Thousands marched downtown this week in memory of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was killed in what many believe was an unjustified shooting.
Also, confidence in public safety has been shaken due to a shooting that left five teenagers wounded near downtown’s canal earlier this month.
Both incidents have caused concern among parents of young African-American males. Could their son end up like one of those wounded at the canal? Worse, could they get killed like Martin? Do stereotypes faced by young Black men increase that possibility?
Heather Scaife, a single mother of four young men, carefully considered those questions when she heard about the Martin and canal shootings.
“It almost makes you want to be overprotective,” said Scaife. “You don’t want your kids to go outside or be anywhere without you. The mothering instinct kicks in immediately when you hear about incidents like that.”
Scaife is among a growing number of single African-American women raising boys without the presence of their fathers. She is the mother of sons Brent, 17, Khory 13, and 10 year-old twins Jason and Justin.
Scaife’s husband died suddenly from heart disease in 2010, leaving her to shape the boys’ values in a world still struggling with racism, temptation and violence. She is aware that her sons could be impacted by the unique challenges and stereotypes Black males face.
“Every ethnic group has to deal with bias of some kind, and I don’t want my children to be afraid, but prepared on how to deal with people who have them and make good choices,” Scaife said. “I tell them to be careful about how they conduct themselves and about what they do, where they do it and who they do it with.”
Sharron Tapps, who is also a single mother, is already having those kind of discussions with her 7-year-old son, Elijah.
“It’s best to make sure he is aware early of how the world is, because he is already curious and asking questions about some of the things he sees on television and in life,” Tapps said. “I’m concerned about what the future looks like for him as a young man and would like to see him be happy.”
Tapps said she knows everyone is tempted to make poor choices in their youth, and prejudicial notions and stereotypes can complicate that phase of life for Black boys.
According to certain stereotypes, African-American males are underachievers who have difficulty holding employment and taking responsibility for their children.
A young Black male dressed in hip-hop style clothing or a hoodie (like Trayvon Martin) is a potentially violent thug. Any group of African-American teens is a gang. Young Black men, regardless of how “clean cut” they are, should be watched closely in retail stores; or must be followed by police, particularly if they drive a large sedan made before 1995, known in street lingo as a “hooptie.”
Local residents Dewan Williams, 29 and Jermaine Johnson Sr., 33 are two young African-American men who have dealt with those stereotypes all of their lives.
On the surface, some would say that the two friends could easily appear in a rap music video, with their hip-hop style clothing and customized cars with fancy rims.
Williams and Johnson, however, have defied negative stereotypes of young Black men by working, raising their children and contributing to their churches and neighborhoods.
Along the way, however, they have dealt with their fair share of profiling.
“I might apply for a job and people will look at me, see my dreadlocks and gold teeth and automatically have a certain opinion of me, but I’m one of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet,” said Johnson, who provides cosmetic upgrades to vehicles. Johnson added that because he is often required to drive nice cars as part of his job, he frequently gets followed, and sometimes stopped, by police.
“It’s like they judge you a certain way and think, ‘oh, I can definitely find something wrong with him,’” Johnson said. “What I love is proving them wrong when you have all your paperwork and they can’t get you on anything.”
Williams has also been followed by police while riding with friends in his 1979 Cadillac, but he has earlier memories of growing up with stereotypes. He remembers the experiences he had being bused from 32nd and Emerson to Southport High School.
“I think we were kind of viewed, by both students and teachers, as outsiders from the ghetto who had come there to fight and didn’t want to learn,” Williams said.
He also recalled his first job behind the deli counter of the former Joe O’Malia’s supermarket, when a woman asked if he was the member of a gang of robbers who wore gold teeth and had been in the news.
“I’m there serving her and other customers and she’s thinking I’m a thief,” Williams said.
Despite his past and present encounters with racism Williams has had a successful life, and is employed with a company that manufactures office furniture and equipment. He and his wife, Yvonne, are the parents of four sons. Williams has been giving them advice on how to respond to the kind of challenges he dealt with growing up.
“I just keep them focused on school, and remind them to make the right decisions,” he said. “So many kids today are focused on rap music, shoes and their appearance. You can look fly all you want, but you need an education to be successful.”
So, how can parents, single or otherwise, prepare their boys for the realities of this world, help them achieve their goals and overcome stereotypes as adults, as Williams and Johnson have done?
Murvin Enders, executive director of 100 Black of Indianapolis, encourages parents to teach their young men how to deal with peer pressure, which can pull them into situations involving drug use, vandalism and fighting.
“That is probably the greatest influence on a young person, because everyone wants to be accepted and be a part of something,” said Enders, who raised three boys himself. “It is important to keep them involved with mentors and positive activities. You also have to know where your children are going and who they’re going to be with.”
Scaife recommends staying in frequent communication with children, which she says has not only kept her family close, but allowed her to keep up with what’s going on. She added that between school, homework, church involvement and participation in various extracurricular activities, her boys are too busy to get into trouble.
“They really enjoy what they do,” she said. “They have friends and time to relax, but they are usually on the go.”
Scaife’s family lives in the predominantly white Morgan County town of Monrovia. Brent, the oldest son, is a star swimmer at the local high school, and is not fazed by being one of only a few African-American students.
“Usually I don’t have problems, but if someone says something negative I don’t really pay attention to it,” said Brent, who would like to be a neurosurgeon. “I try to keep my mind set on other things and reaching my goals. I don’t have time to be pulled down to their level.”
For Tapps, she knows many people believe that a single mother can’t effectively raise a boy into a man.
“I can’t teach Elijah how to shave or how to be a man, but I can tell him what kind of behavior I expect out of him,” said Tapps.
Like many single mothers, Tapps doesn’t always get the support she needs. Well meaning relatives and church members who pledge to be a positive role model for Elijah haven’t gotten around to keeping their promise.
Still, Tapps is dedicated to joining other parents in doing what she can to keep her son from losing his life like Martin, whether it is at the hand of a nervous person operating on stereotypes, or someone of his own race.
“I don’t have to wait on anyone to be able to raise Elijah in a Christian home, keep him in church and pray for him,” she said. “He can always be shown what it takes to get along with all types of people.”