For Black College Students, Acting Like A College Student Can Be A Death Sentence

For white kids, they're youthful mistakes. For their black peers, they can be fatal.

In December 1966, a 20-year-old Yale student and several of his Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers set out to a festive New Haven, Connecticut, shopping district to pick up a few things for an upcoming party. The “decorating committee” -- as they called themselves -- was drunk, loud, rambunctious and ready to find what they needed to give their frat house some seasonal cheer. 

Through drunken stupor, the young man's eyes became fixated on a Christmas wreath showcased in a store window and he wanted it for the party. As police officers happened to be passing by, the rowdy bunch was caught attempting to snatch the decoration.

Future President George W. Bush was arrested for his shenanigans. Eventually, the disorderly conduct charges against him were dropped and his only punishment was apologizing to the store owners. Bush, years later, writes the attempted burglary off as a college prank from when he was “young and irresponsible.”

Such reflection on silly college antics is a privilege that will not be afforded to Christian Taylor. 

The 19-year-old Texas college student was shot and killed by Arlington officer Brad Miller early Friday morning. Immediately after the shooting, police claim Taylor was in the middle of burglarizing the dealership when he crashed his car through the shop window. Once police arrived on the scene, "a struggle ensued" and he was fatally shot.

Surveillance footage does show Taylor jumping on a car and kicking the windshield. But the officer makes no indication of a struggle once Taylor was cornered, based on police audio provided to The Huffington Post. And the conclusion that the teen was trying to steal a car is hard to believe given that he would have been leaving the Jeep he arrived in on the scene, nearly guaranteeing that he'd be caught.

Some type of college-age, substance-fueled prank seems a much likelier explanation -- and far from the type of activity that ought to lead to a teenager being killed.

Adrian Taylor, the young man's father, told a Texas CNN affiliate that his son may have been drinking at the time.

"You know, it could have been too much drinking, he could have been wrong place at the wrong time, he could have gotten something and he didn't know what he was getting," he said.

While a toxicology report hasn’t come back for Taylor, it makes sense that he may not have been sober. But his intentions will never be known since he was killed on the spot. We do, however, know the intentions of former President Bush; Notre Dame student Brian McCurren, 19, who broke into a massage parlor, gorged himself on Hot Pockets and almost set the place ablaze; Justin Dakota Gordon, 19, who broke in the mayor’s home in Statesboro, Georgia, and rummaged through the man’s closet; and a score of other white kids who do stupid things while under the influence. 

Black kids, however, aren’t allowed to participate in such antics. Take University of Virginia student Martese Johnson, 20, for instance. He needed 10 stitches after being badly beaten by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control officers and arrested for public intoxication or swearing and obstruction of justice without force outside a Charlottesville, Virginia, pub.

And for what? Allegedly having a fake ID? Who hasn’t been drunk while underage during their college years? Who hasn’t tried to get into a bar with a fake? College students do this kind of thing all the time. It is, in essence, a part of the experience. 

Why do such shenanigans prove to be fatal for black kids?

Stepping outside of the rigid boundaries set by a white supremacist society has always resulted in harsh consequences -- and, many times, death -- for black children.

“America does not extend the fundamental elements of childhood to black boys and girls. Black childhood is considered innately inferior, dangerous and indistinguishable from black adulthood,” Stacey Patton wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post after a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. “Black children are not afforded the same presumption of innocence as white children, especially in life-or-death situations.”

Every time a police shooting of an unarmed child makes its way into the national media, I’m reminded of when my great-grandmother explained to an 8-year-old me that I was black and that I couldn’t be a kid. Black children aren’t afforded any wiggle room to make average, youthful mistakes and grow from them, because blunders can get black people killed. What black kids could have done to avoid their own mistreatment at the hands of a police officer is often the question, and perceived defiance is almost always the catalyst for controversial police shootings. 

Childhood essence was taken from 18-year-old Brown, who was shot multiple times by Wilson after allegedly being aggressive; 15-year-old Dajerria Becton, who was brutalized by a police officer at a McKinney, Texas, pool party for talking back; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was fatally shot on sight by officers in Cleveland while holding a toy gun; 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed for not obeying a white man’s orders to turn his music down; 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman because it was assumed he didn’t belong in the neighborhood; 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, who was fatally shot by an off-duty officer who thought he saw a gun after the teen and her friends declined to tell the officer where they were going; 19-year-old Renisha McBride, who was shot and killed by a Detroit man who assumed she was a burglar when she ran onto his porch seeking help after a car accident; and 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was tortured and murdered after allegedly whistling at a white woman.

None of these children did anything that warranted being abused or having their lives taken -- outside of having black skin. Black children, especially boys, are viewed as more malicious, dangerous and older than their peers starting as early as 10 years old, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association. The study found the age of black boys is overestimated by an average of 4.5 years, and they are more likely to be associated with serious crimes than their white peers.

Taylor, based on tweets from what appears to be his Twitter account, had an understanding of this:

“If a white life cycle features innocence, growth, civility, responsibility and becoming an adult, blackness is characterized as the inversion of that,” Patton continues in her op-ed. “Not only are black children cast as adults but, just as perversely, black adults are stuck in a limbo of childhood, viewed as irresponsible, uncivil, criminal, innately inferior.”

Seen as criminals from childhood, little boys and girls with black skin have the unfortunate damnation of existing in a society that sees no purpose in them. Black people and blackness are regularly associated with unruliness, violence and trouble. A rowdy black kid can’t just be doing something silly. It’s often seen as displaying a blatant disregard for authority and social order -- pretty much asking to be kept in check by any means necessary.

This has fueled the fear of losing a child to police violence that is so commonplace in the black community. Such fear is why Toya Graham, who you may know as “Hero Mom,” slapped her 16-year-old son for participating in the Baltimore uprising -- she didn’t want him to be the next Freddie Gray. So she dished out the blows that police and pundits think young black men need to get them back in line.

But the reality is that black people are all too quickly seen as criminals, aren’t afforded the benefit of the doubt and are held to incredibly high standards of personal responsibility that we’ll never attain because as long as our skin is black, we will never meet white standards. We're expected to be a reflection of whiteness and our behavior is endlessly attacked. Flawed white perception is never assuaged.

This brings us back to Christian Taylor. We don’t know that much about the interaction between him and the officer as of yet. We don’t know why he was jumping on a car or why he drove his Jeep into the dealership. Again, we’ll never know because he’s dead. But, damn it, maybe he did it for the same reasons George W. Bush stole that Christmas wreath. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he was under the influence of another substance. Maybe he didn’t have a legitimate reason.

Maybe he did it because he was a kid. It's too bad he won't be seen that way.