President Obama blames “an entire generation of young men in our society…who have gone down the wrong path” for the “epidemic of violence” in cities. “Overwhelmingly, violent crime in this country is generated by young black men,” declares Fox News’ conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly.
Liberal Demos fellow and former New York Times commentator Bob Herbert is even more emphatic in repeated columns: “Young black men” are ”insane,” “predators… running wild” in a “Lord of the Flies culture.” Widely quoted criminologist Alex Piquero calls teenagers “temporary sociopaths” and warns of rising numbers of black and brown youth.
Veteran criminologist Jeffrey Butts tells major New York radio and the Associated Press that “a lot of young men” are randomly attacking, even killing, innocent strangers, driven by the mentally and morally deficient “normative behavior of adolescents… across a wide spectrum” toward “thrill seeking,” “fun,” and “peer approval” without “thinking about the pain and suffering they cause.” “Teenage wolf packs,” CNN senior political analyst and Harvard professor David Gergen branded them.
These are just a few of the constant drumbeat of inflamed comments in major media in which reporters and sources in the highest positions of leadership and scientific authority pronounce ALL teenagers—“an entire generation,” the president declared—unspeakably brutal and murderous, with young black men the worst of the bad.
I hope to see the day when politicians and pundits receive widespread condemnations and academic and media commentators face disciplinary hearings for this kind of incendiary, cruelly stupid, self-indulgent degrading of young people. We should either abolish prejudicial terms like “youth violence” or apply a general demographic label ("Jew violence," "Muslim violence," "male violence," "White violence," "Black violence," "Latino violence," "middle-aged violence," etc.) to all cases.
But there’s a more immediate, dangerous question to address: How could white, 45-year-old Michael Dunn, encountering four black teenagers outside a Florida convenience store, NOT feel threatened to the point where the shooting of 17-year-old Jordan Davis became not just a possibility, but inevitable?
Indeed, one juror, explaining why the jury opted for the lesser, 2nd degree murder conviction after Dunn fired 10 shots into the back of the teens’ fleeing car and then left the scene, stated: “We looked at it as a bad situation where teenagers were together, words were spoken, and lines were crossed.”
That’s a lot like President Obama’s quip on the Tonight Show that Trayvon Martin (the unarmed, candy-carrying black youth who was accosted and senselessly murdered by Florida vigilante George Zimmerman) was somehow at fault because “a teenage boy… is going to mess up” and “won’t always have the best judgment.”
Seriously? That’s the root cause of these killings—teenagers “messing up” by being in public in a group, or alone walking in their neighborhood? That’s not just the president or a jury talking. Hundreds of cities reflect that logic by adopting youth curfews while allowing violent grownups to continue carrying guns.
If those who traffic in mass, negative stereotypes toward young people don’t back off after witnessing these panicked, aggressive shootings victimizing youths over prejudicial suspicions and petty annoyances, and subsequent reactions that such killings are somehow justified because the assailant had imagined reasons (even if provably baseless) to fear of young people, then what will it take? Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were shot and their killers wholly or partly exonerated not just because they were black, but also because they were young.
As I pointed out in a previous column, “statistics” are no excuse for bigotry. Young black men could justifiably fear that Dunn or Zimmerman (or Bill O’Reilly), based on their white race and older age, are “statistically” more likely than average to be dangerous illegal-drug abusers, mass shooters, and/or corporate criminals, and could provoke a violent public incident based on those fears. Except that we all know how harshly the criminal justice system would treat young black men “standing their ground” against older adults in identical circumstances.
The fact is, every group in society has bad statistics over some behavior, but only tiny fractions of any race or age conform to the worst stereotypes of their demographic group—a truth august experts, presidents, and gun-toting vigilantes all seem to forget when it comes to young people.
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice