To discuss the ongoing battle between institutions of social control and the black male.
(Download Ongoing Battle Between Institutions overview as a PDF)
The word is out in many quarters that the African American male is an endangered species. This notion is supported by facts such as the high proportion of African American males incarcerated or involved in some aspect of the criminal justice system, the high homicidal rate, the astronomical rise and spread of the AIDS virus, and the continuing growth of drug abuse and its associated violence, particularly among our young. Added to these, is the under-education and miseducation of our youth, low teacher expectations, tracking in schools, placement in special education classes, truancy, expulsion, and ultimately, school drop out. (Jones, D. . African American Males: a Critical Link in the American Family
, p. 4)
Since the black male’s emancipation from slavery, there has not been a place in the larger society where a black male could experience that freedom and be viewed as a man. Instead, institutional racism, unequal opportunities, and economic depravation have been major contributors in the declining number of black males that exist in the larger society. Institutionally, the population of black males in the penal system continues to outnumber those of Hispanic and white inmates. The nation’s educational system still remains primarily segregated. Receiving an education in a white public school system is often seen as a reward for only the best and brightest hand picked black children while the rest of the population often remains behind to receive only a marginal education in the segregated school classrooms. These are the students that are often diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or as special needs students. As a result, black males often have the lowest paying jobs, secure jobs without a future, or no job. They are unable to care for themselves and their families, and in frustration, often turn to crime and drugs as a mechanism of survival. Their white counterparts then term him as angry and aggressive for expressing frustration over his plight.
This was a lovely neighborhood in the South End section of Boston. It was located next to Neiman-Marcus and across from the Back Bay MBTA. Many affluent white people lived in this neighborhood. In fact, their property taxes probably kept this neighborhood elite. Within the neighborhood, there was an apartment building, Tent City Apartments. Tent City was owned and managed by the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency. According to Massachusetts fair housing laws, there had to be some low- and moderate- income apartments available. A lottery was held for these apartments, and a number of African American families moved into the development.
The African American families that moved into these apartments shared one commonality. The head of these households were African American women. There were no fathers in these households. These womens’ families consisted of many children; a few girls, and many boys.
As the families became acquainted, the young boys began to form a group. Every day, they would play football, go to the park, or ride their bicycles and scooters down Southwest Corridor. Some of them attended the same school, and many of them played basketball together at the same gym. They played video games and spent the night at each other’s house. They were all friends.
Time went by, and these young boys became young men. As they approached adolescence, they shot up as tall at 6 feet, with muscular bodies. They started to get that peach fuzz on their faces and were well on their way to becoming men. So much so that as early as age 12, they began randomly getting searched by police officers, who questioned their living in that elite neighborhood…or as the officers put it, “ ‘they were looking for someone else that looked like them.’ ” Two boys in the neighborhood, Bob and Tom, formed a significantly close bond. You rarely saw one without the other. They did almost everything together.
When Bob was 16 years old, he got his first job. He was thrilled to work for the well-renowned Boston Red Sox. He met many of the players that thousands of kids dreamed of meeting, and he earned his own money. Week after week, he worked the appointed hours, got paid, and bought typical teenage stuff. One day while riding his bike to cash his check, Bob was attacked. He was robbed and stabbed in the back by an unknown boy in the vicinity. As blood from the stab wound oozed, he made his way home.
Fearing police and his own life, Bob did not want to notify the authorities of the incident. He tried to bandage himself. When he arrived at his Back Bay area apartment, a neighbor saw his injury and called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. When Bob got to the hospital, he was met by two Boston police detectives. Through Bob’s description, the police had a good idea of his assailant. Upon hospital release, detectives had him view mug shots. Bob identified the stabber, a notorious gang leader who operated out of another neighborhood in the South End area. The police were very familiar with him. They had arrested him many times, but they could not make any of the charges stick. But this was a new charge, attempted murder. Officers felt that this crime, coupled with other pending charges, could surely earn a conviction and send him away for a long time. They needed to convince Bob to testify against his assailant. But, the young teen did not want to testify, as he would be known as a snitch. After all, Bob had to live in this neighborhood. He had to face these gang members every day.
When Bob resisted, the Police Department sent warrants to his house. They appealed to his parents. Good, law abiding citizens, Bob’s parents tried to convince him to testify. He still didn’t want to do it—he was the one that had to live in and walk the streets of Boston; he was the one that had to worry about his safety. After Bob continued to refuse, he was served a summons to appear in court and a warrant for his arrest if he did not comply with the Boston Police Department and the District Attorney’s office. What choice did he have? At this time, Bob’s assailant was in jail awaiting trial. The remaining gang members visited Bob daily, pleading with him to not testify against their leader. They offered him money and protection from the police. They threatened his life. Out of fear, Bob did not want to testify against his assailant.
On the day of his assailant’s trial, a Boston Police car arrived at Bob’s house, escorted him to the trial, and threatened to lock him up if he did not testify. Begrudgingly, Bob testified and received a letter from the District Attorney’s office commending him on a good job, and promising that his assailant would harass him no longer. That should have been the end of the story; but it was only the beginning. Now the other gang members were hunting him down: he was a snitch. He had to pay.
The gang members were vigilant in their pursuit of the teen. They followed him to school; they hung around his neighborhood; they came to his house and they harassed his friends. Bob’s parent’s notified the police department of their actions, but there was nothing the officers could do unless they caught the gang members in the act. One evening as Bob and Tom were riding their bicycles down the Southwest Corridor in the South End, one of the gang members bicycled up next to them. Suddenly, he pulled out a gun and pointed it at Bob’s head. He said, “I should shoot you, but I won’t.” He then turned to Bob’s best friend, Tom, with whom another one of the gang members had previously had an altercation. He shot Tom point blank in the temple. He fell off of his bicycle, dying instantly. Bob took off, once again fearful for his own life. In the morning, neighbors and friends called and visited the teen’s house. The rumor was that Tom been killed, and that Bob was next on the gang’s hit list. When Bob’s parents heard this, they once again called the Boston Police Department to report the alleged threats on their son’s life. Two detectives were sent to investigate the threats. When the detectives began to ask questions, it was obvious that they were not there to provide protection to Bob. Like most good police detectives, they wanted to solve Tom’s homicide. Bob’s parents realized this immediately and ended communication with them. After all, this was the same Boston Police Department that Bob had previously aided by testifying against someone who they wanted to go to prison. As a result, Bob’s life was now in danger. What was wrong with this picture? Bob laid low for a while and legally left the state for a short period of time. When he returned to Massachusetts, the police and the gang members immediately learned of his arrival. Once again, both groups sought him out. They both believed that Bob knew who killed his best friend Tom.
Bob was worried and frightened. He felt like he was being watched at every moment. Early one fall evening as he was sitting in his courtyard, the police attempted to arrest him. When they handcuffed and searched him, they found that he possessed a firearm. When he was questioned about it, he admitted that he was carrying the firearm for protection against the gang members that the police officers were not able to protect him against. The sentence for possessing an illegal firearm was a mandatory year in prison. The police officers were still convinced that Bob knew something about the murder of Tom and questioned him once again about it. Bob would not comply with the police. They invented other charges and added them to the firearms charge in order to get him to reveal what he knew. His bail was placed so high that he could not be released, and he was given a court-appointed lawyer who was not too interested in the fate of his client. Thus, Bob sat in jail for months agonizing about what to do. Eventually, he once again decided to do the right thing. He testified to the Grand Jury about the events of his murdered best friend, Tom. In return for his testimony, the judicial system made him promises that were not kept. They claimed that his record would be sealed because he was a juvenile, and that his assailant would not bother him again. Consequently, his record was not sealed, and when his assailant was released after serving two years in prison, he came into Bob’s neighborhood looking for revenge. Also, Tom’s killer was set free. During this period, at least ten young black males lost their lives because of either the criminal justice system or death. All these events happened when Bob and Tom were juveniles.
Black Americans make up between 12 and 13 percent of the general population and one out of every five Black men will spend some part of his life behind bars—almost 7 times the rate for whites. Black men and women account for 44.1% of the individuals awaiting trial in local jails or serving terms there. They also comprise at least 44.9% of the inmates in state and federal prisons and 40% of the prisoners currently under sentences of death. Overall, more than 1 million black Americans are currently behind bars or could be returned there for violating probation or parole. Hacker. . Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal
. pp. 187-187, 195)
THE DYSFUNCTIONAL SYSTEM THESIS
…Suggests that at risk youth are products of family and educational systems that have failed them. As a consequence, many of these youth reject the majority culture, choosing alternative survival strategies for social esteem. Their behavior becomes a function of rewards acquired through conformity to in-group standards and values. (Jones, D. . African American Males: a Critical Link in the American Family, p. 71.)
LESSONS AND PRINCIPLES
Malcolm X said, “The black prisoner symbolizes white society’s crime of keeping black men oppressed and deprived and ignorant, and unable to get decent jobs, turning them into criminals.” (Haley, A. [ed.]. . The Autobiography of Malcolm X, p. 172).
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Did the police and the criminal justice system take the proper actions under the set of circumstances they were in? What could they have done differently?
- Does this type of scenario play out in the neighborhoods where you live?
- The criminal justice system was rather ineffective in terms of keeping the criminals behind bars. The system was effective, though in placing innocent black males behind bars. What does this say about the criminal justice system? Can you think of any ways to improve the current system?
- Do you think that the social institutions we live under can come together in a way that is not hurtful to the black male?
- Social institutions are governed by people. If the system is run in a way that seems to treat one segment of the population better than it treats another, what does that tell us about the attitudes of the people that are governing these institutions. A cross cultural training course should be mandatory for all people. An understanding of another person’s culture will help us to better understand the person.
- It would be possible for people to read this case study and come to the conclusion that nothing wrong is happening in society to the black male or to the blacks that live in this society. For a brief moment, forget that you are of another racial or cultural background and put yourself in the shoes of a black person. Then, reread this case study.
Geneva Campbell Wallace cCYS