Archive for Monday, February 9, 2004

Black men get wrong message

February 9, 2004


I fear for my son's life. Not from white cops. Not from white teachers who might wrongly label him. Not from stray bullets from a drive-by shooting or a fight at a nightclub.

My biggest fear for Kyle, now 2, is that he'll succumb to the message that society consistently reinforces. That there's something wrong with black men and boys.

The message isn't always reinforced by those wanting to stereotype or do harm, but by those trying to make sense of a broken world, those trying desperately to make things right.

Statistics tell us -- as statistics in this country often do -- that homicide is the leading cause of death for black men age 15 to 24. Though they also tell us the majority of black men that age don't succumb to violence.

They also tell us that about half of the prison population is black. Though they also tell us about two-thirds of that population is illiterate or has little education.

And they tell us that the majority of black men slain in the streets come at the hands of other black men. The same goes for other races -- most of those murdered are usually killed by someone within their race -- though that isn't a point we emphasize.

I've heard those say that numbers prove something is wrong with black men, either we're too compulsive, undisciplined, lack positive role models ... or maybe violence is just in our genes, or what we've been taught. We've forgotten that Dylan and Klebold, with their shotguns and trench coats and "intact" families, four years ago taught us that was a lie.

"Culturally, we have never mastered the art of disagreement. When we disagree with one another, someone is going to get stabbed, shot or cut," Carl Smalls told the Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier last week for a two-part series about "black-on-black crime."

His son was killed in December 2002 at a nightclub after an argument with two other black men. With all due respect to a father grieving the loss of a son, he's wrong. There's nothing in this "black culture" that tells us to shoot or stab those with whom we disagree. That comes from a different place, a place I hope to steer my son away from, though I don't know quite where that place is.

And I'm saying that as a man who recently attended the funeral of an uncle to which only four of my brothers showed up. The other four were either in prison, jail or juvenile detention.

I'm saying that as a man who has seen a bullet blind a high school friend and another kill a young man I mentored in college.

I'm saying this because the death and destruction that seems too rampant in too many neighborhoods throughout this country can, and has been, too easily attributed to what's most recognizable, seemingly most common. Race.

And the worst part about that conclusion isn't that it creates stereotypes and might cause a white woman -- or black man -- to avoid young black men on sidewalks. The worst part is that too many young black men are buying into it and in too many instances are unwittingly turning myth into reality.

Black-on-black crime. The term itself suggests that race is the true dividing line. Not drugs, not a warped pathology, not bad decisions. But race.

What else can it mean? If you tell me the majority of those being killed on the street are drug dealers, I can tell my son to stay away from drugs.

If you tell me those who do poorly in school don't study enough, I can tell my son to study more.

If you tell me those most likely to end up in prison are those who don't have the skills to make it in this world, I can tell my son to take his education seriously, treat it as the precious commodity it is.

But if you tell me those most likely to kill and be killed are black, what am I supposed to tell my son?

Better yet, what are you telling him?

Issac J. Bailey is a columnist for the Myrtle Beach, S.C., Sun News. His e-mail address is

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