How Policing Black Boys Leads To The Conditioning Of Black Men

Mistrust and alienation between black men and the police have become so entrenched that we need radical, sweeping change. The collective experience of black men in the criminal justice system is sobering. African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites, and numerous studies have shown that black men are disproportionately targeted, stopped, frisked, and searched through the practice of racial profiling. Black men end up in prison more often, receive longer sentences than similarly situated white men, and are more likely to be killed during police encounters than white men – 21 times more likely. 

But, as criminal defense attorneys, we can attest to the fact that as harshly and as unfairly as black men have been treated in the criminal justice system, the fate of black boys has been worse.

Decades of data show that the journey to racial disparity begins when black men are boys. Black boys are policed like no other demographic. They are policed on the street, in the mall, in school, in their homes, and on social media. Police stop black boys on the vaguest of descriptions – “black boys running,” “two black males in jeans, one in a gray hoodie,” “black male in athletic gear.” Young black males are treated as if they are “out of place” not only when they are in white, middle-class neighborhoods, but also when they are hanging out in public spaces or sitting on their own front porches.

Adolescence is a critical time during which young people come to understand and respect or resent the law and legal institutions. Negative attitudes about the police acquired during childhood and adolescence have a “lasting” effect as youth transition to adulthood. The long history of aggressive and biased interactions with the police — perceived or real — has socialized a generation of black boys to avoid contact with the police whenever possible and if not, to be hostile — sometimes outright confrontational — with police.

Black boys who congregate on the “corner” attract the attention of the police day or night. Even when they “dress nicely” or “drive nice cars” young black males cannot avoid police surveillance since such signs of wealth among black youth are presumed to be associated with drug dealing. Black boys describe their neighborhoods as over-policed and say officers stop them multiple times a day to pat them down and ask questions like “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going?”

These stories are significant not only for the debilitating and conditioning impact they have on these youth, but also for the message they send to black boys.

Videotaping, cursing, ignoring an officer’s orders and running away provoke even greater hostility, disrespect and often physical force from the police. Not surprisingly, black youth are more likely to experience a use of force than white youth.

Black boys are angered not only by the frequency with which they are stopped, but also by the treatment they experience during these stops. They describe police as belligerent and antagonistic and are especially outraged by the officers’ use of racial slurs, profanity and demeaning terms like “punk” and “sissy.” They complain about police stops that are too often initiated by physical contact such as grabbing, pushing, shoving, pulling or tackling the youth to the ground.

Once on the ground, black boys are sometimes held down by multiple officers who sit or lie on them while other officers kick, punch or mace them. More violent encounters include billy clubs or chokeholds like the one that killed Eric Garner in New York. Victims of police violence include black boys like LaQuan McDonald, Tyre King, and most recently Jordan Edwards. Fear of violence by police is now the norm for black boys.

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Source: NPR | Angela J. Davis, Kristin Henning

Angela J. Davis is a Professor of Law at American University and the Editor of Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution and Imprisonment (July 2017). Follow her @angelajdavis. Kristin Henning is the Agnes N. Williams Research Professor of Law at Georgetown University and a contributing author to Policing the Black Man. Follow her @ProfKrisHenning