house, block by block, town by town – a cultural revolution will have begun.

    Before you say I’m a dreamer – just look over the water and you’ll see citizens of other countries for whom freedom from gun violence is (for the most part) normal and a right they “hold to be self evident,” to borrow a phrase. How long do we want to perpetuate this silent holocaust?

    People talk about the Wild West – we’re living in it and it’s all over the country and more so in states that enshrine gun tyranny in their laws. Stand your ground – a killer’s charter.

  5. The answer to your question should be readily available from Barack Hussein Obama, Eric Holder, & Rahm Emanuel.

  6. I’m a Cal alum! Thank you for this article!

    To all of the right wing idiots citing “silence” around black on black violence, OF COURSE there’s an enormous outcry and people working on it. You can read / watch it here:

    It’s just particularly egregious when the people that are supposed to be Protecting & Serving, are actually PROFILING & KILLING those who they’re supposed to protect.

  7. The larger pattern that seems obvious to me is that white men with guns are not the greatest threat to young black men: it’s young black men with guns.

  8. i like for article, for your quotes “In the context of the era of stop-and-frisk (83 percent stopped were black or Hispanic), and the criminalization of poverty” thanks 🙂

  9. There is NO aspect about this incident which is racial except the difference in skin color of the officer and suspect. The behavior of Brown, assaulting a cop and resisting an arrest, is the cause of this tragedy.

    typical race baiting from the Ivory Tower while ignoring the real threat: the normalization of resisting arrest.

  10. Where is everyone while hundreds of our young black men are being killed by other young black men EVERY YEAR?? Crickets… The white cop shooting an unarmed black man IS an isolated incident, no matter how badly those with a political agenda want it not to be.

    I’m not saying the cop wasn’t in the wrong. I’m saying that an isolated incident is getting all the attention because it suits a political agenda. We need a change in OUR attitude or we will always be beholden to the Al Sharptons and they will continue to thrive on our status as “victims”. Until we quit acting a fool and rioting and looting and gang banging, we will never be treated seriously, we will never advance, we will never as a community be able to better ourselves. People you need to stand up and take responsibility for yourselves!!!

    Al Sharpton isn’t going to pay your rent our send your kids to college. Neither is Obama. Parents need to RAISE their kids! Teach them that this foolishness leads to a dead end. It’s time for us to change as a community and forge our own path to success and prosperity.

  11. Gabriel’s point is an important one and raises the consciousness for all on how hatred is a crime against all people rather than a particular group. Hatred seeks targets and once eliminating a particular target searches for new sources. Black people are the target right now because society largely blames black people for their plight; the result is too many ignore the brutality. However, other people of color become the target of the hatred as well as poor people, including poor white people.

  12. American Democracy needs to be saved, as posts like this prove, but how can we save it?

    History proves that we have two basic establishments that can save our democracy, political and intellectual.

    Our political institution is currently controlled by the power of money, not We The People, with no solution in sight, which has been a common failure mode throughout history.

    It’s up to intellectual leaders to save join us together to save our democracy, the problem is whether they can overcome the Hofstadter limitation that Chancellor Dirks discussed in the Summer 2013 issue of CALIFORNIA magazine “Administrating Change” feature story.

  13. Thank you for posting this information. Having lived through the civil rights unrest of the 1960s and being the mother, aunt and cousin of young Black men, I hope and pray for the elimination of racial prejudice in American society.

    • Cynthia, we must all agree to “hope and pray for the elimination of racial prejudice in American society.” American society shall most certainly destroy itself if we don’t.

      Hopefully professors and scholars in Berkeley Law, Social Sciences and throughout UC shall join together at last, and lead the fight for total equality and the end of violence, as a role model for the world.

  14. Dr. Menendian, do not forget about Yoshihiro Hattori, a 16-year old Japanese exchange student who was shot when he accidentally went to the wrong house for a Halloween party. He rang the doorbell, was dressed in a white-and-black tuxedo (in imitation of John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”) and, at 130-lbs, did not cut a menacing figure.

    He was already walking back to his car when Rodney Peairs, the homeowner, came through the front door and approached, yelling ‘Freeze’. When Hattori turned around, he was shot at point-blank range.

    This issue extends to all minorities, not just African Americans.

    • Gabriel,
      I appreciate you sharing the story of Yoshihiro because I never heard about it. While all minorities are impacted by racism, I think it is important to understand the anti black sentiment that is prevalent in this country to the point where black men and women being killed everyday! In just one month 6 unarmed African Americans have been killed by police officers. Anti blackness is real.

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