The tragic death of Trayvon Martin strongly resonates with our community because it demonstrates how vulnerable the lives of young Black males are due to racist assumptions about their intentions. While we may never know what happened between Martin and George Zimmerman, it is clear that a young Black male wearing a hoodie was viewed as a suspect. Unfortunately, this reality is not new to many Black males living in the United States. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Black males are not criminals, we all walk under a veil of suspicion, especially young ones, as we attempt to go about our daily activities.
In addition to mourning the loss of a young man’s life, it is important to understand the psychological implications of Martin’s death for all our young Black males and the risks they face walking while Black. Every time an unarmed young Black male is killed, it sends chills through the community. This reality causes many parents of Black boys to prepare them to survive in a world that is often hostile to their very existence. They must teach them to not appear “suspicious,” to be respectful to the police and to not make any sudden movements when confronted by law enforcement.
Despite these rules of engagement or because of them, many Black males do not feel safe and are constantly fearful of attack, especially from law enforcement whose mission it should be to protect, not criminalize them.
We are losing generations of young Black men who are psychologically scarred by the trauma of experiencing racial violence, either at the hands of the police or by civilians who consider them “dangerous.” They are angry, afraid and distrustful of their environments.
In addition to overt acts of racial violence, many Black males are also victims of daily racial micro-aggressions. According to Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor at Teachers College-Columbia University, racial micro-aggressions are “brief, commonplace, daily verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults and potentially have a harmful or unpleasant psychological impact on the target person or group.”
For instance, constantly being stopped and frisked by the police is a form of racial micro-aggression. Being unfairly followed in a store is another form of racial micro-aggression. Dealing with these negative situations takes a psychological toll, with many Black males experiencing emotional difficulties as a result of these experiences. For instance, according to the Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation, 7 percent of Black males will develop depression.
However, this number is severely underestimated since a good amount of Black males are misdiagnosed. Depression in Black males, for instance, may be manifested as irritability and somatic complaints such as headaches and stomach pain. It is not the typical sadness and lethargy we usually consider when we think about depression.
It is evident that we must respond to the needs of our young Black males. This response should involve individual, familial and community components. Individually, Black males must feel more comfortable asking for help and talking about their feelings.
If you are angry or afraid, you should tell your parents, siblings, friends or school counselors. It is alright to be angry or afraid. How you deal with the anger or fear is what matters most. You can use it productively by talking about it, playing sports to channel your pent up anger or being involved in pro-social activities like mentoring or community organizing.
As parents, we must be more aware of our children’s behavior and experiences. If you notice more irritability or withdrawal, it is critical to talk to your son. Teenage males may naturally be less talkative, so it will be crucial that you attempt to engage them more often.
As a community, we must remove the stigma of using mental health services as a viable option to deal with our pain. When a young Black male experiences racial violence or micro-aggressions, everyone suffers, including the victim’s family and friends. We need to be able to talk about our emotions and feel empowered to improve our lives. Reaching out to organizations such as the New York Association of Black Psychologists can assist in finding such professionals.
We must also continue to demand justice for Martin and all young Black males unfairly brutalized or murdered. Unfortunately, we recognize there will be more cases like Martin’s. However, now is the time to address the psychological implications of his death on our children. Constantly dealing with race-related stress is toxic to good physical and psychological health. Therefore, it is our duty to make the world safer for our children and to illuminate brighter possibilities such as the opportunity to freely walk the streets undeterred by the threat of racial violence and micro-aggressions.
It is one of the best ways to honor Martin and all our children who we have lost too soon.