The Serial Theft of Black Childhood

Image by nardb8 from Pixabay

12-year-old Tamir Rice, and 14-year-old Emmet Till, are Black boys who were murdered decades apart from one another, yet their deaths share a disturbing number of commonalities. The White men who committed these murders, or those justifying their violent crimes, claimed neither Tamir nor Emmitt were boys.

It is reported that one of the men, responsible for torturing and killing Emmitt, in the early hours of August 28th, 1955, claimed he was no child, but instead “He looked like a man” (1) Emmitt’s last moments of life was those of terror, desperation, and pain, as these men tortured him to death.

Those seeking to exonerate Rice’s murderer, Timothy Loehmann, deliberately sought any pictures they could find to make this Black boy appear older and more dangerous (2). An FBI agent at the scene claimed Rice appeared to be 18 or 20. Loehmann openly lied about his part in the incident, claiming he repeatedly gave orders for the child to drop the fake gun. Video evidence proves he instead opened fire after 2 seconds (9). Tamir’s last few moments of life was that as a confused, frightened child with an adult aiming a gun at him.

Finally, despite being the victims of murder, the characters of both Black boys were immediately put on trial, by exposing any potential misdeeds of their parents (3), all to exonerate the White men who murdered them. By bringing up past arrest records or crimes of Emmet’s or Tamir’s parents, both the media and defense, hinted at an atavistic criminality, that not only suggest these children are unworthy of sympathy, but also painted them as potentially dangerous animals who’s murders were at least partially justified.

From Dwight Eisenhower’s 1954 sympathies for White Southerners bitter stance against integrating schools, where he explains “(they) are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes (5).”

And Hilary Clinton’s 1994 speech “We need to take these people on, they are often connected to big drug cartels, they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience. No empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way but first we have to bring them to heel, (6)(7)”

To Former Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President, Steve Loomis, 2015 callous remarks about Tamir, “Tamir Rice is in the wrong, He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body, (8)”

Dehumanizing Black children is as American as apple pie. It is an ingrained tradition older than the stars and stripes. The benefit of a doubt, sympathy, compassion, understanding, patience, all are mercies frequently denied to Black boys and girls because they are demonized and labeled very early on. Tragically, this serial theft of childhood continues with its defenders still pretending it is not about race.

As early as kindergarten, Black children will begin facing the snares and pitfalls of systemic racism, where they will be given harsher penalties and punishments for the same offenses committed by their White peers (11). Children are frequently viewed as innocent, requiring nurture, protection, love, and guidance, but this is simply not the case with how much of the U.S views Black boys and girls. Black boys are frequently seen as being responsible for their actions still at very young ages (11). It is not uncommon for Black boys to be described as large, dangerous, aggressive, and violent even when such is far from the truth.

The theft of childhood for Black girls is a similar but also a distinctly different crime. While these girls are disproportionately monitored and punished in schools (10)(11), they are also hypersexualized and labeled as “fast” or “fast-tailed” to frequently excuse the unforgivable acts of sexual predators, both in and outside of our community. It is this very same stigma that allowed Robert Kelly’s filmed act, to be viewed by millions as only a questionable sexual encounter with a ‘girl who should know better”, instead of the reality, where a grown man clearly committed statutory rape on a teenage girl.

This hypersexualization of Black girls is a Frankenstein’s monster born from Respectability Politics, the act of mimicking the oppressors so-called values, morality, religion, and rules as a means of gaining acceptance and protection from those very same people. Not only does this lens allow Black girls to be viewed as less innocent, less feminine, and more sexually available earlier (12)(13), it also creates a narrative where they are responsible for any sexual crimes committed against them.

The plight of Black children is fraught with injustices, dangers, discrimination, and a hostile system that has been designed to be Anti-Black. I grew up witnessing and experiencing this constant theft of our childhood. This lesson is never more painful, than when it comes to encounters with this nation’s merciless justice system.

I did not grow up with friendly neighborhood cops or positive experiences with police. My memories are filled with watching cops rough up Black teens for having a “smart mouth”. I grew up watching cops talk down to law abiding neighbors who called to report a crime. Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve seeing unrestrained police violence, like witnessing a group of officers kick and stomp a handcuffed Black man until he lost control of his bladder and bowels. Or watching a Black teenage girl, slammed so hard on the hood of a squad car, that it nearly knocked her unconscious.

Between the ages of 14 to 17 I had cops point guns at my face no less than 3 separate occasions. The scariest, and most infuriating of these incidents, occurred when I was 16. I decided to walk to a local park to meet a girl I was crushing on from my creative writing class. We routinely exchanged short stories and poems in this shy teenage way of saying “I like you” without awkwardly having to say it. I was incredibly nervous. I had no idea what I was going to say once we were face to face. This was the first time we had ever met outside of school.

I was almost to the park when I suddenly found myself surrounded by a handful of cops. All of whom were aiming their guns at me while demanding I keep my hands where they can be seen. To say this was alarming would be an understatement. I was startled but did as ordered. After being slammed to the ground I was immediately handcuffed.

“Why am I being arrested? What’s all this about?” I repeatedly asked. They ignored me and talked among themselves. I felt both invisible and exposed at the same time.

It was roughly 20 or 30 minutes later when one of them finally came over and curtly explained I was positively identified as someone who vandalized or stole something. I did not understand the crime I was accused of then. I still do not understand now. I continued trying to explain I had no idea what they were talking about. It did not matter. It was my word against an old White Woman, who claimed a Black boy wearing a coat committed the thing they were now accusing me off. I was a Black boy, wearing a coat, and present, that sealed my fate.

One of cops wanted to know my age and name. I answered them. The White female cop shot me a sort of suspicious look.

“There’s no way he’s a kid.” She remarked with disbelief.

I was arrested, booked, and spent time in a dimly lit holding cell. A middle-aged cop roughly escorted me inside.

“Hey,” He began to get my attention. “don’t go tagging any of this with your gang signs. We check before you leave.” Then he closed the door.

Eventually, they contacted my mother. I was released. They gave me a court date and tossed me a public defender that genuinely did not care. I was at the mercy of the system where every White adult I turned to was either apathetic, dismissive, or cruel. It was genuinely a terrifying and dismal experience seeing how unsympathetic they were. No matter how many times I explained, pleaded my cases, or pointed out I had never been in trouble with the law before, no one listened. No one cared. My skin made me guilty.

The worse part of all this, was seeing how much it scared and saddened my mother. She wanted to protect me, but I wanted to protect her from everything that was happening. It hurt to see how frightened she was for me. We were powerless.

I soon learned if I did not take a plea bargain my mother would be forced to pay for the damages. The public defender insisted I take the bargain. He never attempted to defend me. I doubt he ever believed me. We never had much money, and I did not want my mother bearing the financial burden of this. I felt completely humiliated when I went in front of that judge and accepted the plea bargain. His smirk, and disdain especially burned to my core, as he talked down to me for several minutes about how lucky I was the courts were going easy on me.

For many Black Americans, good cops or bad cops is all relative, because it matters little when the entire justice system is built to be especially hostile against people like you. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. In the situation described above, not one figure involved, saw me as a 16-year-old kid, offered me the benefit of a doubt, or considered the “respectability” of the fact that I had never been in trouble with that law.

They did not see fear and vulnerability. To them, I was just an overgrown negro, a super-predator, prone to criminality, and being brought to heel, because it was my fault for being tall. Black kids are guilty until proven innocent in the U.S.

References

References

  1. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/till-killers-confession/

2) https://www.diversityinc.com/tamir-rices-age-size-repeatedly-made-an-issue-in-shooting-investigation/

3) https://prospect.org/power/black-kids-accused-causing-deaths-tamir-rice-emmett-till/

4) https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-tamir-rice-blacks-bias-20151228-story.html

5) Why don’t we remember Ike as a civil rights hero? (msnbc.com)

6) https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2016/aug/28/reince-priebus/did-hillary-clinton-call-african-american-youth-su/

7) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/21/hillary-clinton-black-millennial-voters

8) https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2019/11/tamir-rices-death-brought-cleveland-police-union-to-the-national-stage-and-to-the-side-of-a-future-president.html

9) https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-30220700

10) Racism in school: Black girls punished more harshly than white girls (usatoday.com)

11) Black Students ‘Face Racial Bias’ In School Discipline (forbes.com)

12) The racial disparities in school discipline, in 4 charts — Vox

13) https://genderjusticeandopportunity.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/girlhood-interrupted.pdf

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