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After Ferguson -- A Look At Obstacles Facing Young Black Males

Photograph by Alex Wroblewski

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has brought to national attention the obstacles that many young black males face - including racial profiling and a world where media portrayals of their peers are often less-than-flattering. Maureen McKinney took a look at the topic in Illinois. She joined Rachel Otwell for this interview:

‘Young black males: The psyches of African-American boys are at risk because of police shootings, racial profiling and perception problems’ 
by Maureen Foertsch McKinney

Well you was doing fifty five in a fifty four... License and registration and step out of the car... Are you carrying a weapon on you? ...I know a lot of you are. - Jay-Z, 99 Problems

Justin Rose was 5 when his 16-year-old brother died in a gang-related shooting on the west side of Chicago. He’s 25 now. He has a master’s degree in public administration and coordinates a diversity program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

He learned growing up that he could fall to the same fate as his brother. Not because of gangs. Not because of once living in a crime-ridden area. He must watch his back because he is a black man, he says.

In the weeks that followed the shooting of Michael Brown — an unarmed 18-year-old — by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, anger has bubbled to the surface about how much more likely it is for black men to die at the hands of law enforcement. Or to be profiled while driving, shopping or going to school. What may be overlooked is how the perhaps already bruised psyches of black boys are affected by a staccato series of killings of young black men such as Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and countless others.

“I know my 6th, 7th and 8th grade black youth … they’re terrified. We have kids in crisis,’’ says Kelly Wickham, guidance dean at Lincoln Magnet, a middle school in Springfield. Since Ferguson, she has made it a point of trying to talk to each of the African American and multiracial students at her school — 137 children of the 315 at Lincoln. She says they look at Brown’s death and fear it could happen to them.

Henry Berry Lee Jr., who is 15 and lives in Springfield, is aware of the shooting of Brown and says he thinks about it now and then. “It was kind of sad what happened to him. He didn’t deserve to be shot. It makes me think about it to make sure it doesn’t happen to me or any of my family members.’’

Having to come to terms with ones’ mortality as an adolescent is damaging to a teen’s sense of identity and his sense of who he will someday become, says Alonzo DeCarlo, a psychologist and social worker who is chair of the social and behavioral sciences department at Benedictine University in Springfield.

Children at various stages of development will process such events as Brown’s death and the protests in Ferguson differently, he says. Those age 7 and younger may be unable to distinguish reality from fantasy and may believe the same event is happening again and again.

Young African-American male
Credit Ashwin Suresh Kumar / WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Jeremiel Hemmingway is a 15-year-old patron of the Boys and Girls Club in Springfield.

For 8-year-olds through 10-year-olds, DeCarlo says: “In many cases, they’re seeing that on the news. Some of them are actually out there on the street looking at what’s going on. They know there are lots of people. They know that people are angry, are hurt and disappointed. They know that a life has been taken, but they don’t understand what was involved and the context of what’s happened. They don’t understand that to some that the impetus of this event is tantamount to what some think of as an execution of sorts. … The 8- and 9-year-old doesn’t process thinking in that way.

“My real concern is to date I’ve never seen anyone talk about the impact it has on the developing brain and developing person of 9, 10, 11, 12-year-old children. In reality, it’s probably more important to them because they, unfortunately, may be future targets.”

DeCarlo, a recent transplant from Chicago State University, was on an NAACP-sponsored post-Ferguson panel in Springfield in September. About 400 people turned out to listen and exchange ideas. Another meeting is planned for this month.

Credit Ashwin Suresh Kumar / WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Michael Phelon, branch director of the Boys and Girls Club in Springfield, also runs a mentoring program for young black males.

“He can relate in a different kind of way because he has the cognitive wherewithal to do that and he’s seeing — you know Michael Brown — that could be his brother, that could be his cousin. It could be him. Right? It is powerfully discouraging … and disappointing in the institutions of law enforcement, also in the judicial system, if it appears unfair or unjust or biased in that dispensation of justice.”

Growing up with environmental factors that make you feel unsafe can cause a spike in brain chemicals and hormones associated with stress and affect cognitive development, making it more difficult to retain information and remain focused in school, DeCarlo says.

“That is the impact — along with, of course, the social limbo problems of trust with authority when authority doesn’t seem to trust and respect you. So every other month we look and we see another, unfortunately, black young male buried in the ground because of what is perceived as police misconduct,” he says. “So what is [a black youth] to do? Should he continue to respect the authority? Should he continue to see the authority as [an entity] he can rely on?”

Springfield police say that they would address the city’s racial profiling problem if it had one.

“If we identify a problem, then we work on it,” says Dennis Arnold, deputy police chief in Springfield. “Right now, in our opinion, we do not racially profile. Our officers make valid traffic stops based on Illinois Vehicle Code violations. The color of the driver has absolutely no input on how we conduct our enforcement activities. …We do not and will not tolerate officers’ enforcement actions off of an individual’s race.”

While not speaking specifically about Springfield, Police Training Institute Director Michael Schlosser says, with “color-blind racial ideology, people say: ‘I don’t look at race. I don’t see race. I see everybody as the same, really.’ What that does — color-blind racial ideology — is simply a way of overlooking racism and maybe allowing or justifying current discriminatory practices in our society.” Schlosser, whose academic studies have focused on the intersection of policing and race, is leading research and trials on a diversity training program that will commence again with a January recruit class at the institute, which is run by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Schlosser says he is not claiming that police are racist, but he says adopting a policy that ignores the fact that racism exists in society is counterproductive. “We want them to understand that it’s not just police and racial profiling, but this is a societal problem. Even though racism has changed how it looks like since the civil rights era, today it’s … more implicit, but it still exists. We want them to understand what racism is and how it’s socially constructed.”

Rose, who works with Ford in the diversity center, says police have stopped him on numerous occasions. “Whether it was the way I was dressed, or the crowd I was with, whether it was me going 35 in a 30, if there’s any reason to for them stop to you, if they have probable cause, in their opinion.… When you’re alone, you don’t want to be combative or show a lack of concern for what they are saying because it can backfire — quickly. So stake no claim. Say, ‘why am I being stopped?’ … You have to do things in your defense. You save your freedom of expression at times or recuse yourself from speaking, so you’ll live to see another day, literally.”

He says as a campus leader, he made a point of building a relationship with UIS campus police. Phelon has brought together the children who attend the club and local police. Perhaps as a result, African-American teens interviewed for this story reported having a good relationship with police in Springfield. Hemingway says Springfield police are cool — not prejudiced. Lee says he sees one of his career options as being a police officer. “I ask questions every time I’m around police.” He says, “I’m a good person,” so he doesn’t feel threatened in the least.

Hemingway’s view of law enforcement may be an exception in Illinois’ black communities. “In our community most men do not feel safe. They feel threatened. They don’t know if they’ll be pulled over unjustly. They don’t know if they’ll be asked to step out of the car,’’ says state Rep. Monique Davis, a Democrat from Chicago who sponsored — along with then-state-Sen. Barack Obama — a 2003 law to track racial profiling by police in Illinois. “I see articles that wonder why the African-American community doesn’t get as angry and involved with shooting of our young by gang members. And all of us get upset about black males, even women, being shot by police officers. And that reason is rather simple, and it is no one calls gang members to protect them. No one expects gang members to come when trouble comes.

“They expect police to take that role. So when a policeman shoots a citizen, it’s just shocking, and it should be because they’re there to protect and serve us. They have a right to warrant, they have a right to make arrests, but they don’t have a right to be judge and jury on the spot.”

George Mitchell, president of NAACP Illinois State Conference, says that a recent legislative proposal calling for police to wear body cameras and to have dashboard cameras is a positive development. “It could go a long way toward reducing the incidence of excessive force as well as profiling, racial profiling,” says Mitchell, who also heads the Evanston branch of the civil rights organization.

In the police-training program, recruits also take awareness and communications classes. Schlosser says he wants them to see how their values and assumptions are based on their upbringing and social identity and to know they should treat “everyone with respect and empathy” and to know that “good policing and fair policing is to have an understanding of those components.”

Instilling this sense of empathy and knowledge of social justice may go further than attempts such as color blind policies when it comes to addressing problems with race relations, Schlosser says — not just among law enforcement, but also society at large.

DeCarlo says it starts with the children. “The more we expose our youngsters, our children, to an appreciation for social justice, the greater the probability that we will not have Fergusons popping up, I think. They’re our future.”

Illinois Issues, November 2014

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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