Bolton: Protests mean nothing if we don’t save our black boys

Associate EditorJuly 24, 2013 

— I SHARE IN THE outrage many African-Americans and others feel about the senseless shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

The marches and protests — thousands attended the “10,000 Hoodie March” in Columbia on Saturday — decrying the tragedy and shining light on racial profiling, long-standing inequities in our justice system and flaws in “stand your ground” laws are necessary, although I’m not convinced that a civil rights case should be brought against George Zimmerman. While the disappointment over Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal is understandable, a jury has spoken; the focus now should be on changing laws, the system and the heart of America.

But African-Americans can’t stop there; they must take a serious look at the state of our black boys, so many of whom — along with many girls and adults — donned hoodies over the past year and a half and proclaimed, “I am Trayvon Martin.” All the marching and protesting means nothing if parents, the community and others don’t insist that our black boys pursue greater existences than those of gang-bangers, petty drug dealers, thieves or murderers — of one another and others.

The reason so many are demanding change is in hopes of ensuring that the many Trayvon Martins in our midst and those yet to be born will escape unfair treatment and scrutiny and, above all, be allowed to live. But we must want them to do more than live: We need them to achieve and excel. If that’s to happen, we must be as passionate about their futures as we have been about Trayvon’s untimely demise. We must work tirelessly to ensure that they become productive, contributing citizens who develop careers, build families and strengthen communities.

Most black boys are law-abiding, respectful youngsters who want to succeed. But, as I’ve written before, a significant number suffer from the “terrible toos”: Too many are without fathers or significant men in their lives; too many are dropping out of school; too many are on the street with no jobs; too many are becoming teen fathers; too many are hooked on drugs and/or alcohol; too many are in gangs; too many are committing crimes. While most black families, like most white families, want what’s best for their children and work hard to rear and provide for them, far too many black parents fail their children.

Even as we raise the legitimate and critical issues surfaced by Trayvon’s death, African-Americans must not ignore the ugly truth about violence and crime among young black boys, which present a threat as dangerous as the mindset so many are fighting to root out in our society and justice system.

The national passion evoked by the Trayvon Martin travesty must not be allowed to dissipate when it comes to the travesties in local communities across the country, whether it’s dealing with the countless murders that occur with sad regularity in the streets of Chicago or the senseless crimes that occur right here in our own Columbia communities.

All crime is unacceptable, regardless of who commits it. But the fact is that black people are committing crimes at a high rate, regardless of the victims’ race. Just consider some statistics from unincorporated Richland County: In 2010, 71 percent of all violent crimes were committed by African-Americans, according to the Sheriff’s Department. Eighty-eight percent of all violent crimes committed by blacks that year were against other black citizens; 97 percent of all violent crimes against blacks were committed by blacks. Most were committed by male perpetrators.

Don’t be so surprised that black people commit most crimes against blacks; white people also commit most crimes against whites.

Some white members of this community have questioned why the senseless shooting death of baker Kelly Hunnewell hasn’t gotten similar attention as the Trayvon Martin killing. Three African-American suspects have been charged in her death. Ms. Hunnewell’s death is heartbreaking and inexcusable; this entire community should mourn this mother and pray for the four children left without her because of such a wanton act. Whomever is responsible should be punished to the full extent of the law.

But these deaths are apples and oranges. While Ms. Hunnewell’s death, possibly at the hands of black men, should certainly be part of the conversation about the crime African-Americans commit, that’s different from the debate about how a white Hispanic man killed a black boy and wasn’t arrested or even charged to begin with. It’s different from the debate about how black boys and men are profiled and mistreated — and sometimes killed — in America.

Ms. Hunnewell’s and Trayvon’s lives were both precious; neither deserved to die.

The question now is what will we do to stop any of these senseless killings? Or beatings? Or robberies? Or gang activities?

The answer to these problems begin at home. Parents must become deeply involved in rearing and educating their children. Black fathers and other men must embrace and support those boys. They also must confront them, condemn their bad behavior and tell them that regardless of their upbringing or other pressures in life, there is no excuse to rob, drop out, maim or kill.

We must be intentional not only about ensuring that black boys are fairly treated and that our justice system is truly color blind, but also about raising our youth in love and helping them come to know who they are and their purpose in life. As I wrote on Tuesday, black men and boys live a life of suspicion, often labeled criminals on no more evidence than the color of their skin. But that’s not what God called them to be. And we must help them understand that so their actions will line up with who they really are.

They’re not gang-bangers; they’re builders of community. They’re not baby daddies; they’re fathers. They’re not crooks or thieves; they’re entrepreneurs. They’re not murderers; they’re protectors of life.

We’ll need the help of the church, community and even government to address this issue. But home is where it all starts; some argue it ends there as well.

My 4- and 8-year-olds and I routinely spend 45-minute sessions together intended to help prepare them for life. On the evening of the George Zimmerman verdict, we were in the midst of what’s come to be known as instruction time with Dad. That day, we talked about the responsibilities men and boys have in relation to women and girls. We talked about how we’re to treat them and talk to them and protect them. We also talked about etiquette. We learned and recited Scripture. And we ended, as always, with a black history lesson. This one was about Thurgood Marshall, his work as a U.S. Supreme Court justice and his civil rights efforts, including helping desegregate our schools.

After they got ready for bed, we read books and prayed. When I made it back downstairs, my wife almost immediately said, “They’ve got a verdict.”

We didn’t want to hear “not guilty,” as many others didn’t. But we must not allow the understandable outrage about Trayvon’s death to blind us to the real crises that besets many of our black boys. Let’s save them.

Reach Mr. Bolton, author of “God Is Grace: Lessons to a Father from a Son,” at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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