Is there any greater fear for a parent than the thought of losing a child? Which of us having had a baby, smelled the sweetness of her head, lay silently listening to her breathing, and watched the miracle of her growing hasn’t had the dread that someone or something could come along and rip that most precious presence from our lives?
And, which of us hasn’t heard a story about another parent losing a child and not felt sympathy, understanding that loss as a profanity against nature and time. Praying, “There but for the grace of God .…”
Some of us, Dear America, some of us. Especially when that child is black.
Recently we’ve seen a number of black parents lose children in very public ways, but that natural extension of parental empathy didn’t follow. Apparently, some can hear “SWAT team kills 7-year-old” (Aiyana Jones) and think “criminal father” rather than “small coffin.”
Or “Cops shoot toy gun wielding 12-year-old (Tamir Rice)” and think, “suspected criminal” instead of “unopened Christmas presents.” Or “Neighborhood watchman kills 17-year-old” (Trayvon Martin) and think “one less dangerous hoodie-wearing thug” rather than “no college, no marriage, no grandchildren — no future.”
The list goes on. It’s devastating as a black parent to know that some other parents hear that black children died this way but this thought never crosses their minds: “A child died afraid.” Utah cops kill a “cosplaying” 22-year-old man (Darrien Hunt) for carrying a “sword.” Shrug. Ohio police kill a 22-year-old (John Crawford) for carrying a toy gun in a Wal-Mart, where real guns are sold daily. Yawn.
A cop shoots an unarmed teen (Mike Brown) after a struggle through a police SUV window, and the only fear anyone talks about is the cop’s. How can we claim to love our children and “value family” above all when there’s ample evidence that the loss of a black child doesn’t provoke the same sweeping sorrow or sympathy that the loss of any child should? Why not?
Is the power of race so strong that even our children aren’t exempt from the fear it produces? It’s as if black children don’t have extended to them the universal presumption of innocence given to other children. As if our children’s very bodies and beings imply danger.
Apparently, black children aren’t given the same leeway to make mistakes, to be careless, to be thoughtless, to rebel — to be children without negative racial meaning attaching itself. Or, if a crime is committed by any black child, it somehow becomes the crime of every black child.
Routinely the deaths of black children are justified with a blithe: “He was no angel.” As if that makes any child’s life less valuable. As if any of our children are “angels.”
So when our children’s lives are taken, a startling number of other parents are unmoved. From them there is no “God keep you in your sorrow.” Because of race.
Any black parent can tell you that our children aren’t given the same freedom to stay innocent and unburdened by the perceptions of a society bound tight in racial chains. Because that innocence can prove deadly.
P.S. To anyone tempted to respond, “Teach your kids not to do crime,” thanks for proving my point.
Melvina Johnson Young is a former university lecturer and writer specializing in U.S. history, African-American history, women's history, and gender and cultural studies. To reach her, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.