It’s the time of year when hundreds of thousands of American parents are shipping their children off to college for the first time. For most, it’s a time of celebration. But for the black parents of college-bound sons, the rite of passage has long come with a quiet, unique sense of dread.
These parents grapple with a scary open secret: Young black males — more than any other demographic group — are haunted by cultural stereotypes that foster fear, discrimination and police harassment. Sending sons away to other parts of the country greatly magnifies those fears, particularly in the wake of last month’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The uneasy preparation for life as a young African-American male often begins when black males are in their early teens and goes on for years. Black parents simply call it “The Talk.”
“I taught him to keep his hands where cops can see them,” said Amelia Ashley-Ward, a San Francisco mom whose son, Evan, says he has been stopped three times by police for no apparent reason in the Tennessee town where he attends college. “I taught him that police are not your friends and that every traffic stop can lead to damage that can never be undone.”
Evan Ward said each time he was stopped, he had passengers. “We were not speeding, or playing loud music or bothering anyone,” said the 22-year-old, who attends Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “We got pulled over for being young African-American males riding in a decent automobile.”
But Ward, remembering his mom’s advice, gave “Yes, officer” responses, even when the cops were brusque. So all three times, Ward said, he drove away without so much as a ticket.
Steven Millner, a professor in the Black Studies Department at San Jose State University, says stereotyping young black males began during slavery and has piled on over the decades.
“Unfortunately, people have not evolved on this issue,” said Millner, “and that puts young black men into numerous circumstances that can quickly turn tragic.”
He pointed to Trayvon Martin, 17, who was shot dead in 2012 in Florida by a neighborhood watch commander, and Oscar Grant, 22, shot and killed by a BART officer in 2009 in Oakland. Like Brown, both young men were unarmed.
According to Millner, young black males are tainted by broad-brush images — that they are undereducated, undisciplined and hypersexual; athletic, entertaining and promiscuous; violent, brutish and irresponsible. Even their appearance — from dreadlocks to baggy pants to hooded sweatshirts — is used to tag them as troublemakers and thugs.
Sometimes, black parents say, simply telling someone where you live can trigger a stereotype.
“My son visited a London suburb called Brixton,” said Joe Marshall, of Alive & Free-Omega Boys Club, a nonprofit that works with youngsters around the Bay Area. Marshall said when his son told his new acquaintances he was from Oakland, they asked: “Where is your gun?”
Some stereotypes are perpetuated by ugly facts, such as the high rates of inner-city black-on-black crime.
Even civil rights activist Jesse Jackson once told an interviewer, “There is nothing more painful to me, at this stage in my life, than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
But millions of young black males who don’t reflect such archetypes must also deal with the widespread fears sparked by the negative images.
Worried African-American parents strenuously warn their young sons to always stand down to police and authority figures.
Phyllis Daugherty, of Ferguson, Missouri, attended Brown’s funeral last week and found herself overwhelmed by incredible sadness as she thought about her college-bound son, Pierre, 18.
“I tell him to always pull over for police in a public place, never … on a side street,” Daugherty said. “You must never give them any reason to harass you, lock you up or shoot you.”
Barry Krisberg, a UC Berkeley criminologist, said young black males tend to be prejudged almost everywhere by cops and hosts of others. But when it comes to dealing with police, the message is: “To leave that situation alive, you have to accept second-class citizenship. If they assert their constitutional or civil rights … terrible things can happen.”
NO RACIAL PEACE
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SOURCE: San Jose Mercury News – David E. Early