Earlier this month, in Rochester Hills. MI, a predominantly white suburb near Detroit, Brennan Walker missed his school bus. Walker thought he could remember the bus route and walk the four miles to Rochester High School, but he got lost along the way. Walker stopped at a house with a sign reading “Neighborhood Watch” to ask for help. Upon knocking at the door, one of the homeowners began to yell at him. “Why are you trying to break into my house?” The woman screamed as Walker tried to explain that he needed directions to Rochester High. Then a man came downstairs and grabbed a gun. Walker started to run and the man shot at him. A 14-year-old boy trying to get to school almost lost his life because of the criminalization of blackness.
There has been no shortage of life-altering incidents recently involving black men and the criminalization of blackness. Last Thursday, while waiting for a friend at Starbucks, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested. Somehow, two men waiting to order drinks until their friend arrived made a woman working there fear for her safety and call the police. In a video taken by a witness, Melissa DePino, the police can be heard saying that Nelson and Robinson were being arrested for trespassing.
The police claimed they didn’t have a right to be there. But what strips these men of the right to do something that millions of people do every day? The answer has a long history in this country. The false belief that blackness is inherently dangerous has been used as justification for extreme violence towards black people since the founding of the nation. This criminalization of blackness remains rampant and resists improving. In a quote about the encounter, DePino shared that people have insisted to her that there must have been extenuating circumstances as to why these men were arrested. Even when all evidence points to innocence, the criminalization of blackness means the presumption of guilt.
When you’re very being is criminalized, your existence becomes suspect. Simply existing causes those around you to claim victimization for a crime you have not committed, nor intended to commit. Where does this leave us? What can black people — black men — do to lift this sentence from their lives? No one should fear arrest for sitting in Starbucks. No one should fear being shot for asking for directions. Yet here we are, with the very real threats of arrest and death for the grave crime of being alive.
Until the criminalization of blackness ceases to be the norm, these incidents will continue to arise. We’ll have more examples like Stephon Clark — loving and devoted husband, father, brother, son and citizen — murdered by police in his backyard. Officers had been called to the area because of a car break-in and ended up in Clark’s grandmother’s yard. Wrongly, the police assumed that the 22-year-old Clark was holding a weapon and fired 20 rounds at him. He was holding a cellphone.
The mentality that believes the criminalization of blackness deserves severe punishment or death may be unbearable, but it exists, like a poison, in America. We see it in the reaction to Clark’s death. After a woman posted on Facebook that he “deserved what happened to him” she lost her job. Then she started a GoFundMe page and was flooded with support. She raised over $20,000.
When it is possible to be afraid of two black men sitting at a coffee table in Starbucks, to shoot at a young boy seeking directions, to kill someone in their own backyard, it proves that racism, and racists, can still be exonerated. The criminalization of blackness means that “innocent until proven guilty,” that bedrock American principle, no longer applies in America.
Fear doesn’t know fact. When people are socially conditioned to fear other people, to hold racial bias, they hold the power to take life in their hands. Based on a lie, on a perception of blackness, on the criminalization of blackness, Emmett Till was murdered more than 60 years ago. What has changed?
I don’t know the men who were arrested at Starbucks. I don’t know the boy who ran for his life after asking for directions. I don’t know any of the men who have lost their lives due to the marriage of racism to law enforcement. But I do know I stand with them. I do know that, as a society, we are going to have to re-learn how deadly it is to hold racist views, implicit or explicit. Have the hard conversations. Call out family for their racist remarks. Stop implicit bias — more aptly, let’s call it deadly bias — from putting a cage, literal or figurative, around black and brown people.