President Barack Obama recently announced a major initiative aimed at helping and healing young black men. The biblically named “My Brother’s Keeper” enlists private sector donations toward programs for black men to meet more success and less negativity in American culture.
In our country, black men have historically faced more struggles than black women, who outstrip black males in earning college degrees and finding a spot in the middle class. The reasons for this are many and varied, but include the remnants of racism, a lack of hope in the American dream; anger at being viewed as suspect and frequently inferior by the larger culture; a public education system based on wealth of the surrounding community that doesn’t adequately prepare students academically; and self-inflicted wounds reflecting a fractured self-worth that often embraces a street culture of machismo, violence, and absentee fatherhood.
This street culture has infected the view some have of African American men, despite the successes of prominent black men such as Kenneth Chenault, longtime CEO of American Express, and President Obama himself. Many expected Obama’s outreach to this population to come sooner.
As My Brother’s Keeper was announced last week, the headlines also remembered the fates of young black men who died too soon. Obama’s press conference came a day after the second anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death and just weeks after the close of the trial of the man who killed another 17-year-old Florida boy, Jordan Davis. The jury could not come to an agreement that Davis’ killer, Michael Dunn, was guilty of murder or even manslaughter after he gunned down the victim in a convenience store after an altercation over loud music.
Some media commentators placed the blame on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to shoot first if they feel their lives are threatened. Though this defense was not explicitly used in the Michael Dunn trial, the jury was asked to consider it. The perpetrators of these types of killings aren’t always nonblacks: Another recent case in Florida involved a black male in his 30s who pursued and ended up shooting a teenage black male whom he suspected of burglary.
These events are, in part, the modern-day results of the fractured history in the U.S. of valuing black life. In 1787, blacks were deemed three-fifths of a person according to the law, and as slaves, had no rights that the white man needed to respect. Slaves could be flayed, raped, bought and sold, and killed at whim. In the 20th century, more than 3,500 black males were lynched by whites in acts of vigilante “justice” for things ranging from looking at a white woman to being disrespectful to a white man. In the intervening decades, black men have felt disrespected, feared and discriminated against, despite Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s. In New York City last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s candidacy took off in the black and brown communities after his Afro-wearing son filmed a commercial promising that his father would change the city’s Stop and Frisk policy, which disproportionately targeted black and Hispanic males.
Every black mother lives in fear of deadly trouble befalling her young sons, whether she lives in the New York City governor’s mansion or the Brooklyn projects. The other day on Facebook, I saw my brother-in-law counsel his 24-year-old son, who had overheard a white man reviling blacks and Mexicans in a bar, to ignore such talk for his own safety. My sister had the requisite talk with her three young sons about being polite and respectful to police officers when they are pulled over for traffic stops.
It seems that every black woman, whom society treats more gently, has a story to tell concerning her fears for her husband, boyfriend, sons, nephews, or cousins. Every time a young black man is gunned down, a sword pierces the hearts of black women everywhere.
My fiancé—a tall, dark-skinned, athletic-looking black man who favors sweats, hoodies, and sneakers—seems to encounter racism every day and everywhere. One woman drew her children into a huddle as he passed her on the library steps. While I move invisibly through my routine tasks, I was taken aback at a white woman’s reaction to his presence in the grocery aisle. You could see the look of fear on her face, until she realized he was shopping with me.
Our God is a God of justice, who created all of humankind “out of one” in its diverse expressions. I know he weeps with bereft parents like Davis’s and Martin’s. But he also weeps over the hatred, ignorance, and fear in the hearts of those who kill based on someone’s race.
As Chris Cuomo of CNN stated a few days after the Dunn verdict, there must be a new trial, because the verdict as is, which effectively sends Dunn to prison for life, has nonetheless brought “no resolution on the question of the value of human life.”
And that value, in God’s sight? Priceless.
This article was originally published in Christianity Today, March 2014.