The boy was 3, maybe 4 years old, holding onto his mother in the Woodcroft Food Lion on a recent Sunday afternoon. Unusual for such a young pre-schooler, he wore go-to-meetin’ shirt and tie, and his shoes were freshly polished.
The youngster was black, well mannered and the object of his mother’s pride. For me, this was one of those contrarian scenes that jolts the mind into photographing and retaining it.
I had been thinking about the July 23 killing of internationally respected health scientist Feng Liu, while he was taking a lunchtime walk in Chapel Hill. Police say two young black men bludgeoned him with a rock.
Feng, who lived in Durham, frequently strolled the leafy Ransom Street neighborhood west of the campus. He had no reason to suspect thugs between prison stints would attack him in broad daylight.
The two, Derick Davis II and Troy Arrington Jr., were once as the Food Lion youngster is today, vessels being filled with the ways of the world.
Today, Davis and Arrington are poster boys for all that can go wrong when criminality supersedes the sweet innocence of childhood. Both have long rap sheets now topped with charges of first-degree murder.
We hear a lot about the crisis of the young black male. It is no exaggeration to say that what is happening to America’s young black men is the most threatening of our manifold social pathologies. It is the equivalent of losing what should be a productive generation to prison and early death.
If current trends continue, one out of three young black males (generally defined as those between 16 and 24 years old) will end up behind bars, if not killed by their own.
Consider these statistics compiled by the NAACP:
• 38.2 percent of black children live in poverty, the highest rate of any racial group.
• One in three black males age 18-24 is jobless.
• Young blacks are three times more likely than whites to be robbed and five times more likely to die by violence.
• A million of America’s 2.3 million prison inmates are black, many for drug convictions.
• Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black males.
The Food Lion youngster has an imposing gauntlet to run, as filled with dangers as the trials of Odysseus, before reaching age 24 and a measure of statistical safety from gangs and the drug trade.
For Durham’s young black men, the blighted Northeast Central neighborhood is the city’s school for criminality. This is where so many of them seek easy money peddling drugs. Others turn to robbery, larceny and other forms of property crime.
These are the young black men whose mug shots populate the evening news, which is increasingly dominated by violent crimes attributed to them. It’s called “bleed and lead” for a reason in the TV news biz.
Curious to know if what we see is at least an approximation of reality, I followed Durham County arrests for a week. It is a fair depiction of humanity at its most wretched.
For instance, on July 27, 2014, a Sunday, Durham County deputies booked 12 young males on a variety of offenses. Of the 12, 10 were black; the remaining two were Latino.
No one has a comprehensive answer to this problem. Clearly, midnight basketball doesn’t work. What often does work is work itself, but no other ethnic group is so unprepared for – one could even say so uninterested in – entry into a realm of rules and expectations.
Indeed, no other ethnic group instills more fear in the wider community than young black males. Watch how people avoid them on sidewalks. It is the total breakdown of trust between strangers – racial profiling in everyday life, but profiling with a perceived purpose.
I can only hope the Food Lion youngster is among the lucky ones. But it isn’t going to be an easy passage. As the Sirens tempted Odysseus, so will they soon tempt the youngster, ever alluring, ever malicious.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.