Black men have done everything possible to change America's perception of them: walked in space, moonwalked on Earth, invented a traffic signal, gone home to Cleveland to play basketball and save a city, fought and died in wars and captured the Oval Office with an unstated promise to mostly keep quiet about the persistence of racism. But it's not good enough.
No amount of racial progress kept Trayvon Martin from being hunted down and killed like an animal, and it didn't keep Michael Brown from a policeman's lethal anger as he shot him dead and left his body to fester in the streets of Ferguson for four hours. Eric Garner's body also lay in the streets of New York for hours after he asphyxiated in an officer's chokehold despite pleading for air to breathe and the right to live.
And none of the tried but not-quite-true remedies have worked to keep black men safe: teaching our young men how not to spook the cops, replacing their hoodies with suits, turning their music down and speaking the King's English (James, not Rodney). Our boys and men just don't seem to be able to behave, believe or bully their way out of suffering unjust deaths at the hands of a state that is supposed to serve and protect them.
So much facing black men and boys today is a flashback to the early '90s, when my son's rap music filled our home with the cacophonic truth of young black men's reality. Public Enemy's lyrics for "Fear of a Black Planet" still echo in my ears as I witness the words of black youth and those empathic to their cause, #BlackLivesMatter:
I've been wonderin' why
People livin' in fear
Of my shade
(Or my high-top fade)
I'm not the one that's runnin'
But they got me one the run
Treat me like I have a gun
All I got is genes and chromosomes
Consider me Black to the bone
All I want is peace and love
On this planet
(Ain't that how God planned it?)
To move forward, we have to match the absurdity of black men being treated as less than human with an equally robust effort to change America's perception of them.
Yes, I know, we shouldn't have to do a damn thing. Our men and boys shouldn't have to prove that they're worthy of being treated with the same regard that other folk take for granted. But the stakes are too high to quibble over what should be the case while ignoring what is the case: Our men often have fatal encounters in a culture that thinks they are not human, thinks they are undeserving of respect and finds them guilty of a menace that can only be erased once they're dead.
Our boys and men just don't seem to be able to behave, believe or bully their way out of suffering unjust deaths at the hands of a state that is supposed to serve and protect them.
Like Public Enemy's message, part of today's call to action by black youth is for white America to get past its fear. So here's my solution: Let's start a campaign called "Take a Black Man To... " You're free to fill in the blank as you please, but here are my three suggestions: work, school and the police station.
The social scientist Nancy DiTomaso argues that the most telling consequences of race in our time aren't the bad things whites do to blacks or other minorities, but the good things they do for themselves. And one of the greatest things whites do for each other is pass out jobs. There are hosts of qualified black folk, including black men, who never get hired. Intelligent, affable, charismatic and hard-working black men might get a decent shot at finding employment, perhaps even better employment, if willing white folk in a position to do so would take them to their well-paying jobs and introduce black men to those in positions of power. This is especially important in professional communities with a lack of diversity, such as Wall Street (where blacks account for only 2.8% of senior positions) and Silicon Valley (where only 1 in 14 tech workers is black or Latino).
Taking black males to school is also quite important in the battle to change America's dominant perception of them. We should take black boys to private schools in the suburbs, where little black boys are also underrepresented. We should take these bright, curious and alert boys to America's best schools before they're beaten down and driven away by public school systems that often disarm rather than equip our youth to successfully navigate the culture.
These visits could facilitate admission of our boys and adolescent males into school environments that can prepare them to compete for quality secondary and college education. A pipeline to private schools may raise a lot of questions, but it sure beats the school-to-prison pipeline that snakes beneath the urban terrain many of our boys occupy. Let's get good citizens to take our boys to school for a visit, perhaps, ultimately, to enroll them, before someone inevitably takes them to jail.
Speaking of incarceration, let's get our boys and men taken to police stations. Of course, I don't mean in handcuffs after an arrest. What I'm talking about is an extension of the logic of community policing. I'm convinced — I have to be, since the alternative is the surrender to a paralyzing pessimism — that if more white policemen, and black and brown ones, too, could see black boys and men as human beings, maybe, just maybe, they might be safer in the streets, or in their cars or just in their beautiful black bodies. It's not the kind of field trip you would imagine, but it would also help heal the tensions between the black community and the police post-Eric Garner, post-Michael Brown and post-many other incidents this past year alone.
Laugh if you want, but nothing else has worked: not sophisticated social theory about otherness and difference; not rap lyrics that detail the abortive violence endured at the hands of police — (and, yes, far too many other black males); not studies that say that schools and police forces view black youth as less innocent, and less human, than white youth. Once you let that sink in — human — then you'll be as desperate as I am to come up with common-sense solutions that we can enact in our daily lives to keep boys and men safe.
I must admit that I've got a huge stake in this battle of perception: I have an amazing husband, two remarkable sons and two gifted grandsons — all black males, all of whom I worry about. My worries stem from many places, to be sure, but the one major reason that unites them in a fellowship of anxiety is that they are black, male and breathing. I want to keep them that way as long as God allows, free of the hate or fear or suspicion that takes aim at too many black men and hurries them to early graves.
So please, mainstream America, take a black man to work, school or the police station. See what I and millions of others already know: They deserve the same right to live, the same presumption of innocence and the same protection as any other man or boy walking this earth.
This essay is part of the "Shifting Perceptions: Being Black in America" series commissioned by the Perception Institute.