By David Muhammad
I have struggled with the theme of “Black Lives Matter” in the protests
against police killings of Black men in America. I totally agree with
the sentiment, but I have just had trouble with the message that seems
so basic and demands a low bar. Then after an argument with a friend who
thought the theme was ridiculous, I found myself defending it and
eventually fully embracing the notion that one of our biggest challenges
is that so many people in this country devalue the life of Black youth.
But it is much more than police killings.
I watched the March
and rally organized by Reverend Al Sharpton in the nation’s capital
recently. Toward the end of the event, he brought up numerous families
of the countless Black men murdered by police in cities throughout
America. It was a stage full of pain. The mothers of Michael Brown, Eric
Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo and many more. It
inspired great emotion and passion.
Somehow, the everyday
injustice in America does not evoke the same response. Gross racial
disparities in arrests, prosecutions, incarceration, violations of
probation and parole, and sentencing destroy millions of Black lives.
Though the magnitude is much greater, it does not inspire the level of
anger that a video of a White officer murdering a Black man does.
incarcerates a greater percentage of Black people than were jailed in
Apartheid South Africa. There are more Black people in America’s prisons
than were enslaved in 1850. And though many articles are written, great
books are published, and talk shows discuss the subject, we have not
seen the type of organizing, outrage, and protest that we have for
Black Lives Matter is the appropriate cry
for this injustice. America would never stand for a million White
people incarcerated for drugs and other non-violent offenses. But when
Black youth from poor neighborhoods are arrested, detained, given
draconian sentences and locked away, we ignore it.
research shows that White and Black people use drugs at approximately
equal rates, Black people are 10 times more likely to be sent to prison
for drug offenses. Black Americans represent 56 percent of those
incarcerated for drug crimes, even though they comprise only 13 percent
of the U.S. population.
A ground breaking report, “The Essence of
Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” published
earlier this year by UCLA researcher Phillip Atiba Goff, showed the
overwhelming prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of Black people
held by Whites. Researchers conducted several experiments with mostly
White police officers and White undergraduate students. The alarming
results were that the White police officers and even the students viewed
Black children as much older, less innocent, and more animalistic.
evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can
be affected by race, and for Black children, this can mean they lose
the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they
become adults,” one of the researchers involved with the study said.
This dehumanization of Black youth leads to the extreme disproportionality we see in the criminal justice system.
locally the disparities are stark. In Alameda County, Blacks constitute
just 12 percent of the population, but Black youth make up half of all
youth in the juvenile justice system here. In a report conducted last
year by the Black Organizing Project, ACLU, and Public Counsel, it was
revealed that Black youth are on average 73.5 percent of all juvenile
arrests in Oakland each year, even though they only make up 29.3 percent
of the city’s population.
So I urge the protestors in cities
around the country who have brought national attention to the great need
for increased police accountability to maintain their vigilance. But I
also humbly suggest that they focus their attention on why Black lives
must matter in the criminal justice system.
Focus some of that
outrage and organizing on local policy makers. In addition to calling
for greater police accountability, hold local District Attorneys
accountable for unnecessarily charging youth as adults, hold probation
and parole departments accountable for arbitrary revocations and other
decisions that lead to incarceration, hold state legislators accountable
for draconian sentencing laws, and hold courts accountable to offer
more diversion programs. But especially, use that power of protest
marches and civil disobedience to apply pressure to local elected
officials to take the many millions of dollars spent on incarceration
and reinvest those resources directly into impoverished communities of
color. Show that Black lives really do matter!
is the National Director of Justice Programs at the National Council on
Crime and Delinquency. David is the former Chief Probation Officer of
Alameda County and the former Deputy Commissioner of Probation in New
This piece has been cross-posted with New America Media.