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After Trayvon: Why Do We Dehumanize Black Males?

July 25, 2013 06:13:00 am
Comments (16)

By C. Jama Adams

The Zimmerman verdict fleetingly highlights the negative exceptionality that is inscribed on Black males—teenage and adult—in the United States. They are all too often perceived as predators or slackers. Rarely are they seen as human beings with the skills, potential, and capacity to care as anyone else.  

What contributes to such a dehumanizing stance and such rage directed at this group?

I would suggest that there is an abundance of rage and fear in the American soul and Black males are its most prominent— but not its only—target. Feelings of subjective safety and trust are low.

The institutions and public figures responsible for both protecting us against some of the vicissitudes of life and at the same time facilitating  our living well are widely perceived as having failed us.

We do not trust the government, the politicians, the corporations, the bankers, the media, the health care system, the justice system or the educators. And of course we do not trust Nature.

The stagnation of wages felt by most Americans and the relatively jobless nature of the economic recovery are also major sources of stress.  We are an aging population and far too many of us do not have secure homes or decent amounts of retirement savings.

So, regardless of which social or economic class one belongs to there is some sense of fearfulness, a sense that one is not safe, and that one will not be protected.

We are angry and fearful about all of this but we cannot attack the market: too  abstract.We cannot attack the officials: too well protected. When we take to the streets we are assaulted, and when we launch political counter-attacks, we are betrayed or neutered.

It often seems that all that is left to attack is the self and any vulnerable groups.

This year for the first time, the degree of abuse of prescription drugs is greater than that for illegal drugs. Obesity is increasing, as also is suicide among middle aged white men. Depression and anxiety are the most commonly medicated psychological problems.

Black Americans have been a traditional target of our unacknowledged rage at feeling vulnerable, unfulfilled or unprotected.

The Republic for far too long was premised on the unstated calculus that achieving the American dream for some required creating nightmares for others: Native Americans, Blacks, women, poor children and the elderly poor. Given how Blacks were brought here, there is a long history of dehumanizing them so that the non-Black majority could pursue more fulfilling lives.

Equally troubling: such dehumanization,  such lack of empathy and caring are seen as normal and therefore often goes unquestioned.

We have treated their human imperfections and vulnerabilities as an excuse to deny our own.

They become in our imaginations what we deny in our collective selves: greed, fear, aggression, vulnerability and intolerance. Trayvon Marin was in Sanford because he had been suspended from his school in another town; a punishment meted out disproportionately to Black youth in our school system starting in preschool.

George Zimmerman is clearly a lost soul: anxious, angry and seeking a shallow form of recognition by stalking an innocent but culturally condemned Black youth with the aid of an all too easily acquired gun. He tragically ended one life and has devastated his own and that of many others.

The damage to the body politic is equally severe.

This sort of tragedy can be prevented, but too many of our communities lack guidance counselors, safe places for young people to play, and quality (and affordable) mental health services.

Many will argue that large swaths of the criminal justice system function as a flawed plea bargaining system that is a pipeline to prison for too many poor youth caught medicating their angst with illegal drugs.  Yet despite the tremendous pressures they face most Black youth have no involvement with the criminal justice system. 

The price many of them pay, however, is often a preoccupation with safety, a curbing of spontaneity and a stifling of creativity. The additional tragedy in all of this is the psychological and physical price we all pay in denying the increased corruption of the American dream. 

Spiritual and ethical corruption is not peculiar to America. But some of us still believe in an ethical exceptionalism: that we who have been so gifted can and must do better.

This is not an unstoppable tide.

There are decent folks across the class, corporate, administrative, religious, racial and ethnic spectrum doing good work in embracing diversity in general and specifically protecting and nurturing vulnerable populations.

Many of these efforts are underfunded and often invisible; but they are there. We must support them, we must tell their stories.

And we must learn from their failures and replicate their successes— and in the process recommit as a people to being caring and judicious.   

C. Jama Adams is chair of the Africana Studies Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He welcomes comments from readers.     



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Posted by edna
Monday, August 19, 2013 02:59

Well said……sir.

Posted by Student
Saturday, August 10, 2013 08:53

Dr Adams from the below listed responses I guess it’s safe to assume that your a man of intelligence with a vast amount of knowledge in your fields of study. However, your article comes across very opinionated at times. How about listing some concrete statistics to support your arguments ? Thanks and be well.

Posted by Haziine EyTina
Wednesday, August 07, 2013 04:32

Brilliant article Dr. Adams, it encapsulated a multiplicity of issues that males of African decent face in the US. You see it clearly and rationally, acknowledging our collective pain while offering solutions. I applaud your verbalizing what the African American community is feeling in a public forum so eloquently, thank you.

Posted by lloydjole3@aol.com
Tuesday, August 06, 2013 10:35

Add a Comment
mom-granma, sis,daughter,friend of The Black Men In Life
It’s such a hurtful feeling to see all my Black Men lumped into one
area, when I have a Doctor (Nephew), Lawyer (cousin), Business Owner
(friend) Provider (husband)..don’t get me wrong I have a Prison(grandson) and I Thank God for each and everyone of them and I know they have had
to work multiple times harder to acheive in life, the simple things that had
they been afforded the same opportunities in life as the (averge male species) they would have been more than a President who has been
shown the most disrepect ever to exist. But I take solace in knowing
GOD Loves them All and so do I…..

Posted by Reverend M
Sunday, August 04, 2013 10:42

Today I was preaching to a congregation of 140 people in a small country church when a man walked in and verrry slowly walked down the middle aisle straight towards me with his head lowered and a white hoodie on. I could not see his face. I got very uneasy not sure what what was about to happen. I just kept on talking and he sat own on the very front row and then pulled off his hoodie to reveal he was a black man. He looked steaight ahead and never once looked at me. Later I wondered if this was somekind of Trayvon Martin statement. After church he slipped out. It really bothered me that he did this. It made me feel like he was tryingto intimidate all of us.
I guess this goes to the whole subject of trusting black men. That certinly di not help at all.

Posted by JJAY graduate
Sunday, August 04, 2013 01:25

Stop making excuses and pointing fingers at Society and police and racism. Listen, there are many Theories to explain why things HAVE HAPPENED but the bottom line is NO ONE’S FATE is ABSOLUTE.

If you’re a Single parent raising a child or children and you’re poor you cannot possibly assume your kids will be in gangs and involved in Violent criminal offenses. The HOUSEHOLD is extremely important.

 The type of SUPPORT SYSTEM you have that can give you the energy and confidence needed to succeed in life (regardless of the exterior nonsense). POOR minorities have problems focusing with all the distractions they ALLOW themselves to accept and choose to take steps that end in a path they know doesn’t look pretty.

STOP BEING WEAK! keep your HEAD UP! FOCUS FOCUS FOCUS and do what you need to do to be successful and happy. regardless of the challenges and situations life has put you through YOU ARE THE DETERMINING FACTOR IN YOUR FUTURE regardless of obstacles that make it EASIER or HARDER. you still have to WORK HARD FOR IT!

COPS and people in general DISLIKE THE THUG LOOK
no one cares about RACE. If you LOOK LIKE A THUG you LOOK LIKE A CRIMINAL.

PERCEPTION is REALITY. Asian, White, Male, Female, Black or Hispanic.. no one cares. Pull you pants up, have some respect (because society HATES to see underware regardless of race) and get out the business attire and look like a professional or at least a button / polo shirt, even a T-shirt is fine with some decent loose fitting appearance. But the Colored Du-Rags, underwear showing, 18 inches of jeans hanging off your leg (REGARDLESS OF RACE! THIS IS NOT ABOUT RACE! THIS IS ABOUT THE THUG LOOK!)

blacks / hispanics typically have a DIFFERENT FASHION sense of style in the “Ghetto” so of course that draws NEGATIVE ATTENTION. How many people wearing SUITS AND TIES get “HARASSED” by police ?

Change your APPEARANCE to change your PERCEPTION.

It’s NOT AS DEEP as people make it out to be with history of slavery and stuff. Every Ethnicity has their sad story.

Zimmerman is NOT a racist and this is NOT about RACISM

This is clearly about the PERCEPTION of a THUG LOOK and the ASSOCIATIONS it has in the criminal justice system.
BIAS to the Thug Appearance not RACISM to the Skin

(I was a student of this professor and if anything this guy APPEARED to many students as a racist with all his side OPINIONS targeting every other race. But whatever I guess he is passionate and uses EXTREMES to prove his points)

Posted by MD
Wednesday, July 31, 2013 12:11

This essay is a perfect exihibit of the underpinning of the culture of self sabotage being propagated into black youth by thier intellegencia.

Only in the mind of race hustlers can a white person living today be resented based on the slave owners who lived a century and a half ago. In any other application this type of guilt transferral would be akin to a psychosis which prevents the patient from dealing with the facts in the here and now.

Equal in its dysfunction is the assertion that all whites are now guilty of the crime committed by George Zimmerman because six non black women were not provided the proper evidence to render a guilty verdict. I suppose that jury nullification of the OJ Simpson kind was in order in this case.

I wonder why it is that all of the lament pouring forth from black intellegancia is isolated to the injustice towards the YOUNG black MALE? What about the young black FEMALE? Or how about the OLD black male? Are they not hated by all of white America or is there some mystic combination associated with being black and young and male that isolates them as the favorite object of dehumanisation in America. If so it would be a rare oddity in the history of racism, for no other form of racism in history focused in on such a narrow demographic.

And finally, the psychological profiling of the mind of white America is nothing less than worthy of the tinfoil hat award. To construct such an utter iron clad and conspiratorial view of white America makes one wonder if the author may suffer from some form of paranoid disorder.

I would recommend that if you want to see an improvment in the condition of the young black male, that you stop feuling these self fulfilling prophecies. For if there is any suspision or mistrust or fear of discreditation from whites toward the young black male, nothing affirms that perception better than a young black male who views the world and whites through the mental and emotional conditioning from articles like this. People can tell when someone has a chip on thier shoulder. People can tell when someone is looking for any excuse to sue or to accuse or to claim racism. Steering clear of that is not racism, its human nature.

I can only conclude from the thoughts contained in this essay and so many just like it that black leaders are not looking for equality, they are looking for superiority. They want to rewrite the rules of life to always make winners of thier race even when they play like losers.

If my only understanding of black people were learned from this article I would conclude they are a hopeless lot. But fortunatly I know far too many blacks who inspired me with thier love, and taught me with thier wisdom and broadened my understanding with thier honesty and insight on how life really works.

So In spite of this article I will continue to assume black people are just like everybody else. Individuals whose success rises and falls on thier own attitudes and decisions


Posted by Danielle Williams
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 01:32

I totally agree with you Dr. Adams. Change will have to start from within our culture. We have to embrace, support and love one another first. The time is now. I AM my sisters/brothers keeper.

Posted by WP
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 01:03

i think labeling fear as racism is questionable. using NYC for argument sake, 75% the reported suspects of all violent crime are young black men. if say it was young white men committing 75% of all violent crime in my city people would be more suspect and fearful of young white men. if young black men aren’t getting the opportunity to option of success as opposed to crime then by all means let’s get them any and all resources they need but we must examine whether or not currently available programs are being taken advantage of by those its offered to. if its merely that quick easy tax free money and making your own schedule with a life of crime is more appealing than legal opportunities of education and employment then what else can be done? The author making the Ridiculous claim that youngsters are “medicating their angst with illegal drugs” is deplorable. you’re making excuses which isn’t what solves this problem. following the law fixes this problem, not excusing the behvior. drawing conclusion on the character of Zimmerman while never meeting him and basing your opinion of him on biased media reporting is exactly what the authors argument about dehumanizing Black’s is. Forming opinion of someone based off of anything besides your own personal dealings with them is wrong however you slice it, Zimmerman or a young black man. so maybe less hypocrisy by all of us can combat racism.

Posted by Shawn
Monday, July 29, 2013 06:20

I have to take issue with your comment stating “The Republic for far too long WAS (my emphasis) premised on the unstated calculus that achieving the American dream for some required creating nightmares for others.” This calculus (which actually goes back to Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc.) HAS NOT CHANGED. One can successfully make the argument that “self-actualization” (the ultimate of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) can only be accomplished if OTHERS perform the more basic needs for someone (or some group of people). Unfortunately, the notion of “justice for all” is just a pipe dream - an unreachable one because “justice” for you inevitably leads to “injustice” for me (since justice is as finite as is any other resource, be it tangible or intangible).
Besides, Travon Martin might not be the “saint” that those who claim to speak for “the Black community” have made him out to be. We have to consider HIS ACTIONS as well as those of Zimmerman’s (as best as they can be determined) before we make him into a “martyr”. There is at least one other side of this story
- see the video at http://www.ijreview.com/2013/07/68300-whittle/. Google the combination of “trayvon martin skittles lean” and see what I’m referring to…
Before anyone asks the White community to change its attitude towards Blacks, it is up to the Black community to change its attitudes towards themselves and Whites FIRST — to prove White people WRONG about Black people BEFORE Whites should even change their ways towards them.

Posted by Evan Misshula
Monday, July 29, 2013 04:31

So proud of you, Jama for saying far better than I what many of us have been feeling. I hope for many more years of fighting for justice at John Jay with you and our colleagues.

Regards from Chicago,
Evan Misshula

Posted by Anoinymous
Sunday, July 28, 2013 08:01

The real issue is not society, it is the black race as a whole. I do not want to have any animosity but to be straightforward. Black people kill each other every single day, what makes Trayvon martin so different? Just because he was not killed by a black man, its called racism. In order for others to respect the black community, we have to respect each other. The hate we give each other shows that it is ok for others to disrespect us. In order for change to occur we can be unified everyday, not when other races kill members of the black community.

Posted by John Smith
Sunday, July 28, 2013 05:59

BBW now!

Posted by Ailyn Suarez
Saturday, July 27, 2013 07:01

I completely agree with your views
what I am still confused about is the circumstances, if the police department asked Zimmerman to remain in his car isn’t his pursuit or Travon invasion of his rights, wasn’t Travon standing his ground, wasn’t Zimmerman abusing his authority knowing he had a weapon and pursuing an innocent teenager who had no idea this man was armed, wasn’t their already criminal intent if he failed to follow orders of the police department.
if the police told Zimmerman to remain in his car he took matters into his own hand thus disregarding the law, disregarding authority, disregarding the constitution I thing the case should have been different, besides the race issue its a power struggle.
a man in power with no place in the world attempts to save his neighborhood by murdering an innocent man, I don’t think its race its the government and the laws placed which do more harm then good, the constitution is in place to protect human life from power from government.
so where’s the real issue? our society

Posted by Yvette Oliver
Thursday, July 25, 2013 05:13

I totally agree with your views. I am the single mother of 7 children. One of whom has been convicted of a quadruple murder solely on a full day interrogation, a “confession tape” where many scenarios were told. The physical evidence obtained from him was 3 drops of blood on his shoe of one of the victims. There were 2 other men that entered and left this particular residence alongside my son. one was never charged, the other was aquitted. There was 2 separate trials for these defendants. My son was 18 yrs old when he was arrested, he is now 30. On his third appeal, maintaining his innocence. He was sentenced 140 yrs

Posted by Terry Pelz
Thursday, July 25, 2013 11:47

A good read. Kudos to Dr.Adams.

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