Dallas made history last week: It convicted a white officer for murdering a black child.
Protecting children is no novelty, for white America fetishizes youth. Parents bemoan that children “grow up too fast” and spend as much time as possible protecting babies from the scary world of adults. Adolescence extends into the mid-20s, as more young adults remain dependent on their parents for years longer than they did just a few decades ago. To keep their children in delayed adolescence, white America not only financially supports their adult children, but also protects them from the harsh realities of the adult world. Especially when serious or life-changing consequences are at stake, white America gives their teenagers pass after pass.
America does not apply these shifting norms to black children. The dehumanization of black children starts early. Studies show that black boys as young as ten are more likely to be seen as older, perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime. While children are distinguished by our perception of their vulnerability and need for protection, black boys are seen as responsible at an age that white boys are seen as innocent. They are viewed as “mature” on a timeline that has nothing to do with neurological, physical or emotional development. A black child is an adult when a white person says he is. Too often, the adulthood of a black child starts the second a white person is afraid.
This racist fear is why now-convicted murderer Balch Springs Officer Roy Oliver claimed he had “no other option” when he shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, whose only crime was scaring a white person. Oliver claimed that he fired into the car of children because it was going to “hit his partner,” Tyler Gross, even though the car was driving away from Gross and even though Gross maintained that he did not feel threatened. Thankfully, a jury rejected Oliver’s so-called fears. The officer’s response wasn’t based on facts or reason, but on a fear of black children and an acceptance that their lives are worth less. Like Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Antwon Rose and others before him, Jordan Edwards paid with his life for the dehumanization of black children.
The prosecution of Oliver is not enough to combat the institutionalized racism that caused Edwards’ death. Instead of leading in the fight against the demonization and criminalization of black children, Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson has formalized Oliver’s prejudice into policy. She has agreed to pursue adult charges against four black juveniles in response to the vocal vigilantism of an affluent white community. Johnson’s decision to pursue adult charges against these four black children after a racist mob demanded it reinforces base and irrational fears — the same fears that motivated Roy Oliver to shoot at a car full of kids. It underscores the message that children of color are more threatening and more culpable than their white peers, and thus deserve harsher treatment.
Unlike Roy Oliver, Johnson cannot claim that she acted in the heat of the moment, or that she feared that someone’s life was in imminent danger. Her decision is a cold calculation, made from the comfort of her office. In charging these four black children as adults, Johnson has sent a loud and clear signal to the people of color in Dallas: Your children are worth less. Your children are dangerous. Your children are not children.
We can and must demand a better response. From the police officers who claim to protect our children on the streets, yes — but even more from the trained attorneys who have the luxury of time, counsel and careful contemplation. For their decisions, as for Johnson’s decision, there is no excuse.