Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Opinion

A mother of black boys fears for their lives

When I was pregnant, I worried that I would have a boy. As it turned out, we had a girl. Then came pregnancy No. 2: twin boys. The pregnancy was difficult, but even after our boys were born healthy there was a nagging fear.

I am afraid of raising black boys in a world where too many people see them as violent thugs because of the color of their skin. Their very existence strikes fear into the hearts of people of all races who have been conditioned to recoil at the sight of black males. I am terrified. These boys are my babies.

My husband and I don't live our lives in a state of paranoia, but cases like the Michael Dunn trial rekindle our fears. Dunn, 47, was on trial last week in Jacksonville for the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The pair crossed paths at a convenience store. Dunn, who is white, asked Jordan and his friends, who are black, to turn down the loud music blasting from their car. The boys complied, but later they turned the music back up and Jordan cursed Dunn. The argument ended when Dunn reached into his glove compartment, pulled out a 9mm pistol and fired 10 times. At least one of those bullets struck and killed Jordan. Dunn said he fired only after Jordan threatened to kill him and pointed a shotgun.

Police never found a gun, and medical reports show Jordan was sitting in his car leaning away from the door when he was shot and not coming toward Dunn as the shooter claimed. A jury Saturday found Dunn guilty of three counts of second-degree attempted murder for firing into the car. The judge declared a mistrial on the charge of first-degree murder. I learned of the verdict Saturday on my Facebook feed, where some of my friends' posts were filled with righteous indignation. Some called for boycotts of Florida. Others wondered how the jury could not even agree on a lesser charge of manslaughter.

The verdict didn't surprise me. We've been here before.

Over the years the names and scenarios change, but the end result remains the same. Emmett Till, beaten and drowned with a fan around his neck in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times in 1999 in New York for reaching for his wallet instead of heeding an officer's commands. Trayvon Martin, stalked and shot in 2012 in Florida for being in the right place at the wrong time. Jordan Davis, gunned down in 2012 in Florida for doing what many an unwise teenager does — mouthing off.

All young black males. Each unarmed. Each killed because somebody else was afraid.

What are the parents of black boys to do about the widespread perception of our children as thugs even when the label doesn't fit? We could blame the media that often glorifies thug life and violence, convincing youths of all colors that this is an acceptable path. We could castigate the media for pushing those images to people who believe that black males are more akin to O-Dog in the urban flick Menace II Society than the Cosby Show's Theo Huxtable. Those arguments are a waste of time in my house. We've got children to raise and lessons to teach.

Before they were born, I began calling my boys as I see them: Mr. President and Mr. Chief Justice. Then my husband and I gave our children names that should get their resumes past bigots. Anderson and Carter are now 3 years old. They are just learning to string together their thoughts, grip a pencil and take aim at the potty. They attend a diverse preschool that strains our family's budget. My husband and I both have postgraduate degrees, and we want them to have every educational advantage.

We teach them to be respectful of others — especially adults; to share and never take what doesn't belong to them; to tell an authority figure when someone wrongs them and to never hit or try to solve disagreements through violence. We will adjust those lessons as they get older, but the message will be the same: Do the right thing because it is right to do.

Will that be enough? Of course not. These are black boys, so we will have to teach them that some people will fear them simply because they breathe. Youthful rebellion — whether real or perceived — has different consequences for them, and they will have to carry themselves with this in mind.

Some of my relatives and friends laughed at me recently when I disclosed that I pray that my children, and especially my boys, don't go to prison. I also pray for their future jobs, their academic performance, their marriages, their children, and yes, for their very lives. I drill them about making good choices and about what happens when they make poor ones. This, I believe, is what it takes.

And still I worry that my husband and I may not be doing enough. We want our boys to make names for themselves. But not as causes celebres, some footnote in the annals of black boys wrongly killed. We want them to live.

Sherri Day is a member of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.

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