dangers of criminalization

A year after living in East Point, while walking with a friend we were discussing the challenges of growing up as a middle schooler. Her kids are reaching that age group and we were venting about how hard those 6-8th grade years were for ourselves, personally. We got on the topic of sexual exposure, primarily when we started experiencing inappropriate behavior from kids in our classes. Deep in conversation I said…

“OH! let me tell you about this thing I experienced as a 6th grader. This black boy…”

And I froze.

Omg. Here I am doing active racial reconciliation work, knee deep in it on a daily basis, and my reason for WHY I am doing it was on full display in the “black boy” comment.

Why did I say “black boy”?

In that moment, I was attaching his behavior to the color of his skin. His skin color had no part in the story. If I was telling a story about another boy, I wouldn’t have used the phrase “white boy” so why was I assigning “black” to this boy’s role in the story? Assigning “black” to his criminal/bad/inappropriate role in the story. This sucks, really, really sucks, to admit but I was assuming criminal characteristics about him based solely on the color of his skin. I did it without even knowing what I was doing in the moment because these beliefs and biases are so deeply rooted in me. So deeply rooted it’s unconscious, most of the time I don’t even know it’s there.

2016 Websters dictionary doesn’t have a definition of criminalization so I tracked one down in a textbook on the introduction to criminology (aka the scientific study of crimes and criminals). Criminalization is defined as “the process by which behaviors and individuals are transformed into crime and criminals”.

Not relying on an article or someone else to do this work for me, I dug into the National, State and Regional Fatal Injury Reports. I ran a few scenarios and was flabbergasted by the numbers.

Before I get into the meat of the post, a focus on Black males, I need to comment on another something I found in the data.

As I’ve heard before, the statistics I found in my data gathering are staggering for white male suicides. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, white males, you’re hurting, it’s not just racial minorities and women, you guys are hurting, too. If you are someone who loves a white male be sure to check in on him. Often times, their pain doesn’t have a soft or an easy place to land in our society and culture so it seems to go unchecked. So evidenced by their group being among the highest population of individuals choosing suicide as an escape route from pain.

Now back to the main point of this post…

The CDC (the organization who delivers these injury reports) defines homocide as deaths due to injuries inflicted by any means by another person with the intent to injure or kill. It excludes injury-related deaths resulting from legal intervention and operations of war. Justifiable homicide is not separately identified in WISQARS Fatal Injury Mapping.

Legal intervention death is defined as deaths due to injuries inflicted by police or other law enforcement agents, including military on duty, in the course of arresting or attempting to arrest lawbreakers, suppressing disturbances, maintaining order, and performing other legal actions. It excludes injuries caused by civil insurrections.

This is important as I talk about the numbers.

You can search for anything on this site but I narrowed down what I was interested in uncovering. I wanted to compare deaths of black men and white men and looked specifically at homicides and legal intervention deaths.

Legal Intervention Male Deaths
Black: 1,246
White: 2,681
One argument I’ve heard before is “more white men die at the hands of cops than Black men”. I’ll be honest, when I first ran these numbers I was a little frustrated. I’m trying to prove a point here and dang, over two times as many white men as Black men die this way. Maybe those people are right? Then the Lord drew my eyes to the population differences.

Numbers for Black men
Numbers for white men

Looking at the population column there are 214 million Black males and 1 billion white males. When running the percentages of deaths in comparison to the population of the group, Black men are THREE TIMES more likely to die by legal intervention then white men.

Now, for homicides.

Homocide Male Deaths
Black: 80,707
White: 38,582

This is pretty obvious that more Black men are dying than white men in this category but since I saw above how much of a difference looking at population totals make in understanding numbers I ran these percentages as well. This one made my throat catch. Based on the percentages of Black men who are living and the ones who are now dead, TEN TIMES more Black men die than white men at the hands of others.

“Black men are dying”.

That was my thought as I stared at my little yellow post-it note with these numbers.

Black men are dying.

It had been months since I walked with my friend and called out my own criminalization of the boy from my 6th grade class. I’ve learned a lot and grown and lot and yet, it happened again. I was walking around the grocery store. Down one aisle and back up another, and I saw a teenage boy walk by. He was wearing a hood, and a mask (duh – COVID) and yet my defenses were up.

The second time I saw him, I held my purse closer and my mind started racing. Is he following me? Is he trying to steal my purse? I recognized what I was doing and took a deep breath. I was criminalizing this young man for no reason other than the color of his skin and the hoodie he was wearing and the fact I’d passed him twice. How do I know this is what I was doing? Because I’d passed the same woman THREE times on earlier aisles and she and I laughed about how I was following her, no purse clutching there!

So here I was, criminalizing this Black boy and I had a choice. I could let my brain continue to make these assumptions about him or I could fight against them. Despite the legitimate fear and anxiety I was feeling I decided okay, all those things MIGHT be true and yet, it doesn’t matter. He might be following me. He might steal my purse. I’d rather be calling my credit card company to cancel my cards then spend anymore time criminalizing someone who doesn’t deserve to be criminalized.

I passed him a third time.

This time he was carrying a box of Little Debbie cakes.

He tossed them into a cart pushed by what appeared to be his big sister. She rolled her eyes as he looked at her with a huge smile… “found them”.

And there I found myself HUMBLED TO MY CORE.

On the surface, to some, this seems so innocent. Some might think — so what, you guessed wrong, no big deal, no one got hurt.

What happens if I take that same mindset to a different situation. What if I’m walking in my neighborhood with Tabby and I see a Black man walking down my street. He passes us once, then again. What if I experience those same reactions I did in the grocery store but don’t check those criminalization feelings in my heart, and instead react immediately by calling the police. What if the police show up, ON MY BEHALF, and the man is now being questioned by the police…for minding his own business… in his own neighborhood. What if he has trauma of being questioned by the police in the past? What if he is carrying the trauma of witnessing a friend or even himself being shot by the police? What if he reacts too quickly and a gun is drawn on him?

I may not be physically holding a gun to the head of a Black man, but when I criminalize him, when I let my fears, my biases and my assumptions lead me to make decisions about him that aren’t true, I might as well be pulling the trigger.

xoxo, va

One thought on “dangers of criminalization

  1. Pingback: dear Mrs. Obama | Following the Fortunatos

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