In a recent column discussing the tragic death of Kimani Gray, the teenager gunned down by plainclothes NYPD officers, I left one important aspect of the story untouched: the fact that Kimani Gray was a young black male. The omission was intentional, an effort not to reduce the tragedy to a “race issue.”
A 16-year-old kid having his life snuffed out by trigger-happy cops should be enough of an outrage in and of itself. That being said, the disturbing racial implications of the story can hardly be ignored.
All available evidence indicates Gray was a good kid doing his best to grow and become a valuable member of society. Every day, he traveled over an hour each way from East Flatbush to the Urban Assembly School Of Design And Construction in Midtown West. He was even taking extra classes after school.
Gray’s much vaunted “criminal record” consists of possession of stolen property and “inciting a riot” (a catchall violation used by law enforcement for any number of situations—not all of them legitimately criminal). So he shoplifted and got into some fisticuffs? I was certainly guilty of that and more during my teenage years.
Allow me to illustrate the point with an individual I’ve known since childhood, and still count among my closest friends. We’ll call him CB.
CB is one of the most law-abiding, respectable people I’ve ever met in my life. He pays his taxes, keeps his insurance current, doesn’t drink and drive, and is a full-time IT professional. He treats people with respect, you can count on his word, and he puts a great deal of energy into building up his family and community.
In other words, CB is the very definition of a model citizen. But at least once every few months, he gets pulled over based on some flimsy pretense (“It looked like you swerved a little back there. You haven’t been drinking, have you? Would you go ahead and step out the vehicle for me?”) and searched. For many law enforcement personnel, the fact that CB is a young black man with nice clothes and a decent vehicle makes it at least a 50/50 proposition that he’s a coke dealer.
They never find anything, of course. I don’t think he’s ever knowingly so much as been in the same room as any cocaine. And he, like most black Americans, knows better than to antagonize the police, so he just watches as they tear through his car, violating his space and property, with no real justification aside from naked racial prejudice.
Contrast CB’s law-abiding nature with my own more ambiguous relationship with the rules. There were several years during my early 20s when I regularly drove on a suspended license (due to unpaid speeding tickets), without insurance, and usually in possession of some kind of contraband. Sometimes drunk, I’m ashamed to admit.
The difference, of course, is that my whiteness meant that society and law enforcement didn’t automatically view me as predisposed towards criminal behavior, and even if I was caught breaking the rules, leniency was the norm. During my senior year of high school, I was busted buying a bag of weed, dead to rights, but the cop simply confiscated the reefer and let us go. While I salute the good officer for his prudent judgment, you can’t tell me the situation would have gone down the same had my skin been dark.
The truth is that if I had faced the same kind of attention from law enforcement that black Americans contend with, I would be an ex-convict right now, best-case scenario. I’m glad that didn’t happen. In my opinion, very little of the “criminal behavior” in which I’ve engaged—aside from the drunk driving—has actually been morally wrong. If I had been arrested, it wouldn’t have set me on the right track. It would have derailed my life, put the system on my back, and likely produced one more career criminal.
Kimani Gray’s mistakes strike me as nothing more than run-of-the-mill adolescent mischief, and it seems pretty clear that he was applying himself and growing as a human being. What if those two officers had genuinely been out to “protect and serve” Gray, instead of looking for an excuse to shoot him? I wonder what he could have become.
We’ll never know, and more importantly, neither will Gray’s parents, who spent 16 years trying to mold their son into a man, only to see his life ended and his name slandered by the authority structure supposedly in place to protect them. This would not be the case if Kimani Gray was white.
In our culture, young black males are often presumed to be criminals, and compelled to prove the assumption wrong. When this inevitably leads to tragedy, our immediate reaction is to find ways to blame the teenager for the sins of adults. Trayvon Martin got in trouble at school and smoked weed. Kimani Gray made a few moderately bad decisions in adolescence (which may well be part of what inspired his dedication to improving his life).
White kids are, by and large, given room for such missteps. Black and brown kids should be as well.