To Be Young and Black in America: Always Considered a Threat

To Be Young and Black in America: Always Considered a Threat

To Be Young and Black in America: Always Considered a Threat

An unarmed 14-year-old black teenager was choked by police because they considered him a threat. Of course they did. 


Over the course of my twenty-six years, I’ve developed three responses to most news headlines: “Couldn’t have been a black person,” “Please, Lord, don’t let it be a black person,” and “Oh, that was definitely a black person.”

Miami-Dade police officers pinned a 14-year-old to the ground and put him in a chokehold after the teen gave them, in their words, a “dehumanizing stare” and clenched his fists. Can you guess which response I had?

Tremaine McMillian was walking the beach on Memorial Day when police officers riding an ATV approached him and another teen to tell them their roughhousing was unacceptable behavior. The officers asked McMillian where his parents were, and as he walked away from them (McMillian says he was walking toward his mother, in an effort to answer the officer’s inquiry as to where his parents were) they jumped off the ATV and restrained McMillian. They choked the teen until he could not breathe and he urinated himself. The six-week-old puppy McMillian was holding and feeding when the officers approached him was also injured.

Tremaine is being charged with felony resisting arrest with violence and disorderly conduct.

I saw the story making the rounds of my social media networks and knew without clicking any links that the 14-year-old in question was black. And not because the headlines identified him as such, or because I saw that his name was Tremaine, or because I was there and witnessed the whole thing, but because racism is predictable. It’s the most consistent thing in my life.

Also predictable is the trying to pretend this isn’t racism. Attempting to justify the use of force in this situation, Detective Alvaro Zabaleta said: “Of course we have to neutralize the threat in front of us. And when you have somebody that is being resistant, somebody that is pulling away from you, somebody that’s clenching their fist, somebody that’s flaring their arms, that’s the immediate threat.” You see, this had nothing to do with racism, it’s just the police doing their job.

But it’s a matter of who constitutes a threat. Who but a black teenager has the ability to dehumanize a police officer with a stare? Who but a(n unarmed) black teenager can make (armed) police feel threatened by clenching his fists? Who but a black teenager can simultaneously clench his fists and feed a puppy? Who but a black teenager isn’t afforded the opportunity to comply with a request before it’s determined that they’re not complying? Who but a black teenager is choked to the point they urinate themselves while being handcuffed? When does any of this happen to people aren’t black teenagers?

It happens… when a person poses a threat, not when they’re walking on the beach. This is what it is to be young and black in America: you are always considered a threat. And that’s why, as livid as this makes me, it’s so incredibly unsurprising. Racism, in all its predictability, lost its ability to shock me a long time ago.

Read Mychal Denzel Smith on media perceptions of black kids.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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