In September, 2017, in a Southwest Florida town, a 12-year-old black boy was called "N" by a 27-year-old white man, then punched so hard that the boy’s two front teeth were knocked out. The Sheriff’s office was called and investigated. Case seems clear enough, right? The man committed assault and battery upon a child; it could even be classified as a hate crime.
No charges were filed against the man. His actions were deemed self-defense by the investigating officers as the 27-year-old man claimed he feared for his life by a 12-year-old. Yes, an adult white male feared for his life in the face of a black boy.
This is only one of a score of incidents in which white males felt threatened by black boys. Most were not as lucky as this youngster who only lost his two front teeth; the others lost their lives. Among them is Trayvon Martin, wearing a hoodie, and weaponless except for a bag of Skittles and an Amazon iced tea. On the night of February 26, 2012, Trayvon so frightened the neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, that he fatally shot the 17-year-old. Zimmerman reported that the teenager “...was a real suspicious guy, looked like he was up to no good or on drugs or something.”
Jordan Davis, another 17-year-old black youth, was killed by adult white male Michael Dunn in a dispute over the volume of music playing in an auto. The shooter felt so threatened by an unarmed young black youth sitting in the back seat of the car that he opened fire and killed Jordan on November 23, 2012. On November 23, 2016,when James Mean, a 15-year-old black youth, accidently bumped into a 62-year-old white male, William Pulliam, he was perceived so threatening that he was shot and killed by the man.
Ten-year-old Legend Preston will probably never recover from the nightmares he suffers after policemen held a gun to his head. Police said the 10-year-old boy fit the description of a man they suspected to have committed an armed robbery. The hulky 10-year-old child in no way resembled the 20-year-old man with facial hair and dreadlocks caught soon after the incident. There was not even an apology given to the terrorized 10-year-old black boy.
So why are young black males as young as ten and twelve feared by grown white men and killed by policemen? The answer is simple: the pernicious stereotypes that arouse fear of black men in the United States have now been transferred to black boys and youth. Recent research provides evidence of this disturbing fact. A study published by the APA found that black boys as young as ten may not be viewed by policemen in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers. The “adultification” of black boys happens when a child is viewed as more mature than he actually is. It is a racial fear, mistaking youngsters for adults, and it leads to judgements of guilt and police violence.
Because stereotypes of black men extend to black boys, their innocence and protection as children is lost. From classrooms to the streets, black boys have never had the childhood right to “just be boys” like white boys. When white boys tussle, it’s boy’s play; when they cross the line, their actions are viewed as “boyish pranks.” When black boys commit the same acts, they are disciplined severely. White boys benefit from the assumption that they are children and essentially innocent, that they will grow up and learn better. Black boys are held for their actions in the same light as a fully grown black male. White boys get time-out counseling; black boys get suspension and jail.
An even more disturbing study done at the University of Iowa found that seeing the faces of 5-year-old black boys appeared to trigger thoughts of guns and violence. Stereotypes of violence were attached to images of children: images of 5-year-old black boys evoked the most pernicious images of black men -- hostile and violent. It almost seems insane that images of 5-year-old black boys can elicit the same threat-related associations as those with adult black men.
If a 5-year old black male face can elicit a response of threat and fear, what is to become of young black males in the United States? How does the extension of stereotypes of adult black men influence the expectations of black boys in academic and social settings? How does the extension of stereotypes to black boys influence the disproportionate school suspensions of black boys (as early as kindergarten)? How does the extension of stereotyping to black boys lead to zero tolerance and the criminalization of black males via the school-to-prison pipeline? How do we as parents, adults, human beings help to restore the childhood innocence of black boys and youth? Do we have the will to do so? And if we don’t, what does this say about us?