“Hey Emmett!” a White kid yelled at me as we were playing dodgeball during my 6th grade gym class. I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t even know what the insult meant, but some kids on the other side of the court started snickering and repeated it. They also made jokes about my whistling. Our gym teacher didn’t hear what was going on, so it continued until the period ended.
Later that day when I arrived home, I looked up “whistling and Emmett” and learned about the Emmett Till lynching in 1955. I was obviously aware that Black Americans faced a history of racism, but not entirely aware of how it affected people today. My own experience made that racism real and it shocked me.
I live in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Queens and have gone to predominantly Black schools, so this was my first racist experience. To think that kids thought it was OK to make fun of the lynching of Emmett felt awful to me.
I Can Relate to Kalief Browder
Following this incident, I looked up Black figures like Nanny of the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. MLK is a man I greatly respect due to his calm demeanor and his goal for Americans of all races to be at peace. Through him, I learned about the civil rights movement, which then led me to learn more about America’s criminal justice system.
I was shocked to read statistics like this one from the NAACP, that states Black men are incarcerated at a rate of five times that of White men. In several states the disparity is more than 10 to 1. Then I read about the tragedy of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old boy from the Bronx who was accused of stealing a backpack. He was jailed on Rikers Island for three years because he didn’t have enough money for bail—mostly in solitary confinement.
Knowing that someone this young—close to my own age—had such a terrible experience, made me reflect somberly as I began relating to his story. Watching this young boy have one violent fight after another on the jail’s surveillance video frightened me, because it was too close to home. I know men in my neighborhood who have served time and returned with a defeated, almost lifeless look in their eyes.
Get Close to Those Who Are Suffering
It’s tempting to look away. But Bryan Stevenson, an activist and lawyer who has become an inspiration to me over the years, says to get proximate—close enough to those that are suffering—instead of seeing ourselves as separate and different. The thought that someone so young could spend three years in jail without being convicted of a crime, I believe, is at the heart of what is wrong with our criminal justice system.
Bryan says that the opposite of poverty is justice, and the true measure of our character as a nation is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. Kalief would not have spent so many years in prison if he were from a wealthy family who could afford bail and have access to lawyers who saw him as someone worthy of representation.
In Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption, I read about Walter McMillian, who was falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to die. It made me think more critically about what it means to not just be Black in this country, but poor too. Walter McMillian, Kalief Browder, and Emmett Till were more than Black males, they were males without economic privilege.
Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement began in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. BLM has pushed many across America to face the systemic oppression of Black people via police brutality and the setup of the criminal justice system. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and most notably George Floyd have become recent symbols of this oppression.
Although the death of George Floyd took place 65 years after the murder of Emmett Till, I see a similarity. Till was brutalized, but his mother left her son’s coffin open to show what racism not only physically did to her son, and as a symbol of what other Black people in America experience. The same could be said about the video of George Floyd’s death. Both incidents forced many people to see the racist horrors taking place in their raw forms. One difference may be that the national outrage seen for George Floyd’s death feels to me as if America is awakening now to the extent of police brutality.
How I’m Fighting Racism
While racism and discrimination may not be solved overnight, the first thing I can do to prevent it is to help work towards reform. I am a chapter leader of My Brother’s Keeper, an organization dedicated to helping young men of color gain access to the resources and mentors necessary to thrive. Our goal is to keep young men in school and build a brotherhood, and so far we’ve been successful.
For example, before schools were closed this year, I was mentoring a Black sophomore in my school, showing him the ropes around certain classes and tutoring him in Algebra II. Although the school year was cut short, we developed a wholesome bond and I still help him and talk to him. My Brother’s Keeper helped establish a healthy environment for young men in my school.
I am also a mentor and student with Youth Justice Court, a program which allows teens to rule on petty cases and provide an alternative response to youth crime in their community. My Brother’s Keeper and the Youth Justice Court help young people of color reach their full potential by supporting them and making them feel valued and heard.
By working for both of these organizations, I hope to assist other young people of color to dream big, meet those expectations, and even exceed them. That’s my goal, to encourage and nurture, in a way that fosters creativity and growth, one person at a time. By empowering myself and other young Black men, I want to help create a world where people like Emmett Till, Michael Brown, and George Floyd will never again be murdered with impunity.