“Am I Suspicious?” Reflections on the Death of Black Childhood

The February 26, 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman sparked waves of public demonstrations across the United States, creating a rupture in the myth of a post-racist United States. Millions of Black people and their allies donned hoodies to symbolize an association with a boy deemed suspicious because he was wearing one. In Chicago, as in many other cities, youth of color poured out into the streets holding signs reading, “Am I Suspicious?” These signs remind us that in the United States, Black people under eighteen are seen as suspicious because our nation does not understand them to be children.

Photo by Rachel Caidor

Childhood is more than a chronological period in a life between infancy and the age of eighteen. It is a fluid and temporary space designated for humans to grow and develop safely. Childhood is purported to be idyllic. We imagine childhood to be carefree and innocent and presume children occupying it have yet to develop malicious intent in the way we adults have. Yet childhood is also political. We have created systems and laws designed to ensure that children can experience this period of development free from harmful exploitations that would interrupt or undermine the process of development. We have agreed as a society that children are exceptionally vulnerable. We create these laws and cultural spaces to protect those considered vulnerable.

In Precarious Life, Judith Butler argues that in order for Americans to consider a life grievable (and also worthy of protection) in the post-9/11 United States, Americans must recognize ourselves and our vulnerabilities in that person. Trayvon Martin and other murdered Black youth are not recognized as vulnerable or mournable. Despite being people under the age of eighteen, they are not recognized as children. Black youth are excluded from childhood and shut out from associations with innocence and vulnerability. Legacies of slavery and continued institutionalized racism have made all Black people suspect. Black youth, specifically, are subjected to targeted, preemptive criminalization. One need only look to the school-to-prison pipeline as evidence that Black people under eighteen are statistically more likely to be expelled or suspended from school, the very institutions structured around nurturing childhood and vulnerable children.[1] In many states, Black youth are also disproportionately tried as adults and sentenced to serve time in adult facilities.[2] For many Black children below the age of eighteen, the presumption of innocence and vulnerability, and thus childhood, is never an option.

Chicago has grown so accustomed to violence against and among Black people under eighteen that many hardly bat an eye when news reports tell of scores of murders in one weekend. Black and Brown youth use the term “Chiraq” to describe the warlike conditions they navigate every day in a way of wresting back some control over their lives by appropriating narratives that deny their childishness.[3] As institutions and systems create self-fulfilling prophecies through police repression, economic divestment, and consistent media messages about their criminality, Black youth are always suspect because the privilege of childhood innocence is not made available to them. They are therefore not only ungrievable, but their encounters with violence become seen as unremarkable, arguably warranted, and ultimately inevitable.

On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin and Trayvon Martin was found not innocent. This verdict reminds us that as long as we support systems that preemptively criminalize anyone, Black people of any age will never be considered innocent or vulnerable or not expendable.

Endnotes

[1] Carla Amurao, “Fact Sheet: How Bad is the School to Prison Pipeline?” Tavis Smiley Reports,  March 28, 2013, accessed 7 January 2014, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/education-under-arrest/school-to-prison-pipeline-fact-sheet/  

[2] Yvonne Wenger. “Blacks account for 85% of teens tried as adults in region,” Baltimore Sun. December 24, 2012, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-12-24/news/bs-md-sun-investigates-juveniles-race-20121222_1_camilla-roberson-charge-youths-charge-teens

[3] Mariame Kaba, “Unpacking ‘Chiraq’ #1: Chief Keef, Badges of Honor, and Capitalism, Prison Culture, accessed 7 January 2014, http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/2013/04/29/unpacking-chiraq-1-chief-keef-badges-of-honor-and-capitalism/