The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri is a national tragedy. Brown's killing further brings to light the fact that for African American boys and men, the worst kept secret in this nation is that death stalks us. Brown's slaying, like Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr., and all those nameless boys who continue to be buried in Chicago, clearly represents that, regardless of educational attainment, or whether we wear suits and ties, sag our pants, or are "unarmed,"death becomes us.
Jesmym Ward sums up this African American male fact of life in her memoir Men We Reaped:
"From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Demond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That's a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it's a list that silences people."
Ward's experience mirrors too many black American families' lived reality. Stories that are interwoven into American history and stories that individual families carry with them. Stories that are so prevalent that it isn't hard to find a black man unjustly killed every year since the birth of this nation. Stories that have shaped the life outcomes of so many black boys that black parents openly admit they can't protect their children from the forces in America that first dehumanizes them then murder them.
Black boys blood has flowed freely for so long that Brown's death can not only be a conversation about the militarization of local police departments. Police reform certainly has a place in the conversation because black men and the black community have known what the abuse of power of police officers does to a people. Melissa Harris Perry's searing tribute to the black boys and men we have lost their lives to reckless policing of black communities ensures us of this.
But we shouldn't ignore the fact that police officers are not the only ones killing black boys and men. Michael Brown's killing is as much about the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer in Oakland, California, as it is about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Furthermore, Brown's killing is linked to a past that includes the 2012 killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn, at a gas station in Jacksonville Florida, reportedly for playing his music too loudly. And the drowning of Eugene Williams in Lake Michigan, by white swimmers, for crossing the invisible color line in Chicago in 1919. I could go on, naming black men killed for the singular reason that they are black to spell out that Michael Brown's killing wasn't a shock to black men in this country. But there is another point about how the eventual deaths of black men in America start in our childhoods, that we aren't talking about when we discuss Brown's death.
Long before Brown's parents had to think about burying him, Brown felt the weight of the social death black men experience that readies too many of us for our actual deaths. In virtually every category that indicates social well-being, black men come in dead last. The incarceration rates of black men are nearly six times higher than white men.There are nearly 1 million black men in prison and many more attached to the penal system in America. The high school dropout rate of black boys is nearly 50 percent compared to the white male dropout rate of 22 percent. 8 in 10 preschoolers suspended are black boys. Less than 50 percent of black men are employed. And nearly 86 percent of black young men are unemployed nationally. In some places like Chicago, black male youth unemployment stands at 92 percent. These statistics taken together represent a systematic social death that effectively lock out black boys and men from participating fully in American life.
Michael Brown's mother told a local television station that her son felt as much before his death:
"Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don't got nothing to live for anyway. 'They're going to try to take me out anyway.' "
Brown's mother's observation about the souls of black boys and men who live in a society that have from at least age four targeted them should be a lesson in how we remember Michael Brown. And how we come to understand the black male American experience.The conversation about Brown's death should be centered around his blackness, and how blackness scares some in this country to kill black men. And how the perpetual killing of black men in America has no clear end in sight. And that there isn't a policy prescription for overcoming the fear the nation collectively share of black men. And that there isn't anything President Obama can say to establish a level of compassion for black boys and men that give them the benefit of the doubt to live. Because there isn't a model of respectability that will allow black boys and men to transcend our shared history.
America can only stop the sustained killing of black boys and men if the nation finds a way to love black men unconditionally.