When They See Us: Our Beautiful, Vulnerable Black Children

Protecting our black children from destructive forces both domestic and foreign, inter and intra racial, has always been a tedious endeavor. Whether it’s shielding our children from benign forces like a rhythm-less two step or more sinister threats that are nefarious in nature, the black parent, well, the black village does its best in attempting to rear our children in the right direction. The black child resides at epicenter of a powerless intersection. While both being a child and black, they have little to no constitutional rights to change their circumstances, and their circumstances are often caused by a country who defecates on black rights, both the adults and children. While residing at this powerless intersection, they are highly vulnerable and downright exposed to influences and policies that are beyond their control. They are black and powerless while residing in a world that only loves the white and/or powerful. Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” on Netflix is a beautifully painful masterpiece that exhibits the uncensored vulnerability of the American Black Child.

Our—no—their judicial system exposes the black child’s vulnerability better than any other toxic systematic structure in this country. In “When They See Us,” the American Black Child was wickedly berated into giving coerced false statements, on the record, all while being un-willfully ignorant (beyond their control) of the criminal investigative/judicial process. A process that actively preys on the defenseless and powerless; a process that actively preys on those who don’t have the necessary tools to protect themselves with both financial and legal acumen; a process that actively preys on those who reside at this non-white/low-income intersection. The Central Park Five faced a perfect storm of racial prejudice, policing and prosecution, which were all motivated by not seeking justice for a woman who was brutally raped, but by protecting the perception of white woman innocence. Black boys like the Central Park Five are inherently and unfairly viewed as older, less innocent, and more violent than their white counterparts. According to the American Psychological Association, “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.” This false perception was highlighted again and again in the first two episodes of “When They See Us” as we witnessed the entire judicial system reign down harsh, adult-level guilty judgement on black, innocent children.

It’s no secret that racial biases cast a dark, ominous cloud over Lady Liberty and her scales of justice, scales that are meant to be a symbol for fair and balanced. Decision and policy makers at all stages of the judicial process have displayed time and time again that their policies don’t create much of an advantage for the marginalized among us, and is in fact, disadvantageous for black people. Studies have found that black folks (including our black children) are more likely to be stopped by the police, detained, go through a flawed pretrial system, charged with more serious crimes, and sentenced more harshly than white people. A study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NBCI) tested whether African American face type (stereotypical or non-stereotypical) facilitated stereotype-consistent categorization, and whether that categorization influenced memory accuracy and errors. And just like previous studies that were conducted by the NCBI and other non-partisan institutes, it proved that stereotypically Black features are associated with crime and violence and those same Black features are often miscategorized as criminals when memory failed. When the judicial criminal process learned about the brutal rape of a white female at the North Woods of Manhattan’s Central Park April 19, 1989, it’s racial biases took over. It’s interrogative tactics—which on paper are meant to seek the truth—were used to trip up and extract a confession out of those Black features they wanted to criminalize simply because they were black, no matter their child-like features or their (presumed) innocence.

“When They See Us” reminded us that we over-criminalize and under-protect those who need the most protection. But it also reminded us that representation in the judicial arena was needed then and is needed now. Law school often reminds its students in first year Criminal Law that ignorance is not a defense in the eyes of the law, and because of this, the law disportionately and negatively impacts those who are not legally inclined. Representation, well, the RIGHT representation, in every aspect of the judicial process from policing to prosecution would assist in rendering judicial outcomes that are beneficial and advantageous to our black village. But “When They See Us” should most importantly remind us of how our black village needs to be stronger and more united than ever. We, as a black village, need to teach our vulnerable black children how to handle initial police stoppings, investigations and interrogations. WE need to warn our beautiful, vulnerable black children about the potential judicial landmines they may come across every time they step outside the safety of our homes. Our black village is pro-black children, but this world is not. This world is anti-black children. And it is unfortunate—yet needed—to remind our black children of this fact. “When They See Us” reminded us of this fact. Now the burden is on us to remind them, our beautiful, vulnerable black children.

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