America as a nation has become a tale of two cities: one for young black men and one essentially for everyone else. While we can argue with this blanket statement, what cannot be refuted is that young black men are one of the most imprisoned groups in modern history. African-American men comprise a mere 6% of the American population, but according to the Department of Justice, they make up nearly half of the 2 million inmates in U.S. jails or prisons. These men are largely imprisoned for non-violent offenses. According to the U.S. census, nearly half of America’s 19 million black men are under the age of 35 years old, and the ratio for young black male imprisonment is around 10 percent, or 10,000 prisoners per 100,000. (Note: This is not counting the additional numbers on parole, or on probation, which add significantly to these numbers.) Placing this ratio in context, as of today, India, a country of 1 billion people, only has about 300,000 prisoners, a ratio of 30 prisoners per 100,000 people. During South African apartheid, one of the most horrific instances of racism the world has seen, the prison rate for black male South Africans, under immensely unfair laws, was 851 per 100,000. In America today, young black men face a rate of imprisonment effectively ten times that number.
The consequence of these statistics on African American social development reaches far beyond prisons into community, public perception and family. It is here, in the shadow of mass incarceration that Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin and the majority of young black males are forced to exist. In a nation built by our forefathers' sweat and free labor, we are left to look like and feel like crimeless felons. While we can look closer at music, clothes and other additives that inflate the perception society may have of young black boys, if you don’t start at the heart you cannot even put a dent into the problem. To the families I say unequivocally, your sons were not murdered for what clothes they had on, nor what version of rap lyrics they were listening to, but rather this occurred because of a shadow that has been cast over our nation’s view of young black men. We are perceived as criminals because the nation, through privatization, has made our imprisonment a business, rather than a social service. Prison gerrymandering has made our votes not only disappear, but has effectively sold and divided them up into districts with interests adverse to our own in need of an economic boost. By incentivizing the criminalization of our actions, we have become more than just victims. We are, in effect, economic prey. Not too unlike the use of vagrancy laws to criminalize freed slaves, the use of child support laws, vehicle codes and drug laws have compacted young black men into a secondary existence.
Where do black boys like Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin cry? Where can they be children that play, laugh and joke as they learn their way in this world? When can they be a victim not only of bullets, but also of a society that has deemed them as men before their time by virtue of their skin and gender? Black men like Jordan Davis do not have childhoods. After puberty they lose so much of their innocence and begin their descent into the shadow of our nation's mass incarceration. We as young black men in America live in a world flipped on its head where our gender as men, unlike any other group, makes us more vulnerable socially than our counterparts. Where our image of potential is cast against entertainment silhouettes of Michael Jordan’s flying image and Michael Jackson’s dancing shoes, thus not allowing everyone to see nor be honest about our significant social problems.
While the circumstances of Trayvon and Jordan’s deaths were similar because of the use of guns, what sticks out even more so is their age, both being only 17 years old when murdered. An age that for many other groups leaves them able to call upon the social expectation to be treated like a child, but for little black boys, as a result of the shadow left by incarceration, it leaves them as undefined with expectations to defend themselves while not standing on other’s ground. An expectation to have the full knowledge of the law, but no protection by the law from the outside world's wrath. The issue is that they are not adults. They remain children no matter how the fog of the the aforementioned shadow affects a shooter's view. No matter if Jay-Z is playing in the background, Louis Vuitton belts from Barney's are being sagged on their pants or the proverbial hat of failure society has placed on their head is flipped backward, they are still boys. Someone’s son or little brother is their true measure, and they have every right to cry, hoping their screams reach beyond the shadow mass incarceration has cast that blinds people like George Zimmerman & Michael Dunn from seeing all of the light of their potential.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Antonio Moore graduated from UCLA in 2002, and Loyola Law School in 2006. He is a former Los Angeles County Prosecutor. He is now a practicing Los Angeles based entertainment attorney with several celebrity clients. He is also an active member of the Urban League Young Professionals.