Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
Chapter 3. STANLEY TAYLOR (17)
Charlotte, North Carolina
NOVEMBER 23, 4:30 A.M. EST
AS A BEHAVIOR SPECIALIST IN THE CHARLOTTE SCHOOL SYSTEM, Mario Black spent an awful lot of his time trying to persuade his young, mostly black students that there’s more to life—or could be—than hanging out in the streets and getting in trouble. “Three or four times a day I have to break it down for the kids that this is what’s out there for them if they don’t change their ways—prison or death. . . . It’s hard work at times. I hope I’m getting through. You gotta hope that they’re going to carry these nuggets with them for years to come and use them when they need them.”
After Mario’s younger cousin, Davion Funderburk, was shot down in July 2013, he felt compelled to take action beyond the classroom. “Me and one of my classmates were talking about how nothing’s being done. So we said we need to do something.” And so a fledgling youth movement was born: the Million Youth March of Charlotte (MYMOC). It aimed to mobilize Charlotte’s teenagers and youth, as well as its civic leaders, to prevent the violence taking so many young lives in the city. Mario planned to mix community outreach with educational events like youth panels.
“I’m trying to light a fire in them,” he told me. “That the streets are not your life. There’s life beyond the streets. We want to bring positive things to the community as it relates to people who are thirteen to twenty-five years old. Because we always hear the negative. There’s always someone in that age group who’s getting gunned down here.”
I met Mario, age thirty-two, in an Olive Garden in a mall the size of a village. He was casually dressed in combat trousers and a hoodie and wore a head full of long dreads, most tied together and hanging in a clump down the middle of his back while the rest dangled around his face and torso.
Four months after Mario’s cousin was shot, one of his former elementary school pupils, Stanley Taylor, seventeen, drove up to a Marathon gas station with some friends. Located just off exit 38 on Interstate 77, the Marathon stands as the most viable venture in what is little more than a small collection of commercial units that includes a barbershop and a derelict building. Going beyond the offerings of a regular gas station—snacks, drinks, lottery tickets, and basic toiletries—it sells T-shirts and hats bearing the logos of most major basketball teams and has a small fast food outlet in the back called Hot Stuff Pizza. Just a few minutes after Kenneth Mills-Tucker’s body had been pronounced “nonviable” 585 miles away in Indianapolis, Stanley was walking into the Marathon with his friends when Demontre Rice pulled up in his car so close to them they thought he was going to hit them.
“High-homicide environments are alike,” writes Jill Leovy in Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic.1 “The setting is usually a minority enclave or disputed territory where people distrust legal authority. . . . The killings typically arise from arguments. A large share of them can be described in two words: Men fighting. The fights might be spontaneous, part of some long-running feud, or the culmination of ‘some drama.’” Here was some spontaneous drama, and given the volatile temperaments of the two men involved, it was never going to end well.
Stanley, says his friend Trey Duncan, had a quick temper. “Once you bumped him, it’s over.” On the Facebook page set up in his memory—a space generally reserved for tender reflections and Biblical citations—Quan Jones posted, “Was up cuz remember that time we was in middle school in you hit that nigga with a lock in the class room. That was good time in middle school r.i.p. Lil stan aka madmix we love u cuz.” Demontre, twenty-seven, was no paragon of self-control either. His criminal record includes, among other things—and there are many other things—arrests for domestic violence, reckless driving, and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.
Precise details of what happened next are sketchy. The two men exchanged words. As Stanley and his crew made their way into the gas station, Rice pulled out his gun and started shooting. According to the autopsy, Stanley was shot four times. One bullet penetrated his right leg, another grazed his right leg, and one hit his left leg. But it was what the coroner labeled “Gunshot Wound #1” that killed him. “A penetrating gunshot wound to the back,” reads the autopsy, tracing the trajectory of the bullet. “Upon entering the body the projectile passes through the skin and soft tissue of the back fracturing left ribs #9 and #10. The bullet fragments perforating the upper and lower lobe of the left lung. There is extensive residual blood present within the chest cavity. Bullet fragments are recovered from the left lung and chest wall. Multiple gray bullet fragments are retained as evidence.”
The 911 call reporting the shooting came in at 4:17 a.m., with all the formality and restraint of someone trying to sell car insurance. “Yes ma’am, somebody got shot down here,” says the muffled voice of a man with a South Asian accent who sounds like he sees people getting shot all the time. “Where?” “Lasalle Street.” “Is the person that did it still there?” “He’s gone with his car and the other ones followed him in the other car.” “Okay. Is the person that’s shot still there?” “No, he’s gone. Somebody’s taken him.” “But it happened there?” “Yes ma’am.” “Okay the person that was shot, what kind of car did he leave in?” “I didn’t get it.” “What color was it, do you know?” “Brown car. Nice car. Brown car. I know him. I know him personal,” says the caller, exhaling in what is the only remotely emotional moment in the call. “The dude, he shoot him.” “Okay we’ll get officers out there.” “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.”
As the caller had warned, by the time the police arrived everybody had gone. Stanley’s friends had bundled him into a car and driven him the mile between Interstates 77 and 85. Mario thinks they were trying to get him to University Hospital. Whatever their plan, en route they saw an ambulance, flagged it down, and helped Stanley into it. When he got to the hospital he was pronounced dead.
By Sunday, police issued an arrest warrant for Rice, warning the public that he was “armed and dangerous.” The following Friday he turned himself in at the Mecklenburg County Jail, where he was charged with murder. Almost a year later, he pled guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to between 285 and 354 months in prison.2
STANLEY WAS TALL, LEAN, and dark. He had a high-top fade crowned with small dreads that earned him the nickname MadMaxx. Photographs on social media of him bearing a strong smile of straight, white teeth looking directly into the camera are outnumbered by more self-conscious poses in which his mouth is only half open and his head at a tilt. “He had a beautiful sense of humor,” his mother, Toshiba, told me. “He was a good kid. He was always joking around. He wanted to see you smile. Always joking. Being silly.”
“He was goofy,” recalls Trey, shaking his head and smiling. “Sometimes he was so goofy it could get aggravating.” Stanley, it seems, could aggravate folks quite a lot. “He didn’t get along with too many people, to be honest,” says Toshiba, whose recognition of her son’s many positive qualities did not blind her to his faults. “He was very outspoken,” says Shimona, Toshiba’s friend, who’s known Stanley since he was an infant. “He was a good kid, too. Smart, silly, loving, giving. He loved his friends. He loved his friends.” If Facebook postings are anything to go by, his girlfriend, whom he would visit after school most days, was besotted with him. For more than a year after his death, friends kept posting messages for him—not just at New Year, Christmas, and his birthday, but on random days when they just wanted to testify in his memory. Within a couple of months of his death, someone had scrawled graffiti on the wall of the Marathon gas station where he was shot, declaring, “R.i.P $tan #FordBound.” It referred to Beatties Ford Road, a long, nondescript street in West Charlotte where he and his friends spent much of their time. The only hobby anybody mentions is basketball. “But what he really liked doing,” says Toshiba, “is hanging on the corner with his friends.”
Trey was one of those friends. Although Toshiba intimated that Stanley “hadn’t recently had any trouble with the law,” it was Trey who pointed out, quite matter-of-factly, even if the precise facts were elusive, that Stanley went to jail for “three or maybe six months” when he was “sixteen or seventeen” for “something.” Stanley attended Turning Point Academy, a charter school with a mission to “‘redirect student behavior through positive programs that provide rigor, relevance and relationships.”3 But when Stanley came out of jail, says Trey, he struggled to get back on track. “After that, he went downhill. He got into the wrong crowd, and when he got into the wrong crowd he didn’t even care about school after that.”
Trey can barely remember a time when he didn’t know who Stanley was from the neighborhood. But it wasn’t until they were in their teens that they became friendly. Trey, a slender, unassuming young man, met me in a Burger King. He wore a picture of Stanley pinned to his shirt, under which appeared two Bible verses, Proverbs 3:1, 2. “My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments; for length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee.” He organized a balloon release for the anniversary of Stanley’s death, which drew a good crowd.
He arrived carrying a pair of drumsticks and told me he used to play cymbals in the school marching band. Stanley decided to try out for the band and ended up playing bass drum. Trey says he was pretty good at it, but though Stanley lasted only a few months in the band before he gave it up, the two of them remained close. “We used to chill on Beatties Ford Road,” says Trey. When I ask what “chilling” consisted of, things get vague. “Just chill, you know,” he said. But I really didn’t. It is a pursuit that, though it consumed hours of their time, apparently defies description and needs no qualification or further explanation. It seems to primarily involve standing around, talking about girls and thinking of ways to get money. Most of the time, they hung out at L.C. Coleman Park, a bucolic spot just behind Beatties Ford Road with a playground, picnic tables, grills, and basketball courts. “We’d go to the park, go to my homeboy’s house, play a game . . . chill,” Trey explained.
Those closest to Stanley had only a faint idea of what he wanted to do or be. He’d never mentioned anything to Trey about a future profession. At his funeral, a high school teacher read one of his last assignments, in which he’d written that he knew he was not living the right lifestyle and wanted to make some changes so he could graduate and go to college. “He was basically making little changes in the right direction,” says Mario. “He was talking about going to community college,” says Toshiba. “He wanted to take adult high school class and start his own business.”
But when they were chilling on Beatties Ford Road, Stanley and Trey’s big dream was to go to Miami one day to “chill” and “sleep with some white girls.” Trey couldn’t say what it was that attracted them to Miami. But the dream lived on in Stanley’s absence. “That was my main goal,” says Trey. “If I got to Miami that’s gonna be some shit.” He paused. “I might cry.”
Trey doesn’t know quite how to describe the group he and Stanley used to hang out with on Beatties Ford—like “chilling,” it defies definition. It was not so formal as to have a name but not so casual that it did not have a code. “I ain’t gonna say it was a gang,” says Trey. “But it was a neighborhood thing. Beatties Ford. We got our own little clique. We on the West Side. North Side is a whole different neighborhood you don’t even fool with. Everybody was together. This my brother, this my brother. We all in the same clique. We got each other’s back. I’m not going to let nobody else touch you. If you hit him I’m gonna hit you. ’Cos I’m his brother.” At times, that made Stanley a liability. His recklessness became the responsibility of the group. “You try to restrain him. But once I know it’s past that and he swinging, I’m right beside him,” explains Trey. “If he going out we’re going out together. That’s why I really wish I was there when it happened,” he says referring to the night Stanley died. But would his presence have really helped, given that Rice had a gun? I asked. “You’re right,” Trey admits. “There’s not a lot I could have done.”
MARIO NOT ONLY TAUGHT Stanley in elementary school; he also went to elementary school with Toshiba. He saw Stanley grow up, occasionally running into him around town. The last time he saw him was about a year before the shooting. “It was always a pleasure to catch up with him,” says Mario. “He wasn’t an angel. But he wasn’t the worst either. Not by a long way. He was just a typical teen. Just running around. Out with his peers. Out in the street. Even in his teenage years he had a little more energy than some of the teachers could handle. Once he left elementary school, I would run into him. He would always show me the utmost respect. ‘Hey, Mr. Mario. Hey, Mr. Black.’”
By daybreak on Saturday, November 23, Black was vaguely aware that another youth in town had fallen. “On Facebook I saw a lot of ‘RIP Stan,’ but it wasn’t until Sunday morning when I saw it on the news that I realized just who it was. I’d started the Million Youth March for that particular reason, so it actually hit home hard. As educators, we get attached to these students. We’re like their parents away from home. So that was like one of mine getting gunned down as well. I cried like a baby.”
He called Toshiba and helped her organize the funeral. A couple of weeks later was MYMOC’s Community Give Back Day. They’d organized to collect toys for the needy and for barbers to give free haircuts to children. It had been planned long in advance, but given Stanley’s recent passing they dedicated the event to him. The day was a success, with over one hundred in attendance and Toshiba there to receive a candle lit in her son’s memory. But precious few of Stanley’s friends came. Mario was deeply disappointed. That evening, he wrote on Stanley’s memorial Facebook page, “To all that claimed they loved Stanley, or his Mom and family I find it sad that you did not come out and support Million Youth March of Charlotte today during our day of giving back as we honored Stanley’s life.”
“It surprised me that so few showed up,” Mario told me a few months later. “Everyone claimed they were crazy about Stanley, and they showed up at the candlelight vigil. But when it was taking a stand for him, they weren’t there. It was discouraging, because these were the same friends who said they would be there for him and would be there for his mom. And his family was there and they weren’t.”
In his behavior classes, Mario used Stanley’s death as a cautionary tale. A picture of him hangs on the wall. “I want them to see it when I break it down to them. I say, ‘His mom got a phone call on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and had to go through Thanksgiving planning a funeral. Imagine your mom getting a phone call. That their baby had been gunned down and killed, or their baby’s in jail for hanging out with the wrong crowd or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.’”
“Sometimes tears are shed,” he tells me. “I take time, because I want every kid that I come into contact with to know that Mr. Black told [them]. I hope a light will come on and steer them in the right direction. . . . I also tell ’em that as a teacher in their lives, I don’t want to hear what I heard about Stanley.”
Toshiba fears that few of Stanley’s peers are ready to heed Mario’s lessons. When I ask her what it will take to get them to understand what’s at stake, she says, “I’m asking myself the same question, because they’re still out there hanging out.” She imitates their macho intonation, a low, gruff drawl: “‘He gone. But we’re still gonna thug on the corner.’ I don’t know. I just don’t know. Mario is really trying to get the youth to understand that [they] could really have a good life.”
A year after she received the candle, the MYMOC held its second annual Give Back Day. It rained heavily, and only around twenty children participated. This time the event was dedicated to one of Stanley’s best friends, Ajewan Jones, who was shot dead six months after Stanley was shot. The night Stanley died, Ajewan’s brother was with him, and Ajewan was in prison for a parole violation. This time, Ajewan’s mother, Toshiba’s friend Shimona, was there to take the candle.
WHEN SOMEBODY GETS SHOT dead in Charlotte, Judy Williams knows about it. The organization she runs, Mothers of Murdered Offspring, has arranged vigils for murder victims for more than two decades. When they started, the police would contact them and let them know when there had been a shooting. Now MOMO is such an institution in the city that victims’ families usually go straight to them.
Judy, a friendly, devout, engaging woman with a short crop of silver hair, organized a vigil for Stanley, which she remembers as a regular affair with a large crowd in Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Park. On the anniversary of Stanley’s death, she helped Trey organize the balloon release.
Judy started the support group after her goddaughter, Shawna Hawk, was strangled to death by a serial killer and left floating in the bathtub at her home in Charlotte. The murder occurred on February 19, 1993, during the year with the highest number of homicides in Charlotte’s history to date.4 Judy was worried that Shawna’s mother wasn’t going to make it. Shawna and her mother had been more like sisters. Judy wanted to contribute in some way following Shawna’s death, and she came up with the idea of holding candlelight vigils and balloon releases for bereaved relatives.
If a family needs funds for burial, then she might hold the vigil as soon as possible after the death and take up a collection. (They’ve collected more than $1,000 in one night.) If not, they try to stage the vigils the night before the funeral. That’s when most relatives and friends are in town, and it offers a release before the more formal occasion. “We thought people were gathering anyway, so why don’t we take advantage of that,” she says. “Why don’t I get those people together, because they were still at the family’s house, allow them to express what they were feeling while we light candles, and talk, cry, read poems, sing, whatever they wanted to do. Things they usually wouldn’t be able to do at the funeral the next day.”
Judy is a deeply religious woman. One of the many posters on the wall of her office, where she works as an administrator for the housing complex in which she lives, declares, “Your relationship with God is as strong as the person you like least.” The balloons they release have scripture printed on them as well as a phone number and email address so that those who receive them can respond. One made it as far as Canada. When I met Trey, a couple of weeks after the balloon release he’d held for Stanley, he had yet to hear word from anyone who found one.
When it comes to the fallout from gun violence, Judy is in the trenches—dealing with bereaved families and friends at the very moment when their grief is most raw. She has assisted in several thousand vigils and, when reaching for an anecdote or illustration, can generally remember the name of the victim and the cross streets where he or she fell. She is politically aware and engaged and freely shares her views on everything from American foreign policy to the Constitution. Ask her what is the primary reason for gun violence, and she barely hesitates. “People are not going to church anymore. People are not being taught God. You can tell that by the respect that’s given when you pray. You have to remind people to take their hats off. You didn’t used to have to do that.”
This failure, she believes, has its roots in a fundamental crisis within the black family. “The homes are not the incubators they need to be. To actually nurture children and give them all the tools they need to begin in the world without robbin’ and stealin’ and killing. A lot of them are mimicking what they see. We have a lot of teenage mothers who don’t know anything about parenting. Who don’t have the help to help them parent because their mothers are very young. You’ve got grandmothers who are thirty-two and thirty-six years old because kids are having babies so young. And nobody knows anything about being a parent at that age. And these children aren’t getting the help that they need, and they’re growing up pretty much on their own and being taught that the world pretty much owes them something.”
IT IS AN ARTICLE of faith among right-wing commentators that African Americans refuse to take responsibility for the problems in their communities, preferring instead to blame their woes on racism and poverty. Obsessed with a sense of victimhood, the pundits claim, they refrain from the hard, introspective work of social and economic revitalization in their neighborhoods.
“I have a dream that today’s black leadership will quit blaming racism and ‘the system’ for what ails black America,” said Tea Party Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, mimicking Martin Luther King on his radio program. “I have a dream that black America will take responsibility for improving their own lives.”5 Black political leaders who raise issues of racism are branded “race hustlers” who “play the race card” in a bid to leverage white guilt for their own ends and to their community’s detriment.
Such arguments were particularly prevalent in the wake of disturbances and demonstrations after a series of police killings of unarmed black youth and men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner, who was videoed being choked to death by New York police as he uttered, “I can’t breathe.” In both cases grand juries refused to indict the officers. “President Obama should provide some leadership,” insisted Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, “[by saying], ‘You know what, we fight the injustice and we realize it’s there, but we love our country, we applaud the progress we’ve made, and here is a pathway to success. You know, don’t abandon your children. Don’t get pregnant at fourteen. Don’t allow your neighborhoods to deteriorate into free fire zones.’ That’s what the African-American community should have on their T-shirts.”6
In a discussion about Ferguson on Meet the Press, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, “I find it very disappointing that you’re not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here. . . . So why don’t you cut [black-on-black crime] down so so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas? White police officers won’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 percent of the time.”7
The notion that raising the issue of “black-on-black crime” is taboo has gained currency beyond the Right. In her granular account of policing homicides in Los Angeles in Ghettoside, Leovy claims that African Americans avoid discussion of the topic precisely because they know how conservatives will distort such a discussion. “Some black scholars and advocates fear providing white racists with further ammunition—of giving them yet more ways to stigmatize poor blacks,” she writes.8
My research for this book suggests that at a grassroots level, almost precisely the opposite is true. In the scores of interviews I conducted with family members, community activists, and others, the shootings of children and teens in the black community by other black teens were often discussed, and those conversations made almost no reference to poverty, racism, or other broader structural issues. They focused instead almost entirely on personal responsibility. “White society”—whatever that is—didn’t even get a look in. Most described things pretty much the way Williams did, though with less emphasis on religion and more on family.
They didn’t frame it as a problem of “black-on-black” crime. But that’s because it is a nonsense term. America is very segregated, and its criminality conforms to that fact. The victims of most crimes are of the same race as those who commit them. Eighty-four percent of whites who are killed every year are killed by whites.9 White people who buy illegal drugs are most likely to buy them from white people.10 So the fact that black people are killing each other conforms to, rather than contradicts, America’s criminal patterns where race is concerned. What is particular to the black community is the level of violent crime. The rate of black youth homicides is falling, but it remains four times the national average and ten times the rate of white youth homicides.11
The source of this problem, most African Americans I interviewed argued, was the breakdown in parenting and the absence of basic values being taught in the home—a state of affairs, most concurred, that has deteriorated significantly since they were young. “A lot of the problem is kids raising kids,” says Mario, echoing Judy’s point about teenage parents. “When I was at elementary school, my mother was active in my school. A lot of parents were active in my school. But today a lot of kids are raising themselves. Parents are younger these days. They’re think[ing] they can get their support from their peers out on the streets, because they’re not getting their support at home.”
I’ve always found this line of argument odd because, having been parented in England and been a parent in the United States, I don’t think Americans make worse parents than the British or any other nationality. Indeed, in Britain, where public drunkenness is far more common, the culture feels both far more violent and far less deadly. But no other developed Western nation suffers child gun deaths at the level of the United States. It’s not even close. In 2013, the United States suffered eight times the per capita rate of gun murders as the average for Western Europe.12 The US rate was more than five times higher than the one for Portugal, the nearest contender in Western Europe. Even if Americans did make worse parents, they couldn’t be that bad.
But this reasoning runs so deep that black parents say parenting is the problem even when they are criticized for being the very parents they themselves believe to be the problem. Shimona had Ajewan when she was fourteen years old, and he was in and out of prison before he was shot. On paper, certainly, she is the archetype that Mario and Judy are referring to. Ask her what she thinks the source of the problem is that took him from her at such a young age, and she says, “I think it’s got a lot to do with your home. Your parents. These kids, their mamas don’t love ’em like that. The streets raise ’em. They don’t have nobody to tell them. To say this ain’t right. You know you can’t go and take nobody’s life like that. You know better. You know right from wrong.”
At times, the contradictions are painful. While I was in Indianapolis looking for Kenneth Tucker’s family I met DeAndra Yates, who wore a T-shirt bearing the face of her thirteen-year-old son, DeAndre Knox, who was paralyzed after having been shot in the back of the head at a party just a few months earlier. DeAndra was at a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense demonstration protesting the policies espoused at the National Rifle Association’s national convention being held in the city at the time. So there’s no question she had a view about the bigger issues at play and their connection to DeAndre’s fate. When I asked her what she thought the problem was, she didn’t mention guns. “Parents,” she said. “That’s where it starts. With the parents.”
When DeAndre’s shooting was reported on a local news website, at least one commenter, Terry Payne, agreed. It was the parents’ fault. But he didn’t mean the shooter’s parents—he meant DeAndra. “Where are the parents and why are there 13 year olds out after curfew?” he asked. “This problem starts well before someone brings a gun into it. If parents can’t decide to raise their children properly, they should not have children, either voluntarily or sterilized!” Six readers gave the comment a thumbs-up.
SPEAKING TO TOSHIBA, YOU can feel the burden of that vilification. I met her at a TGI Friday’s a few months after Stanley was shot. Stanley was her eldest of four. Toshiba is a small, slight postal worker with high cheekbones framing a handsome, youthful face. She’s just thirty-two. At that age, very few people in Western countries have buried a parent. She has buried a son. So although her face is unfurrowed, her voice and bearing are prematurely, and possibly temporarily, aged by grief. Mario suggested she speak to me. I doubt she would have granted an interview otherwise. She arrived in a check-print trapper hat, fur earflaps down against a Carolina cold spell. Throughout our forty-minute conversation, she did not take it off once.
Reflecting on Stanley’s short life, she stops answering my questions at a certain point and starts unconsciously defending herself against the pervasive assumption—never explicitly leveled against her, but implicit in all criticism of black parenting in these circumstances—that, somehow, she was at fault for her own son’s death. “I tried so hard with my child,” she says, affirming her struggle to set Stanley on a different path and protect him from the streets. Her tone is melancholic—resigned, defeated, but insistent. “I tried,” she repeats, abrupt sentences emphasizing the battles fought, lost, unnamed, and unrecognized. “I mean I . . . tried. I tried to keep him home. Locked doors. I tried to move. I tried. So I don’t know. There’s nothing you can do. I tried everything . . . to keep him home. I told him, ‘Everybody’s not your friend. They will shoot you down and not think nothing about it.’ But they’re thinking about having fun, hanging out with their friends, going to parties, you can’t tell ’em anything. . . . I tried.”
The challenges of parenting in the environments in which many black youth grow up are not the kind that get showcased on Supernanny. Criticisms of parenting in these contexts must first acknowledge what it takes to be an effective parent in an area where schools are bad, gangs are rife, drugs and guns are easily available, resources are scarce, and policing is harsh. The stakes are higher, the dangers more prevalent, and therefore the margin of error far narrower. Doriane Miller, a primary-care physician on the South Side of Chicago who also works at the University of Chicago, recalls having lunch with a successful, quiet, young black man who was doing an internship at the university. Explaining how he kept out of trouble, he told her, “I live in this really quiet community where there are a lot of old people. . . . My mom says it’s a way for me to be safe. So I go to school, I go home, I do my homework, and I don’t go out.”
Miller, whom I met at a cafe in Chicago’s Hyde Park, not far from where the Obamas used to live, explained that Black parents in low-income neighborhoods go to extreme lengths to keep their children safe. It is not simply a matter of setting boundaries, establishing curfews, and making sure they get their homework done. It is about hermetically sealing them from their immediate environment, where the risks are too great to leave anything to chance. “For him, it was that cocoon world,” says Miller, referring to the young intern. “I have a lot of parents and also grandparents who create cocoons for these young people. They transport them everywhere. They don’t get on public transportation. They don’t go out and hang out in the parks. Because it’s just too dangerous.”
Raising children in America either in or around poverty is very hard. In his 2007 book, Come On, People, entertainer Bill Cosby, whose reputation had not yet been damaged by widespread allegations of sexual misconduct, exhorts black parents to step up and provide the kind of nurturing conditions for their children to thrive. His recommendations are detailed and plentiful: “As soon as a young woman in your care misses a period, remind her to check with a doctor to see if she is pregnant,” he writes. “If you are a substance abuser, think of the children and get help”; “Get the kids out for a walk or a bike ride. Play catch with them. Take them to the playground”; “As the children get older, introduce them to healthy meals with non-fried food, whole grains, lean meat, fish, chicken, and lots of fruits and vegetables”; “If you suspect that your child has ADHD, get that boy or girl to see a mental health professional pronto.” And, “For some kids today, the ‘great outdoors’ is that small space between the car door and the front door. It shouldn’t be that way. The beautiful thing about nature is that it doesn’t care what color you are. Fish don’t discriminate—they don’t want to be caught by anyone.”13
But these children are not being raised in a society with free medical care, adequate social services, accessible supermarkets selling cheap organic produce, and parents with the time, energy, and wherewithal to make all that happen. It’s hard work being poor, whether you have a job or not. The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” became very popular in the United States in the nineties. But most African Americans don’t live in villages. Many live in impoverished, isolated urban communities, and few Americans, it seems, really want to talk honestly and practically about what it takes to “raise a child” in those conditions.
After a sixteen-year-old was shot dead in Dallas on the day profiled in this book, the first comment at the bottom of an online story came from Marg Bargas, who said, “I have two adult kiddos and there’s no way they would’ve been out walking streets after dark, AND I always knew where they were. I do not blame the victims but all parents could do better.” The boy in question was accompanying his friend on the short walk home to his grandmother’s house after a family night of drinking cocoa, playing Uno, and watching a movie with his mom, friend, and sister. His mother, a loving and attentive parent we’ll meet later in the book, knew exactly where he was; she just couldn’t save him.
Parks, youth clubs, and other facilities in these areas are either of poor quality or nonexistent. Schools are often of a low standard and either unsafe or policed like prisons—neither of which are conducive to good learning. If a family doesn’t have a car, the museums and other facilities located downtown or in the suburbs are difficult to get to. And even if a family does have a car, such attractions are expensive. On top of all that, parents are often stressed by trying to keep it together in a low-wage economy. I once interviewed a family in Los Angeles with three sons, each of whom had spent time in jail and two of whom were in for life. When I asked the mother where she thought it all went wrong, she said she’d had no idea they’d been involved in crime from an early age because she was holding down two jobs just to feed them.
Toshiba was not entirely on her own. Mario did his best with Stanley, as did another elementary school teacher she remembered, Ms. Hepfinger. “She would come get him and take him places,” she said. “She really came through.” Toshiba felt she had done everything in her power to keep Stanley out of trouble since he was very young. “Stanley was a handful,” she says. “He just always kept me going. Always kept me busy. I’m always in school. Always everywhere.” Her task sounded like a blend of Sisyphean and Herculean: a relentless, uphill battle of overwhelming scale. “I tried,” she says, her eyes welling and voice cracking.
A QUOTE ATTRIBUTED VARIOUSLY to Bertolt Brecht and to Harold Coffin says, “Youth is when you blame your troubles on your parents; maturity is when you learn that everything is the fault of the younger generation.” It is a rare generation, of any race or era, that believes their children are more moral, respectful, or diligent than themselves. Legendary anchor Tom Brokaw hailed those who grew up during the Depression and then went on to fight the Second World War as “The Greatest Generation.”14 But I doubt their parents, who were raised at the turn of the century, regarded their offspring as such.
In this respect, African Americans are no different from anyone else. On May 17, 2004, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that banned segregation, Bill Cosby delivered a speech at an award ceremony for the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Cosby used his address to berate working-class black Americans for their fecklessness in the face of the opportunities made available by the civil rights movement. “Ladies and gentlemen, these people, they opened the doors, they gave us the right, and today . . . in our cities and public schools we have fifty percent drop out. . . . Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal.”15
To great applause, he lambasted poor parenting. “I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? . . . These people are not parenting. They’re buying things for the kid. $500 sneakers, for what? They won’t buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics.”16
In what became known as the “pound cake speech” he ridiculed a victim mentality that slams police brutality without first addressing personal responsibility. “Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. . . . People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”17
His speech was greeted with a standing ovation by his immediate audience but sparked controversy elsewhere. Some praised him for his candor and for using his platform to pry open a conversation that either was not taking place or was taking place behind closed doors. Others condemned him for pouring scorn and ridicule on society’s poorest and most embattled.
His most strident critic was academic Michael Eric Dyson, who responded with a book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, in which he slammed Cosby for spinning a “thin descriptive web” of “flawed logic.”18 As part of his breathless polemic, Dyson unearthed a study, Morals and Manners Among Negro Americans in 1914, that illustrates how the thrust of Cosby’s observations have remained consistent over time even as the generations have changed. One respondent from Arkansas, almost a century earlier, was quoted in the study as saying, “There is a tendency to permit children to have too many liberties before they are really able to see for themselves or really know what are the consequences that result from too early taking upon themselves the responsibility which belongs to mature years and I believe the parent is wholly in error.” Another from Georgia claims, “I do not think that parents are quite as strict with their children as they were when I was a child.” During the interwar years, a columnist in the Amsterdam News, New York’s principal black newspaper, opined that young blacks who insisted that racism gave them no chance to get ahead should “deport [themselves] with greater decorum and decency on street cars” and stop behaving “like so many jungle apes.”
Dyson concludes, “The themes that occupy black life now—how well we’re attending to our children, how much of pop culture they should consume, the role of religion in their values education, the training that poor parents need to succeed, the economic and social barriers that prevent their flourishing—have been a consistent worry of black life for at least a couple of centuries.”19
Toshiba certainly believes that opportunities for youth have declined since she was young. “When we were coming up, even though I stayed in the projects, we always had something to do,” she says. “We had a center to go to. We went to parties. Everybody got home safe. This generation has changed.” Most generations do. But statistics suggest that many such recollections owe more to nostalgia for the past or despair about the present than to what actually happened then or is happening now. The murder rate in Charlotte today, for example, is close to half of what it was when Mario was Stanley’s age.20 Rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, and car thefts have nosedived by a similar rate.21 In other words, it’s likely that fewer partygoers were getting home safe in Toshiba’s day than they are now.
According to the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, when Mario was Stanley’s age, the pregnancy rate for teens aged fifteen to nineteen in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, was more than double what it is now.22 Meanwhile, the rate of black teenage pregnancies in the county fell by 39 percent between 2007 and 2012 and continues to drop each year.23 Most of the ills associated with the most acute and calamitous moral declines—shootings, crime, teen pregnancy—are actually improving.
It’s not difficult to see where people get the impression that trends are heading in the opposite direction. Many of the assumptions that inform public commentary about black life are, in fact, misinformed. Take just two examples. It’s widely assumed that African Americans are more likely to take drugs than any other racial group. That’s not true. According to the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, whites are considerably more likely than blacks to have ever used cocaine, hallucinogens, marijuana, LSD, stimulants like crystal meth, and pain relievers like oxycontin. While African-Americans were more likely to have used some of those drugs in the last 30 days, the only drug African Americans were more likely to have ever tried was crack.24
It’s also widely assumed that black men routinely abandon their children. That’s also not true. Black people are less likely to marry than whites, and black men are less likely to live with their partners. But according to the National Center for Health Statistics, when children are under age five, black fathers are more likely to feed or eat meals with them, bathe, diaper, or dress them, and read to them daily than fathers in any other racial group, whether they live with their kids or not. As their children get older, black fathers are more likely to take children to and from activities daily, talk to them about their day, and help them with their homework. Black men are also disproportionately more likely to be single parents than dads from other racial groups.25
The one aspect of black life that has changed dramatically since Toshiba and Mario were Stanley’s age is incarceration rates. But that has less to do with a change in behavior (over a generation crime has gone down) than a change in policy (during that same time span prison numbers have shot up).26
These faulty assumptions matter because they feed into the notion that it is deficiencies in black culture in general and black parenting in particular that are responsible for the shootings, that on some level the shootings reflect the collective death wish of a community incapable of and unwilling to care for its young. So pervasive and ingrained are these views that the truth ceases to matter—they become scripts that many Americans repeat reflexively, and often uncritically, with all the confidence endowed by fact. The scripts are so ingrained that the very people denigrated by them recite them as if by rote.
OF THE TEN CHILDREN covered in this book, seven were black, two were Hispanic, and one was white. All were working class and male. For now, if only to lighten the load on Toshiba’s shoulders, let us focus on two key facets of American society.
First, America is not a meritocracy. “Belief in America’s essential fairness, that we live in a land of equal opportunity, helps bind us together,” writes Joseph Stiglitz in The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. “That, at least, is the American myth, powerful and enduring. Increasingly, it is just that—a myth. Of course, there are exceptions, but for economists and sociologists what matters are not the few success stories but what happens to most of those at the bottom and in the middle.”27
Indeed, with each passing year, America is becoming more class-ridden and plutocratic. The gap between rich and poor grows, and the likelihood that the poor will become rich diminishes. Those who do move up expend great energy and money and don’t get very far. Poor kids who work hard and go to college still fare worse than rich kids who did badly in school.
Second, America is racist. Not all Americans. But America—its judiciary, economy, and social fabric. How could it not be? It’s only been fifty years since it ascended from an essentially apartheid state and African Americans secured the vote and their civil rights. Much has changed since then. Mixed-race relationships are at an all-time high,28 black voter turnout is on a par with white,29 and, of course, there is a black president.
But racism is a hardy virus that mutates to adapt to the body politic in which it is embedded. For all the ways in which America imagines itself color-blind, the statistics suggest otherwise. African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated, twice as likely to be unemployed, and almost three times more likely to live in poverty than whites.30 The discrepancy between black and white wealth and income is greater now than it was at the time of the March on Washington in 1963,31 and schools in the South are more segregated now than they have been in forty years.32
Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, argues that once the poor are born to the wrong parents, in the wrong part of the country, and in the wrong racial group, all but a few are doomed. “Once that mistake has been made,” he writes, “they could be paragons of will and morality, but most of them would never even have had a chance to get out of the other America.”33
America is not unique in this regard. Virtually every Western nation has racial and class hierarchies, and in much of the world inequalities are widening. But there are few countries where class distinctions are regarded as anathema to the nation’s core belief system and where racial disparities are simultaneously so brazenly displayed and denied.
BEFORE CONTINUING, IT IS necessary to stop and frisk one last straw man who inevitably prowls any argument about structural inequality: personal responsibility. I have never heard anyone claim that individuals should not take responsibility for what they do. But lest there be any confusion: We all have free will. We all have agency. We all must take responsibility for what we do. Our life trajectories are not predetermined. These are essential tenets of our basic humanity. The fact that someone is poor or black or both does not give him free license to behave in a certain way or relieve her from the consequences of her actions. I was raised black and poor (though in England, where race and class interact differently), and I have two black American children. I was raised to take responsibility for what I do, and that’s the way I raise my kids.
This book is full of people who made bad decisions; as a result, some put themselves in the line of fire, while others pulled the trigger. Not all bad decisions are equal. Some of the people who populate these pages are dead; others are in prison; some are still walking the streets. In all likelihood, Demontre Rice was born black and working class just like Stanley, Judy, and Mario. So race and class excuse nothing. They are not the crutches with which the misanthropic and morally ambivalent can prop themselves up as though standing tall.
But they can explain a great deal. The circumstances into which people are born and the range of opportunities to which they are exposed shape both the choices available to them and the process by which they make those choices even if they, ultimately, still make the choice. I have yet to meet anyone who denies that individuals have free will. But I also have yet to meet anyone who makes a convincing argument that circumstances don’t shape what you can do with that will.
A paper presented to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference in October 2014 revealed that, by the time they get to age forty, high school dropouts born to rich families are as likely to be earning high salaries as college graduates from poor families.34 Or as the Washington Post put it, “Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong.”35
Some beat the odds. In his career as a behavior specialist, Mario can recall those who made it. “I will say it’s possible,” he concedes. There was a boy at Stanley’s elementary school they called “the runner.” “He would get mad and start running. We ended up on I-77 chasing this boy in and out of traffic,” says Mario with a smile. That boy managed to work his way out of behavior class and into the mainstream. “Now he’s in his junior year in college,” says Mario. But the fact that he can even remember this particular case suggests that “the runner” wasn’t running with the pack. He was the one who got away.
Such stories don’t change the odds. They just illustrate them. Failing to understand that seems like a chronic lack of imagination and empathy. “Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened,” writes Leovy in Ghettoside. “Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens.”36
Trey, Stanley’s friend, made it out. He left Charlotte to study at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, South Carolina. “Before I left, I was in the same predicament as everybody. I weren’t too focused. I was always in trouble. With the wrong crowd and the police.” When I asked him what had steered him from the path that had taken both Stanley’s and Ajewan’s lives, he answered with one word. “School. Once I got that acceptance letter. . . . Oh snap. God let me try to change my life.” How he managed to apply himself, to separate himself from the bad influences wasn’t clear. Trey did not even know himself.
FOR ALL THAT, IT is not difficult to see why so many critics—like Cosby, Mario, and Williams—focus on parenting, albeit in different ways. It’s not an inverted sense of racism that leads them there so much as a lack of alternative framings for what they can see and influence. The structural roots of this crisis are deep and horribly knotted. They include, among other things, race, class, geography, poverty, history, education, health, politics—a panoply of endemic issues over which people feel they have little control and for which the polity offers few solutions. Racism and poverty are not going away anytime soon, so anyone interested in saving the lives of the young people they are working with right now may understandably see little benefit in utopian thinking and concentrate, instead, on what they feel they have some control over.
On no issue is this more evident than guns. When I asked an openended question to all the parents who lost children that day about why they thought these tragedies keep happening, firearms never came up. Guns are ever present. They’re part of the reason why I’m meeting the families. But the connection between the prevalence of guns and the families’ bereaved state is not initially acknowledged.
But it is there. When I asked them specifically, “What do you think about guns?” all who had an opinion, which was most, would bemoan the fact that they are so freely available. But given that their children were killed less than a year after Sandy Hook and that, despite serious efforts from the White House, gun control legislation could not even make it out of the Democratic-controlled Senate, none of them expected anything to happen about it. Instead, most lamented the way in which adolescent arguments have now become deadly and reminisce about the good old days when disagreements between youths were settled by the ancient art of pugilism.
A father whose son died from a gunshot in Newark in the early hours of the next morning (the son’s story is featured later in this book) echoed the sentiments of many when he said, “Back in the day, when we grew up, you get in a fight, somebody might jump you, you know, but the next day you speak to the person and you keep going. But now you get in an argument with somebody, they come back and shoot you.”
Most of the family members I spoke to evidently see the ubiquity of guns as a problem. But it does not necessarily follow that they see getting rid of guns as a viable solution. So child gun deaths, indeed any gun deaths, have become generally understood in the same way as car accidents. They are the unfortunate, if heavy, price one pays for living in twenty-first-century America. Even those at the roughest end of the problem can no more imagine ridding the country of guns, or limiting their distribution, than they can imagine getting rid of cars if their loved one were run over. It just would not be a feasible thing to even consider. Indeed, with a car death there might be a local campaign to put up a stop sign or change the speed limit. At least no one would claim that was unconstitutional. But in virtually every case, on the day on which this book is set, the deaths prompted no broader question about the role of guns, let alone an engagement with the issue.
Even for those living with and combatting the consequences of gun violence, such as Mario, who organized the Million Youth March of Charlotte, challenging this element of the status quo is scarcely understood as a priority. When I explained the premise of the book, Mario understood it immediately. Why wouldn’t he? The Million Youth March of Charlotte was founded in response to a shooting. Nonetheless, it’s as though imagining a world without guns on this scale, like imagining a world without poverty or segregation, is the kind of utopian indulgence that serves no obvious purpose.
When I ask him whether gun control is part of MYMOC’s agenda, he pauses. “We haven’t discussed that yet,” he says. “I’m not for guns, to be honest. They have laws and regulations here. But you look at Facebook, and it’s nothing to see a teenager holding a gun. And that bothers me. They can get it just like that.”
In 2010, when the NRA held its annual convention in Charlotte, Judy Williams protested. They staged a mock funeral with all the names of those who had died by gun violence taped to the casket. “I don’t think the Second Amendment means what they think it means,” she says. “You can dress it up and take it to church, but that don’t make it right that there should be no control.” If the NRA were coming back next year, would she do it again? I ask. She pauses. “The reality of it is they are not going to do away with guns in this country. . . . The fact is that they are so plentiful on the streets and people have them. . . . It’s ludicrous to think you can take guns out of people’s homes in this country. . . . It ain’t gonna happen.”
But would she protest or not? Another pause. “I would, because I don’t think they should be as easy to access as they are, and they could change the laws. I think a lot of murders wouldn’t occur if people didn’t have access to a gun.” But even she, who has dedicated so much of her life to supporting families whose loved ones were slain by guns and who believes such laws are necessary, also, deep down, believes they would be ineffective. “Most of the guns used in crime are illegal guns. So even if you change the law, felons don’t care nothing about the law.”
By the time the anniversary of Stanley’s death had come around, the graffiti at the Marathon station had been painted over. His former girlfriend had had a baby by another man, which had seriously upset Trey. Ms. Hepfinger, with whom Toshiba had lost contact, wrote on the online register, “I will always have great memories of Stanley. He touched my life and many others. He was a student of mine at Walter G. Byers and I will miss him. I am thinking of you and your family.”
In August 2014 Mario was honored at the Trailblazers 100 event for his service to the community. On the anniversary of Stanley’s death, Mario posted on Facebook, “I have had a lot going on the last few weeks, that I honestly thought I would wake up and be alright today. Who was I kidding, I woke up in tears, it hit me so hard as if it just happened. It’s so hard to believe that a whole 365 days have gone by and today marks one year since your life was cut so short. . . . So I say continue to Rest Easy Stanley N. Taylor, Rest In Paradise.”
When we met the first time, in early March 2014, he’d been planning to hold a demonstration in late May to raise the issues confronting the city’s youth. “We’re going to make it a family day,” he said, before going on to list a couple of the key elements. “There’ll be giveaways, marching bands preferably.”
Even back then, he was disappointed by the lack of support his initiative was receiving from community leaders. “When I first started, my goal was to get the city to embrace it and churches to embrace it,” he said. “But it hasn’t happened like that. It’s like pulling teeth. You’d think that with doing something positive for the youth that more would get involved. But I’m having a hard time getting the city leaders involved. The same people who are talking about it won’t do anything about it. Having a hard time getting donations. We need donations. Everything we’re doing is coming out of our pockets. All churches have youth groups, and you’d think they’d want to be involved in something positive like that. We’re at a standstill because we don’t have donations.” He was worried they might not make their goal of a march on May 31. “Time is steadily ticking.”
When I caught up with him for a second interview in December 2014 at MYMOC’s second Community Give Back Day, the clock was still running. The march had not taken place, but nationally the #BlackLivesMatter movement had taken off. Eric Garner’s killer had just escaped indictment by a grand jury. Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot Michael Brown, had also walked free from a grand jury, and the embers in Ferguson still glowed dimly. After lighting a candle for Ajewan, those assembled held a minute’s silence for the Garner and Brown families. The march had first been postponed until late July and was now on hold indefinitely until they could summon the funds and political support. As he picked up frosting from the carpet and pleaded with the children to take their sticky cakes into the hall, I asked him what he thought the problem was. He sighed. “I wish I knew. We’ve tried. We’ve really tried.”