It's Hard To Celebrate America When Our Black Children Are Still Being Killed

By
Share

Emmett Till would have been 76 this year. Tamir Rice would have been 15. In 1955, Till was beaten and tortured to death for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The two men accused of killing him were acquitted of murder. And in 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun outside of a Cleveland recreation center when a police officer pulled up and shot him. He too faced no criminal charges.

These boys, both murdered during childhood, lived decades apart. But they represent the same cold, hard fact: Black boys in America are not allowed to have childhoods. Black boys are viewed as devoid of innocence. They are seen as dangerous thugs. For them, there is no justice.

This Fourth of July weekend, while most are celebrating the anniversary of this country's founding, parents of Black sons will grapple with the complicated reality that our sons were not included in the phrase "all men are created equal." On Independence Day, I look at my boys and ask myself the same question: How do I raise my two Black boys in an America that doesn’t value their lives? How can I celebrate an America that doesn't grant them the same rights as their non-Black peers?

Courtesy of Kelly Glass

Research supports the fact that racism is still a powerful force in this society. Black boys are more likely to be subject to physical force by police. They are more likely to be viewed and treated as adults, even if they are as young as 13 years old. Black men are also more likely to be stopped by the police. So raising a Black son in America is deeply concerning.

This concern is not limited to interactions with police. Racism is ingrained in this country's institutions — even (and especially) in our schools. When my oldest son was in first grade, I was called to the principal’s office. I sat at the head of a long conference table while the principal, a blonde, white woman only slightly older than me, told me that my son was suspended from school for hitting another student. She was cold and direct, telling me the facts as if she was a prosecutor in a court of law. Jarred and disturbed, I retrieved my son and we drove home mostly in silence.

In that moment, I knew that my son, who was not yet old enough to understand the depths of that word, could feel the hate that was attached to it and directed at him. I also knew that I would not be able to protect him from the manifestations of that hate.

“What happened?” I asked.

“That kid with yellow hair called me a n*gger,” he said. His principal had not mentioned this. It was obvious that she had not even talked to him. Of course she hadn't. Talking to him about what caused his outburst would have meant this little Black boy, who always had a toy train or stuffed animal in tow for emotional security, was an actual child with emotions, instead of an aggressive animal.

In that moment, I knew that my son, who was not yet old enough to understand the depths of that word, could feel the hate that was attached to it and directed at him. I also knew that I would not be able to protect him from the manifestations of that hate.

Courtesy of Kelly Glass

My son is now 13, roughly the same age as Emmett and Tamir when their lives were taken away because they were neither seen as children, nor as innocent lives worthy of protection. I dread the day that my son get pulled over for improperly signalling or jaywalking, or if he is arrested for committing the egregious offense of driving while Black.

I have to teach my sons about the legacy of their ancestors, who built this country on their backs. I have to teach them how to navigate the struggle of living in a society that fears them, criminalizes them, and forces them into survival mode. I have to teach them how to live in a world that would sooner kill them and justify their murders than advocate for their futures.

If it wasn’t already difficult for Black men in America, it is even more so in Trump’s America. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has started the process to quietly roll back many police reforms that President Obama put in place. The reforms, in the form of consent decrees between the federal government and individual police departments, were in place to address use of excessive police force, bias against people of color, and inadequate training, as well as to give the federal government the power to investigate departments for civil rights misconduct.

Without this federal level of accountability over police departments, our Black sons are not protected when they are policed and ultimately killed for playing with toy guns, wearing hoodies while walking at night, leaving a party in a car with friends, or otherwise doing things that Black boys don’t get to do without being considered guilty. They are not even protected at school, where studies show Black boys are disciplined more harshly than their white peers for the same infractions. Starting in preschool, Black children are more closely monitored by their teachers who expect them to behave badly, according to a Yale study.

Courtesy of Kelly Glass

I am worried that my oldest son will always walk around with a target on his back. And I am saddened to think that his brother, now just a toddler, will begin to experience the effects of this country’s deep-seated anti-blackness before he even knows how to read. In this America, where racists feel empowered to “take back” the country they feel is theirs, I have to teach my sons about the legacy of their ancestors, who built this country on their backs. I have to teach them how to navigate the struggle of living in a society that fears them, criminalizes them, and forces them into survival mode. I have to teach them how to live in a world that would sooner kill them and justify their murders than advocate for their futures.

Hopefully, they will not grow up to know the fear that I, as their mother, live with. But for now, we live in the same America that took away Emmett Till’s childhood — and as the mother of two Black boys, that America is indeed a scary place to be.