“There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from, you could run but you can’t hide forever.” These words, by Mobb Deep, resonate as I think about the conditions facing Black males in 2012. While news story after story will talk about Black males as perpetrators or victims, the issue is still more complex than we typically let on. If we look carefully, Black folks will have to take a deep breath and examine not just the conditions of racist society but also the negative images we have internalized about Black males which ask us to determine our allegiance to Black males based on their perceived “guilt” or “innocence.” These two options slice like a razor forcing choice between brother or other, friend or foe, or other binaries. In reality, Black males, like all humans are complex and simple categorizations will never provide enough traction for justice work and community healing.
There are two opposing images that keep ringing in my head: the death of Trayvon Martin and the press conference of the Detroit 300. Martin was killed late last month as he attempted to re-enter at a gated community in Florida after going to the store to get some candy. It looks like he was killed the captain of the neighborhood watch, George Zimmerman, by a single bullet fired at close range. Martin’s case is beginning to create a national stir calling for justice and exposing racist societal patterns in community member policing, profiling, and policing.
Around the same time in late February, a group of concerned Detroit residents—predominantly Black man—held a press conference calling on Black men throughout Detroit to “stand up” to end the killing of children and adults in their city. The fiery press conference called out the police, local religious leaders, and political pundits by stating their approaches had been insufficient. The Detroit 300 informed the gangs that they were “coming after you” and they held no common ground or allegiance with the gang members. I saw shortened clips of the press conference posted and applauded on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter because “real men” were stepping up to fight for justice.
Between these two images we see communities calling for justice and safety for Black males, but how the stories unfold make them appear to differ more than they actually do. In the case of Martin, his presumed innocence is leading more to say we need to end “vigilante” action against Black males because 17 year olds like Trayvon Martin’s lose their lives before they can fully begin to live them. As discussions of Martin’s death pan the TV and computer screen I cannot help but think of the life of Emmitt Till who was taken at the hands of “community justice” despite his innocence.
For supporters of the Detroit 300, their insistence on taking back the community is reminiscent to some of the Black Panther Party who knew the contours of the law and used them to create safer communities. People have long been waiting for a community force to put the neighbor back in “the hood” by making sure all can live. At the same time, in a city where the relationship between police and citizens has been strained, even with a shrinking police force, the role of community group policing sets up the possibility for swift justice as well as swift injustice.
In discussing these two contrasting images with friends, family and colleagues, people have told me they want justice for Trayvon but also want the success of the Detroit 300 in ending violence in our communities. Underlying this reasoning is often an assumption of the innocence of Trayvon and the guilt of gang members in Detroit. This guilt serves as a rationale for excommunicating young men from the Black community, with the suggestion that they have already excommunicated themselves. Unfortunately, until we can see that the Black males among us, be they guilty or innocent, are part of our community any work we try to do to produce justice that draws a stark line between the two will be futile. Justice does not look like war on the innocent or the guilty; it looks like creating spaces for accountability, safety, and healing. And those three things can only occur when Black males are met where they are, when a society that devalues Black males is addressed, and when we all question what justice should look like, feel like, and how we’ll fight for it.
In 1903's The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois asked, “How does it feel to be a problem?” In 2012, if you ask this of most Black males you’ll likely get a mélange of answers defining brothers simultaneously as the “the problem” and “the solution.” Sometimes in attempting to be the “the solution” we identify our brothers as “the problem.” The degrees of distance between brothers that consider themselves the solution or the problem may be smaller than we think, if we’re bold enough to find common ground. Justice cannot simply mean arresting those who have done “wrong”, it must also be planting the seeds for “right” to blossom in areas where hope is often cut short.
Every Black man I know wants a life of safety, be they rich or poor, and the chance to grow into their own potential. When we figure out how to connect at that root and ensure the safety of all in our community we’ll be doing justice not just to Trayvon Martin but also the masses of children lost in Detroit, and around the United States.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his offical website