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At What Age does a Black Male Become a Threat?

July 15, 2013

My grandson is too young to know anything about the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin or the trial of George Zimmerman, yet the outcome of the trial may have a significant impact on his life. He’s too young to watch the news and frankly doesn’t care about it unless it concerns his favorite character, Elmo, after all he’s not yet 2 years old.

He started talking about six months ago, his first intelligible word was ‘Hello’. He understands it is a greeting so he uses it constantly, whenever we’re walking down the street or through a store he says hello to everyone he sees and will continue to say it until they respond to him. Because he is still a baby and very personable, he almost always gets a smile and hello back from the people he greets. Sometimes, people ignore him, or look the other way, but to date I’ve never noticed any anger or hostility or fear directed his way.

Right now when people see him they see a cute, well-dressed little boy with a winning smile and engaging personality, his blackness is a matter of minimal significance. Unfortunately, I know at some point that will change. At some point – I’m not sure at what age – people will look at him and the first thing they’ll see will be his color and everything else about him – his smile, his openness, his intelligence, his desire to engage – will be filtered by their view about his color, whether they find his very existence menacing and they will act accordingly. This fact is not new to me, it’s something I’ve thought about ever since his birth but the events of this weekend have elevated that occasional thought into a real worry.

At what age does a black male become a threat in America? Is it 15, 10 or is it as young as 5? I know police have not been hesitant to handcuff and arrest young children and treat them like criminals. The following picture is seared into my memory:


At what age does a black male become a threat? I wanted to believe that we are no longer a country that sees all black males as potentially threatening but that’s a belief not grounded in reality. The reality is we are a country where a substantial percentage of the population sees black males (particularly young ones) as potentially threatening despite having twice elected a decidedly non-threatening black man as President.

My grandson is being raised to feel free in all environments, to move fluidly across the broad span of socio-economic spaces in society. That’s how I raised his father and it’s how his father wants to raise him. One would think it’s admirable to raise a child that way but I’m beginning to fear it could be a liability. We can raise him to feel free everywhere but what happens when he runs into someone who doesn’t believe he is free to be anywhere? What happens when he runs into someone like George Zimmerman who believes people who look like him are ‘punks’ or criminals who should be monitored, controlled and even killed if they seem threatening. How do I protect him from that without restricting his freedom?

I don’t believe the majority of people think or act like George Zimmerman, I don’t even think the majority of white people think or act like Zimmerman. The problem with this case and the outcome of the trial is that it sends the wrong message. Instead of discouraging vigilantism and racial profiling, it served to justify and excuse it. Not just because of the jury verdict – which was not unreasonable given the evidence and lawyering – but because of the media and political conversation that has surrounded it.

Most observers have lost perspective of the human elements involved in the case – it is a tragedy for all involved. Did George Zimmerman pursue Trayvon Martin setting off the chain of events that led to the shooting? Absolutely, there’s little doubt of that. Is it possible that in the heat of a physical altercation, he legitimately feared for his safety and reached for and used his gun? Quite possibly. Did he have some racial animus? Most likely. But I don’t think he set out that night to hunt down and kill a black man and I don’t think he’s a racial supremacist. The problem is he lives in a country that empowered him to walk the streets with a loaded gun and know that if he used it against a minority male, he could rely on local police to believe his claim of self-defense.

This case is about so much more than the unfortunate killing of a black teenager by a Hispanic wanna be cop. It’s about the way people’s attachment to their right to own guns has become more important than others right to live without getting shot. It’s about a political culture where hatred of your enemy (Obama) would cause one to be dismissive and hostile to grieving parents and suggest their innocent child was responsible for his own death. It’s about a society that accepts without question white fear of blacks and is blind to black fears of whites despite centuries of whippings, lynchings, beatings, jailings and state executions. And despite all the talk of a “national conversation about race” I don’t think too many people are ready and willing to talk openly, honestly and listen to the other side.

I think the best outcome we can expect from this particular case is to use it as a barometer of how hot racial tensions in the country have become and a road map of the institutional changes we must make to avoid similar outcomes in the future.

My hope is that my grandson will never encounter a George Zimmerman but the question of when does a black male become a threat is one I have to learn the answer to. Why? So I can prepare him in advance for the day he walks up and says hello to someone and they look away in fear……..

16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2013 6:31 pm

    Great read. As a white male who grew up in a rural town and moved to a predominently black urban neighborhood, I have to say that getting rid of such predjudices is a very hard thing to do. While my parents were particularly open and raised me well, I didn’t know any black people growing up. Not one. My only exposure growing up was MTV, the local news, and watching Mr. Cooper after school. TV was my exposure. The local news was the worst though, and as news is often reported as truth, it is scary to watch.

    So moving down to an urban neighborhood really brought these predjudices out in me. I always knew they were wrong, but passing a black man on the side walk was a slightly scary experience. And I always felt horrible for feeling that way after I did walk by. Sometimes they would even say hi, and I always said hi back, with an internal sigh of relief.

    5 years later though, I’m still living in this neighborhood, and my predjucies are gone. It took a long time to get rid of the brain-washing that is the media that we are exposed to, but it has been one of the most freeing experiences of my life.

  2. Kathleen permalink
    July 18, 2013 1:49 pm

    Thank you. I have a granddaughter who is the same age and who also greets everyone she meets. I promise to remember him every time I walk down the street with her and to teach her that skin color is not important.

  3. Starik permalink
    July 18, 2013 1:44 am

    Please teach your grandchild not to try to beat someone’s face in because they’ll following him. It will increase his life expectancy.

    • liberaloldschool permalink
      July 18, 2013 5:17 am

      And maybe you could try acting like a human being instead of a right wing caricature.

    • Disappointed American permalink
      July 18, 2013 6:21 am

      Is that really what you took from this article Starik? Your attitude absolutely perpetuates the sad stereotype that we have to warn our sons about. This is the very first article that I felt compelled to respond to. There is not racial tone or ignorance. There is no hate for Mr. Zimmerman, only facts and reality. I sincerely hope that you do not teach your closed-minded-ness to any young impressionable children. Keep it here, quietly shrouded by anonymity and foolishness. Side-bar…you’ve obviously never seen anyone with their “face beaten in”.

    • PirateRo permalink
      July 18, 2013 8:38 am

      This is a laughable comment from someone too stupid to be allowed to comment.

    • Mother of a Son permalink
      July 18, 2013 7:34 pm

      Amazing how you managed to overlook the central idea of this article, only to place yourself as its central character!

      Astoundingly, a person who’d feel entitled to stalk, intimidate and possibly even kill a young man, who’d ostensibly be minding his own business. And, with every expectation that the young man should be mute, and remain docile at your advancing threats!

      That, sir, makes you either incredibly dense or prejudiced, but ultimately a menace to society.

  4. July 18, 2013 1:14 am

    Your question cuts through a lot of the clutter of racial dialog in America. As a father, I understand the depth of concern any mother feels for the welfare of her child. But I can only imagine the idea of knowing that at some point, my son would be seen by his own society as an inherent threat. It’s a profoundly unsettling question, and the clarity of your writing rings it like a bell.

  5. MelaniteX permalink
    July 17, 2013 6:44 pm

    I really enjoyed this article thank you I also think we as parents need to be so much more involved and aware of our children’s where about’s and daily activities…

  6. July 16, 2013 9:39 pm

    Such an excellent question and one that I now, with a 14 soon to be 15 year old black male son, must soon answer and hope I am not too late. I hate that I have to tell my son who loves everyone that everyone doesn’t love him. I hate that he has to live in fear. I hate that he has to be afraid.

  7. Foo Foo permalink
    July 16, 2013 12:00 am

    Simply AWESOME! Perfect in every way.

    Thank you Deborah.


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