Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. detested violence. Nevertheless, during the month when we commemorate his birth, we must face the fact that black males between the ages of 15 and 34 were the victims of more than 15 percent of all deaths at the hands of police officers in 2015—even though they constitute only two percent of the total U.S. population.
It is a police-related death rate that is five times higher than that of young white males.
Young black men may suffer the physical consequences of police violence, but the entirety of Africa’s people born and/or living in the U.S. are traumatized by these killings. One black mother recently told the Detroit News: “I’m a powerful woman and yet when it comes to this, I feel powerless. I can no more explain to my son why some madmen kill people in Paris any more than I can explain to him why his life and the lives of all other black men in my life that I love – my husband, nephews, cousins, friends – are considered prey by the very people that are supposed to protect them.”
The fear that grips the community is made even more poignant when compared to the relaxed, cool assurance of an army of heavily armed white men illegally occupying federal property in Oregon. These men may ultimately suffer legal consequences, but does anyone really believe they fear the police? Law enforcement has kept their distance, and according to the popular narrative, these men are “rugged individualists” who are the heart and soul of what makes America great – and what makes America’s African population sick because of the disparate, favorable treatment these white men receive.
While we’re at it, throw in the fact that often, even when black men are not killed, their treatment by police is hostile and sometimes violent. This method of interacting with black men, as well as black women and children, carries over into other arenas like schools.
This week, for instance, Michigan Public Radio interviewed a Detroit mother who said she decided to home school her children after she observed their school experience. She explained: “It was a mostly black school with mostly white teachers, which didn't really bother me until I saw the difference in how they treated certain kids, especially boys. They were harsh – kind of barking at them, ordering them around.” She added that the children were not treated kindly, and she didn’t want her children to have to deal with that.
With hopes that threatening, intimidating and violent encounters will decline, the ACLU of Michigan continues to advocate many law enforcement and school reforms that include: de-escalation of tense confrontations; transformation of police demeanor; training in dealing with persons with mental disabilities, restorative practices, as well as other reforms. Ultimately, however, those who staff America’s institutions will have to come to terms with the essential humanity of African-descended people.
When members of a community have been designated as three-fifths of a human being by the Constitution; bought and sold as chattel; treated as second-class citizens and branded as “animals” by some members of the law enforcement community, treating them in an abusive manner, and even killing them on a whim can come quite naturally.
In 1968, Dr. King marched with striking black sanitation workers who affirmed their humanity by carrying placards that said simply: “I am a man.” In 2016, black youth affirm their humanity by proclaiming: “Black Lives Matter.” The end to violence will begin with universal recognition that all people are members of the human family, and as in all good families, the welfare of the individual is dependent upon the welfare of everyone.