Michael Brown black and men

The killing is a wrench­ing re­minder of the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of black bod­ies from the mo­ment they are in­tro­duced to so­ci­ety, writes Charles Blow

CityPress - - Voices -

The killing of Michael Brown has tapped into some­thing big­ger than Michael Brown. Brown was the un­armed 18year-old black man who was shot to death last Satur­day by a po­lice of­fi­cer in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, in the US. There are con­flict­ing ac­counts of the events that led to the shoot­ing. There is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties as well as one by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties. There are griev­ing par­ents and a seething com­mu­nity.

There are swarms of lawyers and hordes of re­porters. There has been un­rest. The pres­i­dent has ap­pealed for re­flec­tion and heal­ing.

There is an eerie echo in it all – a sense of tragedy too of­ten re­peated. And yet the sheer mor­bid, wrench­ing rhythm of it be­lies a larger phe­nom­e­non, one ob­scured by its vast­ness, one that can be seen only when one steps back and looks from a dis­tance and with data: The crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of black bod­ies – par­tic­u­larly male ones – from the mo­ment they are first in­tro­duced to the in­sti­tu­tions and power struc­tures with which they must in­ter­act.

Ear­lier this year, the US de­part­ment of ed­u­ca­tion’s of­fice for civil rights re­leased “the first com­pre­hen­sive look at civil rights from ev­ery pub­lic school in the coun­try in nearly 15 years”.

As the re­port put it: “The 2011/12 re­lease shows that ac­cess to preschool pro­grammes is not a re­al­ity for much of the coun­try. In ad­di­tion, stu­dents of colour are sus­pended more of­ten than white stu­dents, and black and Latino stu­dents are sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to have teach­ers with less ex­pe­ri­ence who aren’t paid as much as their col­leagues in other schools.”

Re­mark­ing on the data, US At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Eric Holder said: “This crit­i­cal re­port shows that racial dis­par­i­ties in school dis­ci­pline poli­cies are not only well-doc­u­mented among older stu­dents, but ac­tu­ally be­gin dur­ing preschool.”

But, of course, this crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion stalks these chil­dren through­out their school ca­reers.

As The New York Times editorial board pointed out last year: “Chil­dren as young as 12 have been treated as crim­i­nals for shov­ing matches and even ado­les­cent mis­con­duct like curs­ing in school. This is wor­ri­some be­cause young peo­ple who spend time in adult jails are more likely to have prob­lems with law en­force­ment later on. More­over, fed­eral data sug­gest a pat­tern of dis­crim­i­na­tion in the ar­rests, with black and His­panic chil­dren more likely to be af­fected than their white peers.”

A 2010 re­port by the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter found that while the av­er­age sus­pen­sion rate for mid­dle school stu­dents in 18 of the na­tion’s largest school dis­tricts was 11.2% in 2006, the rate for black male stu­dents was 28.3%, by far the high­est of any sub­group by race, eth­nic­ity or gen­der.

And, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, pre­vi­ous re­search “has con­sis­tently found that racial/eth­nic dis­pro­por­tion­al­ity in dis­ci­pline per­sists even when poverty and other de­mo­graphic fac­tors are con­trolled”.

And these dis­par­i­ties can have a se­vere im­pact on a child’s like­li­hood of grad­u­at­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the Every­one Grad­u­ates Cen­ter at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity that looked at pupils in Florida, “be­ing sus­pended even once in 9th Grade is as­so­ci­ated with a twofold in­crease in the risk for drop­ping out”.

Black male dropout rates are more than one-and-a-half times those of white males, and when you look at the per­cent­age of black men who grad­u­ate on time – in four years, not in­clud­ing those who trans­fer to other schools or fail grades – the num­bers are truly hor­rific. Only about half of these black men grad­u­ate on time.

Now the snow­ball is rolling. The bias of the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem bleeds eas­ily into the bias of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem – from cops to courts to cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties. The school-to-prison pipe­line is com­plete.

A May re­port by the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion found that “there is nearly a 70% chance that an African-Amer­i­can man with­out a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-30s”.

This is in part be­cause trend­ing polic­ing dis­par­i­ties are par­tic­u­larly trou­bling in places like Mis­souri.

As the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch pointed out this week: “Last year, for the 11th time in the 14 years that data have been col­lected, the dis­par­ity in­dex that mea­sures po­ten­tial racial pro­fil­ing by law en­force­ment in the state got worse. Black Mis­souri­ans were 66% more likely in 2013 to be stopped by po­lice, and blacks and His­pan­ics were both more likely to be searched, even though the like­li­hood of find­ing con­tra­band was higher among whites.”

And this is the re­al­ity if the child ac­tu­ally sur­vives the jour­ney. That is, if he has the in­ter­nal for­ti­tude to con­tinue to stand with the weight on his shoul­ders. That is, if he doesn’t find him­self on the wrong end of a gun bar­rel. That is, if his par­ents can im­bue in him a sense of value while the world en­deav­ours to im­bue in him a sense of worth­less­ness.

Par­ents can teach chil­dren how to in­ter­act with au­thor­ity and how to mit­i­gate the threat re­sponse their very be­ing elic­its. They can wrap them in love to safe­guard them against the bit­ter­ness of racial sus­pi­cion.

It can be done. It is of­ten done. But it is heart­break­ing nonethe­less. What psy­chic dam­age does it do to the black mind when one must come to own and man­age the fear of the black body?

The bur­den of bias isn’t borne by the person in pos­ses­sion of it, but by the person who is the sub­ject of it. The vi­o­lence is aimed away from the pos­ses­sor of its in­stru­ments – the ar­row is pointed away from the killer and at the prey. It vests vic­tim­hood in the idea of per­son­hood. It steals some­thing pre­cious and ir­re­place­able. It breaks some­thing that’s ir­repara­ble. It al­ters some­thing in a way that’s ir­rev­o­ca­ble. We flinch­ingly choose a lesser dam­age. But still, the hope­less­ness takes hold when one re­alises that there is no amount of act­ing right or do­ing right, no amount of parental wis­dom or per­sonal re­silience, that can com­pletely guar­an­tee sur­vival, let alone suc­cess.

Brown had just fin­ished high school and was to start col­lege this week. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion will hope­fully clar­ify what led to his killing. But it is clear even now that his killing oc­curred in a con­text, one that we would do well to recog­nise.

Brown’s mother told a lo­cal tele­vi­sion sta­tion af­ter he was killed just weeks af­ter his high school grad­u­a­tion: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and grad­u­ate?

“Do you know how many black men grad­u­ate? Not many. Be­cause you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got noth­ing to live for any­way. ‘They’re go­ing to try to take me out any­way.’” – The New York Times

The hope­less­ness takes hold when one re­alises that there is no amount of act­ing right or

do­ing right, no amount of parental

wis­dom or per­sonal re­silience, that can com­pletely guar­an­tee sur­vival,

let alone suc­cess

PHOTO: AP

FEAR AND LOATHING Po­lice wear­ing riot gear walk to­wards a man with his hands raised in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, US, ear­lier this week. Au­thor­i­ties have made sev­eral ar­rests in the town, where crowds have looted and burnt shops, van­dalised ve­hi­cles and taunted lawen­force­ment per­son­nel af­ter a vigil for an un­armed black man who was killed by po­lice

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