By Stacey Patton
Demonstrators in St. Louis protest the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer. (Eric Thayer/The Washington Post)
Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the author of the memoir “That Mean Old Yesterday.”
Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive — in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.
America does not extend the fundamental elements of childhood to black boys and girls. Black childhood is considered innately inferior, dangerous and indistinguishable from black adulthood. Black children are not afforded the same presumption of innocence as white children, especially in life-or-death situations.
Note officer Darren Wilson’s description of his confrontation with Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo. In his grand jury testimony, Wilson described Brown as a “demon,” “aggressive,” and said that Brown had taunted him by saying, “You are too much of a p—y to shoot me.” (Similarly, George Zimmerman told police that teenager Trayvon Martin threatened him during their fight: “You’re gonna die tonight.”)
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson told the jury, “I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. . . .That’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” Wilson claimed that Brown charged at him through a hail of bullets before he shot him in the head. The official history of that night paints Wilson as an innocent white child was so threatened by a big, black beast that his only option was to use lethal force.
In announcing the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, prosecuting attorney Robert P. McCulloch assaulted Brown’s character and recalled, in morbid detail, conflicting accounts of how Brown’s body reacted to being shot. One unnamed witnesses testified that Brown was in “a full charge,” with his fists clenched or at his sides.
Such descriptions, so similar to 19th-century defenses of lynching, are invoked each time a black child is gunned down in America.
In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and killed by a group of white men, one of his killers said Till “looked like a man.” I’ve found this pattern in news accounts of lynchings of black boys and girls from 1880 to the early 1950s, in which witnesses and journalists fixated on the size of victims who ranged from 8 to 19 years old. These victims were accused of sexually assaulting white girls and women, stealing, slapping white babies, poisoning their employers, fighting with their white playmates, or protecting black girls from sexual assault at the hands of white men. Or they were lynched for no reason at all.
During his closing arguments in the 2013 trial in which Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, defense attorney Mark O’Mara put a concrete slab and two life-size cardboard cutouts in front of the jury box. One cutout depicted Zimmerman, 29, who is 5-foot-7 and more than 200 pounds, and the other Martin, 17, who was 5-foot-11 and 158 pounds.
O’Mara argued that the concrete slab could be deployed as a weapon. And the cardboard cutouts helped him illustrate the size disparity between Zimmerman and Martin. He used computer animation to try to convince the jury panel that the clinically obese freelance neighborhood watchman reasonably feared for his life during his fight with the taller Martin, thus justifying Zimmerman shooting the teenager in self-defense on the night of Feb. 6, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Throughout the trial, Zimmerman’s defense portrayed Martin as a young man.
In his rebuttal, prosecutor John Guy repeatedly referred to Martin as a “boy” in an attempt to restore him to childhood and carve out a space for him as an innocent youth who feared for his life as he was stalked and then attacked by a grown man.
Guy asked the jury: “Isn’t that every child’s worst nightmare, to be followed on the way home in the dark by a stranger? Isn’t that every child’s worst fear?” Recall that Martin, in his last cellphone conversation with his friend Rachel Jeantel, said he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.”
That trial was not just about determining Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, but about determining whether Martin was a child.
This played out again in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on Nov. 22. The boy, who was reported as being “tall for his age,” was playing outside a recreation center in Cleveland when he was seen sitting on a swing playing with a BB gun. In a 911 recording, a witness said: “The guy keeps pulling it in and out. . . . It’s probably fake, but he’s pointing it at everybody. He’s probably a juvenile.”
It’s unclear whether the dispatcher relayed to the responding officers that they might be dealing with a child playing with a BB gun. But when the officers found Tamir, they said he did not put up his hands when ordered to do so. Instead, he allegedly reached for the gun in his waistband and was shot.
The family’s attorney, Timothy Kucharski, questioned why the officers did not act with more caution. “The police have to address these things in the proper context,” he said. “This is a 12-year-old boy. This is not a grown man. I’d think you would handle situations with children differently than you would with an adult. They don’t fully understand everything that is going on.”
In that instance, “the officer had no clue he was a 12-year-old,” said Jeff Follmer, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association. “He was concentrating more on the hands than on the age.”
The overestimation of a black child’s age begins even before age 12. A study published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — which long ago published racist studies on black children — linked the higher use of force by police on black youth to the common perception that, by age 10, they are less innocent. The study also cited Department of Education data that said black students are far more likely to be harshly disciplined at school than students of other races who commit the same infractions.
Regardless of the case, the police officers’ actions in these cases are consistent and predictable: This was not a child. He was a threat. I was afraid and had to defend myself. The child, stripped of childhood, is framed as a menace that overrides probable cause.
The dangers black children face — from being profiled and targeted for arrest and incarceration — are firmly rooted in history.
After the Civil War, the establishment of political equality for millions of newly freed black people — through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — meant that a new generation of black children would become adults with equal rights. And so devaluing black children became central to maintaining racism and inequality in American life.
In the Jim Crow era, black children grew up free citizens and free laborers. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they had no memory of slavery. And so new strategies emerged to contain them, to cast doubt on their rights and intellect, and to demean the value of their labor and their very beings.
Turn-of-the-century pediatric literature features doctors describing how black children’s bodies developed differently from those of white children. According to white researchers, the black fetus had a smaller brain, a wider nose, thicker lips, and “simian” hands and feet. Psychologists tested and compared the behaviors of white and black infants and concluded that black babies were born innately inferior and animalistic . Through brain measurements, doctors and anthropologists set out to prove that black children’s frontal lobes closed up during adolescence. And when that happened, their brains stopped learning and their genitals became over-developed and a sexual threat to whites. Some politicians openly advocated for the castration of black boys, and in North Carolina, thousands of black girls were forcibly sterilized.
Jim Crow was far more extensive and damaging for black children than everyday encounters at segregated schools and lunch counters would suggest. As objects of experimentation by doctors or abuse by the state, babies and other children were exposed to the dehumanizing and violent logic of racial classification and domination. Black parents and educators tried to mitigate these harms and protect their young. Unfortunately, they experienced more setbacks and challenges than successes, but their efforts reveal how even parenting came under assault in the Jim Crow era — and became an important area of resistance.
If a white life cycle features innocence, growth, civility, responsibility and becoming an adult, blackness is characterized as the inversion of that. Not only are black children cast as adults but, just as perversely, black adults are stuck in a limbo of childhood, viewed as irresponsible, uncivil, criminal, innately inferior. Through the incarceration of black adults and the disproportionate placement of black children into foster care, the state acts as a parent, while simultaneously abdicating its responsibility to invest in children of color. In the Ferguson case, the state is ostensibly saying: We have no responsibility to protect your children.
When black parents read about the killings of Jordan Davis, Darius Simmons, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Renisha McBride and so many others, they are forced to instill fear in their children — warning them about the dangers of white people and the police. Such words of caution are not enough to overcome the centuries of attitudes toward and policies behind white killing of black children.
The legions of young people protesting the Ferguson travesty in schools, on social media and in the streets are trying to ensure that children of color get to be children — and that they live to see adulthood, too.