Monday, March 19, 2012

To be young, (gifted) and black...

Black young boys just seem not to be able to win.  If they don't conform, they can be shot -- literally.  If they do conform to society, they are told that they are not "black enough".  Blacks have magical powers of turning wallets, candy, and in my husband's case, a saxophone case, into glocks and semi-automatic weapons ready to shoot somebody.  A young black man's presence is all too often perceived as menacing regardless of what he wears, how he speaks, or the way he walks.

The Trayvon Martin shooting was so vile as to make me just feel the need to stay silent for a while.  Such a reaction may seem like the opposite of what one might expect, but I just didn't want to feel the pain AGAIN of dealing with a young black male doing nothing being killed; shot dead for doing nothing.  The horrible part of this story is that we know the perpetrator and he has not been arrested.  But this is nothing new.  Perhaps the worst aspect of this shooting is the long term ramifications of this vigilante style killing.

Atty. Carolyn Edgar, in her blog made an excellent point: 

But the Trayvon Martin case is not simply a matter of black and white. This case isn’t a black issue or a civil rights issue, but a human rights issue. Trayvon Martin’s race made him suspicious, but what if someone decided that people with tattoos were suspicious? People with piercings? Shaved heads? Yarmulkes? Burqas? Coach bags? We can’t afford to let one man’s or one woman’s prejudice put our children’s lives at risk.
We also don’t want groups like Neighborhood Watch patrols becoming agents of vigilante justice. Neighborhood Watch patrols are a good thing, but the role of Neighborhood Watch is to do just that – watch, and call the police. Judging from the reports, George Zimmerman should have been relieved of his position as Neighborhood Watch captain some time ago. There have been several cases where unarmed black men were shot by the police, but if the immunity afforded police officers is extended to regular citizens, vigilantes would have a license to kill neighbors they dislike and deem “dangerous.” The rule of law and due process would become a joke. 

The broader american popular culture long ago ascribed a set of stereotypes and social cues to blackness.   It's so much easier to categorize people because then you don't have to think.  Sometimes the thoughtlessness is tragic and unjust, and other times the results are just unjust.  In the case of Jordan Shumante, a ninth-grader in Falls Church, VA, the results were unjust, eye-opening, and innocence destroying.  This young man was asked to read a Langston Hughes poem aloud to the class.  

"She told me, 'Blacker, Jordan -- c'mon, blacker. I thought you were black,'" Shumate told The Washington Post. 
When the 14-year-old student declined to continue reading the poem, Bart read it herself to demonstrate what she meant. 
"She read the poem like a slave, basically," Shumate told the Post. When he asked whether she thought all black people speak that way, he was reportedly told to take his seat and reprimanded for speaking out of turn.
Now, this child didn't get shot dead, only his innocence and manhood were shot down.  Why are these two stories linked?  Because in both cases young blacks were judged based off of outward, cultural stereotypes imposed upon them.  Apparently, from Shumante's perspective, he had been singled out for what he called "black issues and stereotypes" before.  He was the only black student in the classroom, and so of course had to speak for all black people when asked to explain why it was a stereotype that all black people love grape soda and rap music.  He's still alive, but from now on, he's likely to look with suspicion towards people who look like his teacher, who was white.  Will he be judged as respectful enough,  clean enough, ok-to-date-your-daughter enough, well spoken enough, well dressed enough, good-enough-to-get-the-job enough, intelligent enough, strong enough, meek enough, serious enough…by any white person that comes along his path? Of course not all white people will treat him the same way, but as a child, his world view is likely to be forever colored by these events.

As usual, I checked the comments section of the article.  Some want to find out what the teacher's response to the allegations are and what she actually did.  I think that's rational.  I always support teachers, but I tend to believe the child in this instance.  This is not because I'm black, but because nearly every black friend, relative, or classmate of mine who has been in an predominately white setting has a story EXACTLY like this one.  Insert different stereotypical items or music for the grape soda and rap.  There are the  "good" blacks and the "urban" blacks.  But when something is stolen, doesn't matter which type, the perception generally is one of the black kids did it.  When something is plagiarized, generally the black kid did it.  Both of these examples happened to people I know personally.  Both were black males in predominately white situations. 

Jordan was not physically shot.  But the type of behavior his teacher allegedly engaged in is a very small step toward someone getting killed.  These cultural norms make it easier for those who may not be "all together there", to justify their feelings of fear or anger.  In Trayvon's case, one person made a judgement call all on his own, even though police were telling the shooter to do nothing.  One person decided by just seeing a young black boy in a predominately white setting, that he was not enough of something and therefore, a threat.  And shot him. 

So for those of you who wonder why young black men, middle aged black men, old black men, may have a little chip on their shoulder or even a big ole brick sized chip…think about Trayvon and Jordan.  Both kids around the same age.  Both kids in a predominately white situation.  Both judged based off of their being black. Both were shot. One lost his innocence.  One is dead. 

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