Black Boy Swagger, Black Mom Fear My Brown Baby, Denene Miller

My Brown Baby

Black Boy Swagger, Black Mom Fear
by DENENE MILLNER on JANUARY 16, 2009

By DENENE MILLNER

He’s 6 ft., 250-plus lbs quite imposing next to my 5′ 2 frame and can bench just shy of 300, which means that if he felt like it, he could flick me like a flea. Lucky for me, I’m his stepmother, and at the very least, he withholds his laughter when I crane my neck, fold my arms, put on my mean mug, and tell him, I can still take you.

Out on the football field, though, my 16-year-old son takes no shorts; as a nose tackle, he’s charged with taking on two, sometimes three opposing players at a time. This requires an incredible amount of mental fortitude and swagger both of which my 16-year-old son has in abundance, especially when he’s making his way to the line of scrimmage. Take a good hard look at him on the 50-yard line, and it’s easy to get it twisted: He looks like an angry, aggressive, big, black jock a guy who crushes the opponent on the field, and off the field, probably doesn’t put much effort into much more than football, girls, and black boy shenanigans.

I don’t know if this is what one of his team’s assistant coaches had on his mind recently when he called the boy over to take a look at his class schedule. Mazi handed it to him and shifted nervously from foot to foot, his mind on who knows what. I can only guess what he expected to find, but when that coach looked at Mazi’s schedule and then back up at Mazi, I could see in his eyes that his perception of who my boy is was completely, forever changed.

See, what that coach wasn’t expecting to see is this.

That’s Honors Physics. Honors Algebra. Advanced Placement Psychology. Honors Language Arts. And Mechanical Drafting the first in a series of courses that’ll put Mazi on firm footing toward becoming an architect. Peep the grades: All A’s, and one B. He’s number 44 in a class of 546 and still climbing.

The boy is bad—smart as hell, incredibly sweet, helpful when he wants to be, and pretty easy to get along with. We argue the musical merits of Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and Rakim, reminisce over our favorite scenes in Biker Boyz, discuss on the regular whether he’s going to Yale, Harvard, or Princeton, and sometimes he even comes to me in confidence to discuss how to negotiate his tenuous relationships with the cute but fickle little girls he dates.

He is a normal boy.

A brilliant boy.

A college-bound boy.

A sweet boy.

A black boy.

And every time that child leaves this house, I fear that someone will look at him, his size, his skin color, his swagger, and see what they want to see, and not who Mazi is. Not a day goes by without us warning him to be respectful, to watch his tone, to be extra vigilant when approaching people in his path. And last week he got his license and bought himself a car with the cash he makes as a lifeguard, which of course means that now when he snatches his keys and heads for the door, I’m a nervous wreck thinking that he’s going to get stopped by the cops.

I have good reason to be nervous for him, you know. In just the past week, three—THREE!—black men have been shot, two killed, by the police. Adolph Grimes, III, 23, was shot 12 times in his back, 14 times total, on New Year’s Day as he made his way to a family party in New Orleans; Oscar Grant, 22, was shot by a transit officer while he lay face down and handcuffed on a train platform; Robbie Tolan, 23, is recovering from gunshot wounds to his liver and lung after being shot in his own driveway by a Houston police officer who accused him of stealing his own car. Of course, stories about the shootings abound, and in Oakland, more than 100 protesters were arrested as they took to the streets to demand justice for Grant. Organizations like The Color of Change are speaking up on behalf of the victims, and demanding we do the same, while radio personalities like Warren Ballentine are using their syndicated radio shows to keep the stories fresh on the minds of black folks.

Still, after the roar dies down, after the police officers get off (they almost always do), after we commit the victims’ names to the long list of young black men who’ve died or been abused at the opposite end of a police officer’s gun/night stick/bathroom plunger (Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Abner Louima. Patrick Dorismond. Michael Carpenter. I could go on and on and on), who will stop the same from happening to my stepson?

How do I protect my normal, brilliant, college-bound, sweet, black boy?

The urge to protect him will never leave me, this is the unfortunate rite of passage of every parent of a black boy. Once they are big enough and old enough to move out into the world without us holding their hands or watching over them, they are going to be vulnerable to the biases and misperceptions and stereotypes and downright hatred of an overwhelming number of cops, transit officers, sheriff’s deputies, and other law enforcement officials who will cross our children’s paths over the next 40/50 years of their lives. I suppose the best we can do is hope that one day Mazi will put in enough years so that he can have the same worry about his own child as we have for him.

And agitate.

And pray.

Note: To add your voice to the petition calling for a proper investigation into the Oscar Grant shooting, click here.

Emmett and Trayvon l Washington Monthly

January/ February 2013

Washington Monthly

Emmett and Trayvon

How racial prejudice in America has changed in the last sixty years.

By Elijah Anderson

 


A tale of two teens: After their tragic and premature deaths, both Emmett Till, 14 (left), and Trayvon Martin, 17 (right), became symbols of the unique challenges that have faced young black men in America.

Separated by a thousand miles, two state borders, and nearly six decades, two young African American boys met tragic fates that seem remarkably similar today: both walked into a small market to buy some candy; both ended up dead.

The first boy is Emmett Till, who was fourteen years old in the summer of 1955 when he walked into a local grocery store in Money, Mississippi, to buy gum. He was later roused from bed, beaten brutally, and possibly shot by a group of white men who later dumped his body in a nearby river. They claimed he had stepped out of his place by flirting with a young white woman, the wife of the store’s owner. The second boy is Trayvon Martin, who was seventeen years old late last winter when he walked into a 7-Eleven near a gated community in Sanford, Florida, to buy Skittles and an iced tea. He was later shot to death at close range by a mixed-race man, who claimed Martin had behaved suspiciously and seemed out of place. The deaths of both boys galvanized the nation, drew sympathy and disbelief across racial lines, and, through the popular media, prompted a reexamination of race relations.

In the aftermath of Martin’s death last February, a handful of reporters and columnists, and many members of the general public, made the obvious comparison: Trayvon Martin, it seemed, was the Emmett Till of our times. And while that comparison has some merit—the boys’ deaths are similar both in some of their details and in their tragic outcome—these killings must also be understood as the result of very different strains of racial tension in America. The racism that led to Till’s death was embedded in a virulent ideology of white racial superiority born out of slavery and the Jim Crow codes, particularly in the Deep South. That sort of racism hinges on the idea that blacks are an inherently inferior race, a morally null group that deserves both the subjugation and poverty it gets.

The racial prejudice that led to Trayvon Martin’s death is different. While it, too, was born of America’s painful legacy of slavery and segregation, and informed by those old concepts of racial order—that blacks have their “place” in society—it in addition reflects the urban iconography of today’s racial inequality, namely the black ghetto, a uniquely urban American creation. Strikingly, this segregation of the black community coexists with an ongoing racial incorporation process that has produced the largest black middle class in history, and that reflects the extraordinary social progress this country has made since the 1960s. The civil rights movement paved the way for blacks and other people of color to access public and professional opportunities and spaces that would have been unimaginable in Till’s time.

While the sort of racism that led to Till’s death still exists in society today, Americans in general have a much more nuanced, more textured attitude toward race than anything we’ve seen before, and usually that attitude does not manifest in overtly hateful, exclusionary, or violent acts. Instead, it manifests in pervasive mindsets and stereotypes that all black people start from the inner-city ghetto and are therefore stigmatized by their association with its putative amorality, danger, crime, and poverty. Hence, in public a black person is burdened with a negative presumption that he must disprove before he can establish mutually trusting relationships with others.

Most consequentially, black skin, and its association with the ghetto, translates into a deficit of credibility as black skin is conflated with lower-class status. This deficit impacts poor blacks of the ghetto one way and middle-class black people another. While middle-class blacks may be able to successfully disabuse others of their negative presumptions, lower-class blacks may not. For instance, all blacks, particularly “ghetto-looking” young men, are at risk of enduring yet another “stop and frisk” from the police as well as suspicion from potential employers, shopkeepers, and strangers on the street. Members of the black middle class and black professionals can usually pass inspection and withstand such scrutiny; many poorer blacks cannot. And many blacks who have never stepped foot in a ghetto must repeatedly prove themselves as non-ghetto, often operating in a provisional status, in the workplace or, say, a fancy restaurant, until they can convince others—either by speaking “white” English or by demonstrating intelligence, poise, or manners—that they are to be trusted, that they are not “one of those” blacks from the ghetto, and that they deserve respect. In other words, a middle-class black man who is, for instance, waiting in line for an ATM at night will in many cases be treated with a level of suspicion that a middle-class white man simply does not experience.

But this pervasive cultural association—black skin equals the ghetto—does not come out of the blue. After all, as a result of historical, political, and economic factors, blacks have been confined in the ghetto. Today, with persistent housing discrimination and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, America’s ghettos face structural poverty. In addition, crime and homicide rates within those communities are high, young black men are typically the ones killing one another, and ghetto culture, made iconic by artists like Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, and the Notorious B.I.G., is inextricably intertwined with blackness.

As a result, in America’s collective imagination the ghetto is a dangerous, scary part of the city. It’s where rap comes from, where drugs are sold, where hoodlums rule, and where The Wire might have been filmed. Above all, to many white Americans the ghetto is where “the black people live,” and thus, as the misguided logic follows, all black people live in the ghetto. It’s that pervasive, if accidental, fallacy that’s at the root of the wider society’s perceptions of black people today. While it may be true that everyone who lives in a certain ghetto is black, it is patently untrue that everyone who is black lives in a ghetto. Regardless, black people of all classes, including those born and raised far from the inner cities and those who’ve never been in a ghetto, are by virtue of skin color alone stigmatized by the place.

I call this idea the “iconic ghetto,” and it has become a powerful source of stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination in our society, negatively defining the black person in public. In some ways, the iconic ghetto reflects the old version of racism that led to Till’s death. In Till’s day, a black person’s “place” was in the field, in the maid’s quarters, or in the back of the bus. If a black man was found “out of his place,” he could be punished, jailed, or lynched. In Martin’s day—in our day—a black person’s “place” is in the ghetto.

If he is found “out of his place,” like in a fancy hotel lobby, on a golf course, or, say, in an upscale community, he can be treated with suspicion, avoided, pulled over, frisked, arrested—or worse.

Emmett and Trayvon

Elijah Anderson is the William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University. His latest book is “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.”