The Devaluation Of Black Life

By Guest Contributor Shanelle Matthews, cross-posted from Reproductive Justice

The deaths of Emmett Till, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin counter the narrative that all human life is valuable.

As the news of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s murder floods the airwaves I sit, familiarly reflective and saddened by the loss of yet another Black life at the hands of a sanctimonious racist. But like many of you, I know that this experience is not an isolated one. Largely, the lives of young Black men have never held great value in this country. From birth to untimely death, they’ve been treated as mules for labor, obvious scapegoats, easy targets and disposable–at no consequence to the disposer.

We’ve watched as the media and policy makers have heavily overlooked the outright assassinations of countless Black boys and men with little to no significance placed on the value of their lives or the racial implications of why they were murdered.


It’s enraging when I think of how capriciously Americans shrug their shoulders and turn the other cheek when considering the value of Black life in this country. Institutional and interpersonal racism has left Black America in a very precarious place; just leaving our homes puts us at risk for being assassinated by any self-righteous, gun-yielding neighborhood watchman who deems us suspicious.

This way of thinking is an example of a broader societal philosophy that literally begins at conception of a Black life. Black mothers, often considered hypersexual in nature, are frequently treated with little to no dignity by doctors who dismiss their pregnancies as accidental or inconsequential.

With a maternal and fetal mortality rate higher than any other race (often caused by stress brought on by racial burdens), Black mothers often experience traumatic birthing experiences that include forced cesareans, trivializing attitudes by medical professionals, and contemptuous care that has led to death or serious injury. If they survive this, Black children are given the least resources, have the least access to healthcare, endure some the most toxic and contaminated environments, and deal with structural and interpersonal racism throughout adolescence and into adulthood, where they risk the chance of being shot to death by people like George Zimmerman. 

It is disheartening how people have desensitized themselves to the plight of communities just because they don’t look like their own or how the lives of Black children are so undervalued, not because of something they’ve done but simply–just because. I can’t reconcile how some people have positioned themselves to make ethical decisions about who is and who isn’t deserving of safety, security, and justice and how those decisions magnify and shift culture, leaving entire communities on the fringes and moving targets for the Zimmermans of the world.

Sites like Black and Missing have been erected because those with the power to reach the masses refuse to prioritize anyone who isn’t white, hetero, or wealthy. Black and Brown children who go missing in this country or are raped, beaten, or murdered rarely ever make primetime news so communities of color are forced to find their own channels of distribution to get justice for their loved ones.

Trayvon’s death, and the subsequent lack of swift justice, is one more example the little importance placed on the lives and deaths of young Black boys. When will the media and policy makers start raising consciousness and awareness about the marginalization of Black families? Where are all of the folks who rallied behind Caylee Anthony, a child is a child and none of them deserve to die so why no vast humanitarian effort to convict Trayvon’s killer?

This worry-less behavior is unearthing some Jim Crow-like vigilante energy, and I am genuinely afraid for Black and Brown youth. This country has vilified young men of color so heavily that just existing makes them dangerous and threatening. Some say you can’t put value on life, but the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sean BellOscar GrantEmmett Till and so many other innocent young men of color says otherwise.

Take a minute and sign this petition calling for the arrest and conviction of Trayvon Martin’s killer who is still safe in his home and share it widely. We should all feel personally charged to acknowledge the racial politics involved in his murder and to spread awareness about it.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XZCOUVFYOUAOFO2VOXS3E66DHQ ShoniquaD

    Thank you so much for this essay! Spreading awareness is so important and you present compelling issues. Black folks are so dehumanized in our culture–so demonized in the American imagination–we are rendered invisible. WE ALL need to embrace a critical consciousness and unlearn white supremacy, like yesterday!, because as k.eli articulates: we do not live in a post-racist society!

  • http://twitter.com/vnk01 Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    What makes me so sad about all of this is that Martin was shot just yards away from his home, a scared harmless boy trying to get home, and the guy who shot him was not even supposed to carry a gun! Its a slap in face to black people everywhere, this guy did not even get charged with a measly reckless endangerment charge, or even charged for possession of a gun, nothing! The police did not even bother to make it look like they were investigating I mean seriously, they are pissing on us without even the courtesy of calling it rain…

  • Rebecca A

    Why aren’t black boys and girls getting coverage when white kids will get literally months of coverage for being gone? They are all children! Raped, abused, and lost children! People make me sick.

    • http://twitter.com/TheSuperAmanda Super Amanda

       I completely agree.  One needs to look like Barbie or Bieber  in order to get any attention as a kidnap victim.  The same week Polly Klass was found dead in Sonoma County another Sonoma County child victim of kidnapping and murder , a Black girl,  was buried ( I sadly cannot find her name in Google to even give her an identity, but I recall Tom Waits, a long time SoCo resident went to the funeral to pay his respects) and she attracted almost ZERO media attention. And while it is true and inexcusable that few hate crimes against whites are ever widely reported ,  nowhere in the entire world could a Black self appointed neighborhood watch vigilante shoot a white teenager with no criminal record dead and with no witnesses walk away scot free. It has never happened yet if there had been no protest over Trayvon Martin it would have faded away unnoticed. Absolutely sick.

      • Jay

        I’m from the bay area, and I remember the black girl who was killed that week too. I don’t remember her name either, which is upsetting to me, but I vividly remember her face on the news. I was just a kid myself when those murders happened, the same age as Polly Klaas. That was the first time I noticed how the white victim received so much more attention. It was frightening for me as a child, knowing that not only could children like me be the victim of murder, but at the same time finding out the harsh truth that some children’s lives are more valued than others. It made me feel sick then, and it still does today.

      • Jay

        I’m from the bay area, and I remember the black girl who was killed that week too. I don’t remember her name either, which is upsetting to me, but I vividly remember her face on the news. I was just a kid myself when those murders happened, the same age as Polly Klaas. That was the first time I noticed how the white victim received so much more attention. It was frightening for me as a child, knowing that not only could children like me be the victim of murder, but at the same time finding out the harsh truth that some children’s lives are more valued than others. It made me feel sick then, and it still does today.

  • Anonymous

    Everything about this case makes me sick. Zimmerman didn’t see Trayvon as a young man, still legally a child, buying candy for his little brother. He saw him as a dangerous “other” who must surely be committing a crime because he is Black and male. One of the grossest things about this whole mess is Zimmerman’s father claiming his son can’t be racist because “he has Black friends” and Latino family members. When will people realize that having friends from a persecuted race doesn’t give you a “Get Out of Racism Free” card?

  • k.eli

    Given recent events in our country, it’s obvious to me that the honor of a white woman (re: Sandra Fluke) still has more value in our society than the life of a black male. After nearly a month, the major networks (minus Fox News, of course) are finally starting to give this story major coverage but I still feel they’re treating it as an exception to the rule when it’s sadly the norm. The networks are so afraid to acknowledge the elephant in the room that they’ll grasp for any other plausible reason – “this wouldn’t have happened without the Stand Your Ground Law …” Yes, it would and yes it does all over this country. People need to stop all this post-racial/colorblind society nonsense and start acknowledging that too many black men and boys have died and continue to die due to racist-driven hatred. But what else can you expect from a society that constantly depicts black males in such exclusively-negative ways? Once people have been conditioned to not recognize the humanity in others, they’ve essentially been conditioned to justify their demise.