Sadly, we now add the name of Aiyana Stanley-Jones to the list of Black children who lost their lives for no reason than being present. Detroit police killed the 7-year-old girl when they stormed her home looking for a murder suspect. While the details that led up to the incident are sketchy, we do know that little Aiyana was struck in the neck and head by police fire. This little girl’s death has triggered outrage in the Motor City, and it should. The city’s mayor, Dave Bing, must make certain that there is a thorough investigation into this incident, hold responsible parties accountable for their role in this shooting, and change police procedures to prevent such a tragedy from occurring in the future.
Aiyana is just the latest in a litany of Black children who have been overwhelmed by society’s indifference. Some, like Aiyana have lost their lives in the crossfire of bullets from the guns of police and criminals; in the wrong place at the wrong time or targeted in the case of gang activity. The war on our children is not just evident in the freezers of morgues; it manifests in all aspects of their existence. Travel through many urban communities and you will see the proliferation of fast food restaurants that only contribute to the poor health of Black children in the form of obesity and heart disease. Just as noticeable is the absence of supermarkets where residents can purchase fresh produce and other healthy food items to counter the unhealthy choices that abound in neighborhoods. Many of our children in our nation’s cities still live in substandard housing, where deferred maintenance creates intolerable living conditions and expose children to health hazards such as lead poisoning and asthma.
The dismal state of public education is documented and undeniable. However, the debate over plausible solutions has gotten petty and mired into a political battle between politicians, some well meaning and some not, and the unions that represent teachers. While adults try to score political points, Black children are falling farther behind and generations face a future where they cannot even dream the dreams of their parents and grandparents. Meanwhile, an element of our society with sinister intentions points to the academic failure of Black children as a cultural defect and uses it to advocate for diminished financial support of public education.
Our criminal justice system has devastated Black families by making many of our children essentially fatherless. Political posturing resulted in the criminalization of petty crimes and the result was stiff prison sentences for offenses that while socially offensive could have been resolved through alternative means. For almost two decades sentencing disparities for cocaine convictions, that on face value created a racial disparity, persisted and resulted in thousands of Black men thrown behind bars. We have neighborhoods where if Black men are not absent, they are merely empty shells who survive by engaging in nefarious activity that will end up in their return to a correctional facility. Our children suffer because both Black boys and girls lose out when men are not part of their upbringing, no matter how you define family.
To make matters worse, many police departments have made being a Black child a criminal offense. I reference departments because the actions of individual police officers are more often than not a sign of a systemic breakdown. Black children, boys in particular, learn at an early age that “equal protection under the law” has no particular relevance to their daily existence. Our children must live defensively, with the prospect that on any given day the police might take them into custody for simply standing in their neighborhood, arrest them for driving, or accuse them of a crime simply because they fit a “profile,” or worse, become a victim of police violence.
As if our children do not carry enough burdens from these external factors, our own choices are contributing to their demise. Simply turn on the television and watch the programming on cable outlets such as MTV and BET or video games that target our youth. The imagery is not only degrading but the content is intellectually insulting. Yes, the simply message is to turn the television off and unplug the cable. The problem is that the imagery and attitudes have permeated our community and infested a generation of young people to the point that some cannot discern the difference between “entertainment” and reality. Much of the same holds for the music produced by artists and marketed to our children and young adults by corporate executives who return to the safety of their million dollar residences and manicured lawns. Warning labels are not enough to counter the aggressive marketing of negative lyrics and images pushed on our youth in the same manner that the tobacco industry made cigarettes glamorous through slick marketing for decades.
Worst of all, the Black community, for the most part, sits by idly while forces destroy our children before our very eyes. Tears will flow for little Aiyana at her funeral and the grief will be apparent. However, it will not bring her back. It is time that we, present company included, examine our priorities and decide to invest the time and energy in supporting our children. This is particularly true for the Black middle class, many of whom have been fortunate to provide a better lifestyle for their families, but who are a job removed from the same circumstances that are devastating most of our children. It is time for leaders in our community, from civil rights groups to clergy, to step up and step out from behind their desks and pulpits to “earn” the respect most of us given them unquestioned. What good are titles and institutions if we cannot save our children? We can have a church on every corner, and in some communities, we do, but “faith” will mean little to our children if their earthly existence is hell.
As her family prepares for her funeral, little Aiyana’s life cannot be reduced to some urban postscript. If you can’t get mad over this, there is no hope. How will we respond?