August 28 marks the 68th anniversary of the horrific lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was kidnapped, beaten and murdered following malicious and false accusations that he made sexual advances toward a white woman in Mississippi. Despite Till’s youth and innocence, his murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury, and his accuser, Carolyn Bryant Donham, died this April at 88 years old, never facing legal repercussions for her actions.
Thinking back on the tragic and infuriating circumstances of Till’s murder, I cannot help but reflect on the countless stories of Black boys murdered for being the wrong color, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Till’s story is a haunting reminder of the dangers that Black youth face, a reality that continues to shape many of our lives today. Rather than teaching Black children to tiptoe around fear, we must completely overhaul the system that forces them into a defensive crouch.
I, like so many other Black youth, have also been taught to take this defensive stance for my own safety. Trick-or-treating as an eighth grader in a relatively affluent neighborhood, I was running late to meet my mother at the agreed-upon pick up spot, tempted by the allure of more king-sized candy bars. To arrive on time, I sprinted alongside the neighborhood’s unfamiliar sidewalks. On arriving home, my mother’s fear-infused scolding explained that children who looked like me couldn’t act like that: “What if you had been shot?”
At 13 years old, I received the infamous “talk” from my parents, the seemingly universal conversation in which Black parents must look their children in the eye and explain that their race may one day become their death sentence. In this harrowing rite of passage — a legacy of tragedies like Till’s — we are taught how to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations with police and white supremacists in the hopes of avoiding becoming another tragic statistic.
Now, at 19 years old, my parents’ words hit harder than ever, reflecting a world that hasn’t changed enough for their fears to be unfounded. In the United States, Black youth are unfairly burdened with the weight of navigating a minefield of racial violence. We are urged to change our behaviors — avoid wearing hoodies, don’t run at night, don’t knock on unfamiliar doors — all out of fear that normal actions might be perceived as threats. Too often, our childhood is heavily policed, our adolescence criminalized, and our lives treated as dispensable.
The racism we face permeates our daily lives, seeping into the very institutions meant to nurture us: our schools. As early as preschool, Black children endure punitive measures at a disproportionate rate: although comprising less than a fifth of all public preschoolers, they account for nearly half those suspended.
This alarming disparity continues into K-12, where Black girls are the most disproportionately disciplined group across all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and Black boys are suspended and expelled at proportions that are more than three times their enrollment. The over-disciplining of Black students is particularly concerning given the well-documented “school-to-prison pipeline,” which emphasizes the disturbing correlation between school discipline and future incarceration rates. Education should be a place of safety and learning, not a prison of fear and premature criminalization.
Unfortunately, recent years have seen an alarming rise of right-wing attacks on public education, especially targeting the instruction of history. Beyond the prevalent whitewashing and omission of diverse narratives in history curricula, there’s a push to further restrict students’ learning, with widespread book bans and the states of Florida and Arkansas blocking the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course piloted by The College Board. These efforts, alongside attempts to suppress discussions on systemic racism and historical injustices, are not just attempts to whitewash history, but also to perpetuate the very system trapping Black youth in defensive crouches. By denying our students a comprehensive understanding of our nation’s past, we continue to enable the same mistakes and maintain a vicious cycle of racial violence and prejudice.
The constant stress of navigating these structurally hostile environments affects more than our physical safety, severely impacting our mental and physical health too: Between 2000 and 2020, the suicide rates among Black youth aged 10-19 soared by 78 percent, marking the largest increase among racial groups. Moreover, a 2018 study found that Black children between the ages of 5 and 12 were roughly twice as likely to die by suicide as compared to their white counterparts.
Similarly, these disparities are echoed between Black and white Americans in several health outcomes, including maternal and infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes, cancer mortality rates and life expectancies. The data paint a clear and concerning picture of the heavy toll that systemic racism takes on the health of Black Americans, from childhood into adulthood. This is the grim toll of systemic racism — it is a matter of life and death.
Listen to the fears and experiences of Black youth like me. Who better to articulate the constant dread we experience, or the burden of growing up too swiftly in a world that perceives us as threats rather than as children? Our voices matter — not as mere tokens, but as indispensable contributors to the dialogue about racial violence and its resolution. While the world we’re growing up in is remarkably different from past generations, for Black youth, the disturbing parallels to the experiences of our parents and grandparents also renders it dishearteningly familiar. In the echoes of Till’s silenced voice, we are reminded of the profound importance of truly listening to Black youth today.
Structural racism is not just a threat to those who face its harshest outcomes, like fatal hate crimes. It is a pervasive problem harming the mental health, physical health, education and futures of all Black youth. This narrative of racial violence isn’t set in stone; it can and has to change. However, this transformation hinges on a shift in action from limiting the behavior of Black youth to reforming the biased system that too often labels them as targets.
President Joe Biden recently signed a proclamation establishing a national monument in honor of Till and his mother at three sites across Illinois and Mississippi, recognizing what would have been Till’s 82nd birthday. This valuable but long-overdue gesture offers a crucial acknowledgement of the impact Till’s lynching had on exposing the horrific violence and discrimination of the Jim Crow South. While these monuments and proclamations serve as tangible reminders of our history and the lasting effects of systemic oppression, they alone cannot rectify systemic racism: Genuine progress requires more than symbolic gestures. It demands significant, continuous efforts to confront and dismantle the racial prejudices entrenched in our institutions as well as fierce and open resistance to efforts to perpetuate these biases.
The freedom to grow up without being viewed as a threat is a basic human right still being denied to Black youth. As we remember and honor Emmett Till, we must commit to ensuring that no more children become tragic symbols. Let’s build a U.S. where Black youth can be children, not targets.
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