They are more likely to get shot, go to jail, drop out of school, end up in foster care, be abandoned by their fathers and have children of their own while they're still teenagers.
Compared with other Americans, young black men have the statistical odds stacked against them.
But statistics only reveal trends; they don't define an individual. In in-depth interviews with more than a dozen young black men, ages 15 to 28 — from honor students to jail inmates, star athletes to aspiring executives — the voices so rarely heard in public forums spoke out on being the most profiled segment of society.
For many, the fear of ending up like
— the unarmed teen shot to death by Sanford Neighborhood Watch volunteer
— is far too tangible. At the least, their age, gender and skin color make them regularly subject to suspicion. They felt they had to be better than the next guy just to stay even.
"Sometimes it hurts," says Jaboris Haynes, 19, who grew up in poverty with his mother and sister in Apopka. "When I was younger, I thought of being a different race and wondered what it would be like. The message I got about being a young black man wasn't a good message. I always felt like somebody was after me, like they were judging me, just because I'm a black male."
Having escaped the pressure of gangs to win a scholarship to Florida A&M University to study civil engineering, he still feels pressure "not to be a statistic."
"I want people to know that I'm a lovable person, I'm kind, I can be a good friend, I'm reliable, trustworthy," he says on a break from his summer job as a camp counselor. He slumps forward, shaking his head.
"But being a young black man, you have a lot of people talking down on you."
No matter how wealthy, how educated, how well-dressed and well-mannered, all the young men interviewed reported being profiled because of their skin color.
it meant being stopped, questioned and frisked by police. For others, it was more subtle: a car door that locks as they walk past or pull up to a traffic light, a sales clerk who eyes their pockets suspiciously, a white woman in an elevator who clutches her purse when a young black man steps in and the doors close.
For many of the men, the reaction was so common, it barely registers on their radar anymore.
"Sure — I've been in a store here recently where I was followed around — even though I was in a suit," says Jason Henry, 28, who works for Disney and is running for the
. "You know, I'm looking at something, and all of a sudden there's someone next to me dusting."
Of the legion of things he would change about the world — the opportunities for education, decent jobs, an end to bitter partisanship in government — profiling is low on his list.
"If you harp on those situations, it's just going to make you angry," Henry says from a temporary campaign office in Pine Hills. "Racism is rooted in hatred, and I'm not going to allow that to take over my life."
Vedley Decius, an 18-year-old Haitian-American who runs track at Evans High School, has his own strategy for dealing with profiling — one that leaves him feeling triumphant.
"I realized that I was [perceived as a threat] early on — probably the end of elementary school," he says. "But I also realized: Man, I really can't do nothing about it."
So when he goes to the back of a corner grocery or convenience store, then gets a wary stare at the register, even though he's buying something, he relishes what's to come.
"When I walk past the scanners and no [alarms] go off, and you see that I have a bag with a receipt in it, you look dumb," he says. "I just feel happy when I know I did nothing wrong, and you're looking at me [suspiciously] for no reason. And that's satisfaction enough for me."
But some encounters are easier to overlook than others.
Joseph Shirley, a 28-year-old husband, father and small-business owner, is slightly built, well-spoken and college-educated. One day in 2009, he tagged along as a friend — a restaurant manager — deposited a check at a local bank. They were both wearing sweat shirts. Shirley waited in the lobby while his friend went to the teller window.
But after the two returned to their car and started to pull out of the parking lot, a police officer — his patrol vehicle's lights swirling — ordered them to pull over.
A bank manager, it turned out, had called police to report their "suspicious" behavior, saying the two looked like they intended to rob the place.
Shirley was floored.
"Who gives you their identification and makes a deposit before pulling a robbery?" he protested.
Three years later, though the officer eventually let them go, the incident still rankles him.
"I pay taxes," he says. "I've always believed the police were there to serve me, too."
Yet he also knows it is the way things are. His mother first gave him the lecture when he was 11:
Things are different for you because you're black. You can't walk around with your hands in your pockets in a store. Try to avoid talking to the police
if you can.
It's a talk he dreads having with his own son, now 2. But what he fears most is the kind of call police had to make to Trayvon's father.
"My son could have something like this happen when he's that age," Shirley says. "It has taken so long to get the little bit of change we've had [over the past] 40 years. Yes, there are changes, but I feel like we're still being lynched. We're not being hung from trees, but we're still dying."
It's the same fear Jennifer Smith-Reed has for her sons. After Trayvon's death, the Apopka mother and public-relations executive sat down her oldest — Simmon "Sebastian" Reed Jr., 15 — for a discussion on how to dress and carry himself. She wanted him to be wary of those who might hurt him.
Sebastian, an honors student at Edgewater High School, is socially colorblind. His friends are black, white, Asian-American and Hispanic. He competes on his school's crew team — a predominantly white sport. He has taken part in theater and debate. And he's determined one day to study at the
. Though he confesses to "tuning out" a bit during his mom's lectures, in somber moments he knows she is right.
"There are racist people out there, and I may come across one of them one day, and they'll delay me in my goals," he says. "Hopefully, I'll just handle the situation calmly, and I'll try to find a way around them.
"But I don't think racism will end in my lifetime."
Perhaps, he hopes, it will lessen.
Mark Lark, 22, is going into his senior year at the
, studying architecture. One of only two black students in his major, he also serves as vice president of the local student chapter of the American Institute of Architects, volunteers to mentor college-bound minorities and works at the Central Florida YMCA.
With a year to go to graduation, he already has business cards printed.
But his real mission is to be a role model for the young black men who come after him. And in so doing, he hopes to persuade those who judge simply on skin color to rethink their assumptions.
"Trust me, instead of being in your face, now it [racism] is more subtle," he says. "Instead of, 'Hey, boy, you shouldn't be drinking out of that water fountain,' it's 'Why is this [black] person doing that?'
"What I do with my life — I do this to show a better example of my culture and my race. There are sophisticated, well-mannered, ambitious black males in the community that aren't going to be a degradation to society, that are actually going to help the economy, help the U.S. and help the world."
More than 60 percent of the people now in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their 30s, one in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. — The Sentencing Project
Outwardly, Mikel Walker embodies most of the negative stereotypes of young black men. At 24, he is awaiting sentencing in the Orange County Jail for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. It is the latest in a string of 32 arrests — from trespassing to selling drugs and stealing cars — dating back to age 12, when his mother died of cancer.
When Walker was born, his parents were both teens themselves. His mother was addicted to cocaine; his father would soon go to prison. By age 4, the boy was removed from his mother's custody, and he began shuttling through foster care — including one home where he says he was kept in the dark, where the house reeked of urine.
When his grandmother found out where he was, she won custody until his father got out of prison. By then, Walker was 13.
"It started out as visits on the weekend, and, you know, what boy wouldn't want to be with his father?" he says. "So I ended up moving in with Dad — and it didn't work. He was a workingman — he didn't really have time to raise a child. It was like, 'Hey, kid, you need this? Here, I got you.' It was more money being thrown in my face. So it left me looking for a dad or a big brother [figure] in the neighborhood, and the drug dealer on the street" took him under his wing.
His ventures included dealing marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines.
Despite the predictable story line, though, he says race plays no role in his life.
"I think that's what's wrong with our country now: Race plays too big of a role," he says. "That's what's holding a lot of people back. If you allow yourself to use a color barrier as an excuse for not getting a job, for not going out and being social, for not getting vocational training, you're missing out on a lot.
"For me, it just means I have to work harder, to do the right thing, to prove to the world that just because I'm a young African-American, that doesn't mean I can't succeed."
But being a felon, he says, is another battle entirely.
In Florida, 67 percent of black children live in low-income households. In Parramore, the predominantly black community just west of downtown Orlando, the average household income is $13,600. — Voices for Florida and New Image Youth Center
Even in second grade, Robertson Bassy stood out as a bright kid.
"I knew he would never be average," his second-grade teacher, Toni Crabtree, would say years later.
His family had just moved to the States from the U.S. Virgin Islands in hopes the children would get a better education. Bassy, born in Haiti and now 18, was the oldest. The family found a place in Parramore, near relatives.
But by middle school, Bassy says one of the lessons he began learning was not to be too ambitious in a rough neighborhood.
"In middle school, the smart students sat in the front, the people who were really slackers sat in the back talking, so I just sat in the middle so I wouldn't offend everybody in the back. My teacher was like, 'Why don't you move up?' She could see I was engaged. But I have to go home at night. I can't act like I'm not one of them. I was already called an Oreo."
It didn't help that he was small for his age and didn't like to fight. He had one friend — another boy whose family had moved from the Caribbean — but the two didn't fit into any of the emerging school cliques. No one Bassy knew wanted to go to college. No one in his immediate family had ever attended.
But at 15, coaxed by his friend, Bassy joined an after-school program in the heart of Parramore called New Image Youth Center. It's housed in an aging storefront next to a gas station, and you can see the drug peddlers from the front door.
Youth-center founder Shanta Barton-Stubbs immediately could sense her newest recruit had potential.
At Boone High School, where Bassy's mother had transferred her son, no guidance counselor ever talked to him about college. But Barton-Stubbs did. And when
in Atlanta began sending Bassy letters urging him to apply, she was more thrilled than he was. The private, all-male, historically black college — alma mater of Dr.
, the late theologian Howard Thurman, filmmaker
, actorSamuel L. Jackson and at least oneU.S. Cabinet member — cost $42,000 a year, but Barton-Stubbs promised Bassy she would find a way to get him there.
His parents didn't make enough even to borrow that much.
Barton-Stubbs spent all last summer trying to secure scholarships and raise the money. She told her center's donors to give to Bassy's college fund instead of her charity. And when he arrived on the Morehouse campus for fall semester still well short of the total he needed, she co-signed a student loan for him, though she is still paying off student loans of her own.
One year into his studies, Bassy says the experience has been "life-changing."
"This is the first time in my life I've been surrounded by positive black people," he says. "I had never seen that many black men actually formulating ideas, changing up how they view things, instead of just throwing out, 'Oh, you can't do that. Why think so hard?' "
He's now a computer-science major with a 3.3 grade-point average. He wants to add economics for a double major and minor in French. He's already planning on graduate school.
"Ten years from now, I want to be working for a Fortune 500 company and using my algorithms to design investment programs," he says.
He is also determined to give back to the community of his childhood.
As far as anyone knows, he is the first Parramore resident to attend Morehouse. He doesn't plan to be the last. He knows the kids at the youth center, including his two younger brothers, are watching.
"I'm not made yet," he says. "As a young black man, all it takes is one mistake."
As of 2010, 39 percent of the nation's children lived in single-parent families. For non-Hispanic whites, the rate was 29 percent. For black children, it was more than twice that: 64 percent. — National Kids Count Data Center
Of the dozen men and teens interviewed, Bassy was one of only three to grow up with his biological father in his life. For many of the others, that meant becoming the man of the house at an early age.
"I have everything I need," says Windson
Joseph, 17, a Jones High School quarterback with a 3.2 grade-point average. He lives with his mother in an apartment in a crime-plagued Orlando neighborhood off South John Young Parkway.
"My mom — she does housekeeping [for a living]. So I manage the house to where she can just come home and rest up. She has stuff I can cook so she won't have to get on the stove, and I can make her dinner."
He supposes that, as an infant, he probably met his father, but he doesn't remember it. He hesitates to ask questions about the man.
"My mom, you know, sometimes she tells me stories, but I see her situation, and I don't want to bring it up. She's working hard and I tell her, 'Look, onFather's Day, I celebrate with you. You're my father and my mother.' … I'd say 80 percent of my friends [are] in the same situation."
Windson doesn't bemoan his situation. Despite his surroundings, or perhaps because of them, he is unrelentingly positive about his future. A standout on both the football field and basketball court, he has a big dream to play pro ball. Failing that, he hopes to be a firefighter. He can see them at work at a station beyond his apartment window. With the shootings, stabbings and drug deals he regularly witnesses, the firefighters stand out as heroes.
"I've seen people die in front of me. I've seen people shooting at each other — one falls, the other still up," he says. "I've seen shooting, robbing, stealing — it's an everyday thing. Black people, I would say, when it gets to hard times, sometimes they don't know how to come together. When something goes wrong, sometimes they just go at each other instead of coming together and trying to make a better situation."
When he is not at school, practice, church or home, he is at
Outreach, an urban ministry that teaches kids leadership skills and gives them a place to study, play and socialize. Joseph, now working a summer internship at Frontline, first came here when he was 10.
By keeping him from the streets and giving him a strong black male role model in director Arto Woodley Jr., Joseph says the place has changed the course of his life.
"Thank God for Frontline," he says. "The times when I want to be outside but it's too dangerous, Mr. Woodley lets me come here and work out."
Sometimes it seems being a successful young black man means finding a healthy distraction.
In the case of Ahkeem Hollimon, 19, it was the Boys & Girls Club in Kissimmee, where his grandmother dragged him one day six years ago after yet another round of detention at school. Of the many things the club has given him — confidence, role models, a sense of belonging and its Southeastern U.S. Youth of the Year award in 2011 — the greatest was a second chance to decide who he was.
Had Hollimon not been at the club one fall afternoon four years ago, he likely would have been beside his stepbrother, then 15, who became collateral damage in an armed robbery as he was walking home from football practice. The teen was shot in the head and killed.
At first, the anger threatened to send Hollimon back to his old habits: fighting, flunking out of school and dabbling in street crimes he might have been arrested for. But the tragedy ultimately led him to realize he didn't want to end up like his brother.
He abandoned "Dee" — the nickname he'd had on the streets — and took on his given name.
"When I come to the club, it's Ahkeem, and it's a whole different person than who Dee was," he says. "He's a much better person. Ahkeem loves kids. Ahkeem loves reading. Ahkeem loves speaking about the Boys & Girls Club. Ahkeem's a very respectful kind of guy, easy to get along with. Everybody loves Ahkeem.
"Nobody likes Dee."
Hollimon's Youth of the Year award came with $11,000 in scholarship money and a trip to Washington last year to meet President
— something Dee never would have imagined.