On April 29, 2017, a group of young black boys got into their car and left a party that had gotten out of control. Despite their attempts to leave a chaotic situation and get to safety, one of those boys was killed. As they were leaving, a white police officer, Ray Oliver, shot his rifle at the car and killed Jordan Edwards — 15-year-old boy who was only in his first year of high school (Criss, 2017). I could speak about Jordan’s accomplishments; he was an honor roll student and a fantastic football player. However, none of those factors could have saved him.
Unfortunately, Jordan Edwards’ death is far from an anomaly. In the last few years, we have been inundated by stories of unarmed black males (e.g. Philando Castile, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown) being killed in cold blood by police officers. These stories are more than antidotes; research indicates that blacks and Hispanics are 50% more likely to experience force during encounters with police (Fryer, 2016). A 2014 study conducted by psychologist Philip Goff and colleagues found that black adolescent boys are more likely than White and Latino boys to be viewed as responsible for delinquent behavior. Furthermore, the researchers found that police officers show implicit bias towards black boys and that their bias was associated with higher rates of forceful behavior with black children throughout the course of their careers.
Jordan’s life was stripped short because a group of young black boys were perceived to be a threat. Whether Jordan was accomplished or not he did not deserve to lose his life, especially at the hands of an official who had sworn to protect and serve.
Stereotypical constructions of black males likely play a role in these disparities. For example, when providing his account of killing 18-year-old Michael Brown, White officer Darren Wilson stated,
“When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan…. He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked” (Sanburn, 2014).
Despite being a large man himself (6’4 210 lbs.), Darren Wilson described being terrified by 6’4, 292 lbs. Michael Brown’s stature (Sanburn, 2014). Darren Wilson’s descriptions of Michael Brown parallel the Brute, a historical stereotype of black men rooted in slavery that described them as savage and animalistic, impulsive, prone to violence, and uncontrollable.
Stereotypical depictions of African Americans have historically been used to justify their enslavement and vicious maltreatment. For example, a recent study conducted in 2016 by Calvin John Smilely, a professor at Hunter College-City University of New York and David Fakunle, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, analyzed news reports and found that black male victims of police violence are often criminalized in media portrayals. In doing so, references are often made to black men’s past criminal records or to their physical bodies as being threatening or dangerous.
What happens when young black men and boys see these images? Do experiences in the media prompt them to reflect on their personal encounters with police officers? As a budding developmental psychologist and social worker, these are questions that I think are critical for parents, scholars, health professionals, and educators to consider.
As a black woman, these questions are important for me to consider when thinking about the black men in my life. I can attest to being personally affected both physiologically and psychologically when I encounter overt, violent acts perpetrated against black people. While I think that media coverage has been helpful in facilitating public discourse around these issues, the imagery of black people being shot or beaten by police is still quite traumatic for me. More research is needed to better understand the ways such images impact the lives of young black men and boys.
Goff, P. A., Jackson, M. C., Di Leone, B. L., Culotta, C. M., & DiTomasso, N. A. (2014). The essence of innocence: Consequences of dehumanizing black children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106 (4), 526-545.
Smiley, C., & Fakunle, D. (2016). From ‘brute’ to ‘thug:’ The demonization and criminalization of unarmed black male victims in America. Journal of Human Behavior In The Social Environment, 26(3-4), 350-366.
The YBMen project is an educational and social support program for young black men.