Stand Your Ground! Challenging the Culture of Criminal Expectations for Black Boys and Men


A few years back, I led a workshop for 20 talented African American males who were about to graduate from high school. They were in Jack and Jill, a community-based program aimed at providing social, cultural and educational opportunities for youth between the ages of two and nineteen. Their grades, school leadership, and upstanding community service were about to earn them admission to some of the most prestigious and selective colleges in the country.

The workshop, What Is Your Brand, challenged the young men to examine and define their identity and understand how their self-concept influences behavior.

During one exercise, I asked the young men to describe in one word how they were perceived in public outside of familiar settings. Here are some of their responses:

How the World Sees Young Black Males

Thug. Womanizer. Thief. Athletic. Dumb/Stupid. Gangster. Rapper. Non-academic…

Then I asked them to describe themselves, again in a word. Here are some of the descriptives they used:

How Young Black Males See Themselves

Smart. Christian. Respectful, Athletic, Non-athletic. Good Student…

I was struck by the considerable contrast between the two sets of responses—how they’re perceived, and how they see themselves were polar opposites. Think for a moment about the tension to constantly appraise, play down to, or actively reject these criminal expectations in schools, malls, or, as we’ve recently seen, even in your own car. We saw this tension play out in the tragic encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. And now  months later, two more African American male lives were senselessly taken stemming from incidents rooted in the negative perception of this population segment.

Like many of you, I am troubled by the unjustified and recent police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Any of these men could have been me–or my sons. My question is this: Would Mr. Castile have been shot and killed if he were a white man in the car with his fiance and her four-year-old daughter? And would he even have been stopped by police for an alleged broken taillight? I think not.

I too have had my fair share of “micro-aggression” moments. For instance, when I cross the street, I still hear car doors lock while waiting at a traffic light. Or when I’m at the airport waiting for my bags at Baggage Claim, I notice women moving their purses from one hand to the other—away from me—after they glance over her shoulder at me. I’m old enough to dismiss these misguided actions, but what about our boys and young men?

In an earlier post relating to the Trayvon Martin incident, I contemplated the impact of the Zimmerman verdict on the attitudes and behaviors of young African American males toward official institutions such as the courts, the police, and most tragically, their schools. How can we as parents raise our children—our sons—to thrive despite these views?

Here are a few ways my wife and I intentionally prepare our sons (21 and 16) to thrive:

  1. Value who they are as African American men, helping them recognize their family and racial history, understanding what others sacrificed so they can be secure and comfortable in their own skin, both literally and figuratively.
  2. Live out their Christian faith in such a way that they know that there were no accidents, but rather, that they are here for a reason, with a purpose.
  3. Not to allow their evolving beliefs about their race or faith preclude them from forging relationships with people outside of their reference groups (race, faith, sexual orientation, etc.). In other words, to be culturally fluent.
  4. When they encounter racism, to help them make sense of it in a way that will lead them to a positive and reflectively responses to the apparent slight, rather than to react reflexively or destructively.
  5. We intentionally choose schools and community settings where there is numerical diversity AND a culture of inclusion and high expectations, especially for AA males.

Parents and guardians can’t be omnipresent when it comes to protecting our boys and young men from the palpable culture of criminal and low expectations. What we can do is impart in them a will to Stand Their Ground regarding their sense of identity and purpose. Recognizing  negative perceptions and stereotypes is one thing. Having the resolve, tools, and success to prove others wrong is critical to dismantling societal’s racialized structures and perceptions one brick at a time.


* Image courtesy of