After Trayvon: Why Do We Dehumanize Black Males?


The Zimmerman verdict fleetingly highlights the negative exceptionality that is inscribed on Black males—teenage and adult—in the United States. They are all too often perceived as predators or slackers. Rarely are they seen as human beings with the skills, potential, and capacity to care as anyone else.

What contributes to such a dehumanizing stance and such rage directed at this group?

I would suggest that there is an abundance of rage and fear in the American soul and Black males are its most prominent— but not its only—target. Feelings of subjective safety and trust are low.

The institutions and public figures responsible for both protecting us against some of the vicissitudes of life and at the same time facilitating our living well are widely perceived as having failed us.

We do not trust the government, the politicians, the corporations, the bankers, the media, the health care system, the justice system or the educators. And of course we do not trust Nature.

The stagnation of wages felt by most Americans and the relatively jobless nature of the economic recovery are also major sources of stress. We are an aging population and far too many of us do not have secure homes or decent amounts of retirement savings.

So, regardless of which social or economic class one belongs to there is some sense of fearfulness, a sense that one is not safe, and that one will not be protected.

We are angry and fearful about all of this but we cannot attack the market: too abstract.We cannot attack the officials: too well protected. When we take to the streets we are assaulted, and when we launch political counter-attacks, we are betrayed or neutered.

It often seems that all that is left to attack is the self and any vulnerable groups.

This year for the first time, the degree of abuse of prescription drugs is greater than that for illegal drugs. Obesity is increasing, as also is suicide among middle aged white men. Depression and anxiety are the most commonly medicated psychological problems.

Black Americans have been a traditional target of our unacknowledged rage at feeling vulnerable, unfulfilled or unprotected.

The Republic for far too long was premised on the unstated calculus that achieving the American dream for some required creating nightmares for others: Native Americans, Blacks, women, poor children and the elderly poor. Given how Blacks were brought here, there is a long history of dehumanizing them so that the non-Black majority could pursue more fulfilling lives.

Equally troubling: such dehumanization, such lack of empathy and caring are seen as normal and therefore often goes unquestioned.

We have treated their human imperfections and vulnerabilities as an excuse to deny our own.

They become in our imaginations what we deny in our collective selves: greed, fear, aggression, vulnerability and intolerance. Trayvon Marin was in Sanford because he had been suspended from his school in another town; a punishment meted out disproportionately to Black youth in our school system starting in preschool.

George Zimmerman is clearly a lost soul: anxious, angry and seeking a shallow form of recognition by stalking an innocent but culturally condemned Black youth with the aid of an all too easily acquired gun. He tragically ended one life and has devastated his own and that of many others.

The damage to the body politic is equally severe.

This sort of tragedy can be prevented, but too many of our communities lack guidance counselors, safe places for young people to play, and quality (and affordable) mental health services.

Many will argue that large swaths of the criminal justice system function as a flawed plea bargaining system that is a pipeline to prison for too many poor youth caught medicating their angst with illegal drugs. Yet despite the tremendous pressures they face most Black youth have no involvement with the criminal justice system.

The price many of them pay, however, is often a preoccupation with safety, a curbing of spontaneity and a stifling of creativity. The additional tragedy in all of this is the psychological and physical price we all pay in denying the increased corruption of the American dream.

Spiritual and ethical corruption is not peculiar to America. But some of us still believe in an ethical exceptionalism: that we who have been so gifted can and must do better.

This is not an unstoppable tide.

There are decent folks across the class, corporate, administrative, religious, racial and ethnic spectrum doing good work in embracing diversity in general and specifically protecting and nurturing vulnerable populations.

Many of these efforts are underfunded and often invisible; but they are there. We must support them, we must tell their stories.

And we must learn from their failures and replicate their successes— and in the process recommit as a people to being caring and judicious.

C. Jama Adams is chair of the Africana Studies Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He welcomes comments from readers.

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