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Op-Ed: The devastating messages we send Black children about their worth

The name Ma'Khia Bryant written in chalk on blacktop at a vigil for the teenager.
People gather for a vigil in Columbus, Ohio, for Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, who was shot and killed by a police officer.
(Jeff Dean / AFP/Getty Images)

Ma’Khia Bryant should be alive. But she was shot and killed this week by a police officer responding to a 911 call placed by an unidentified caller reporting an attempted stabbing. Many people are saying that “we don’t yet know all the facts” as if something might emerge that justifies the killing of a child placed in the care of the state. But I know there can be no justification because I was just like Ma’Khia when I was her age.

Like Ma’Khia at the time of her death, I did not live with my birth parents. My mother struggled with addiction. And my father, a violent man, spent much of my life in prison. My grandparents took me and my siblings in and eventually legally adopted us. They stressed the importance of doing well in school, signed us up for extracurricular activities and ensured we were deeply involved in our church community. They understood that we needed healthy outlets and activities to thrive.

I was a star student at school and a rough-and-tumble kid on the block. As long as my fighting didn’t happen at school and no one got hurt too badly, my grandparents let it slide.

Two weeks before I started high school, my grandmother died. This was a turning point for me. As far as I was concerned, playing by the rules and praying to God were no use. I doled out insults, shoves and punches indiscriminately. At home I openly flouted the rules. The fights that used to happen out of my grandfather’s sight were now happening in the front yard. My grandfather finally reached a breaking point when I walked into the house at 4 a.m. on a school night — as a result of my disobedience, he told me I would have to live with an aunt.

I did not have the language or tools to express what I knew — that life was harder than it should be. I knew that I should not have lost a friend to a drive-by shooting before middle school. I saw kids on the other side of town attend schools that did not look like prisons and knew I would have to win the lottery to have that same experience. I knew my grandmother died because the hospital in our neighborhood did not provide quality care. Unable to challenge “the system,” I challenged every proxy for the system I encountered.

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Some people have pointed to Ma’Khia Bryant’s size as threatening, and justification for the officer’s use of lethal force. But as Sonya Renee Taylor, the activist and poet, points out, we cannot have a conversation about the near-instantaneous use of deadly force against this Black child — without any nonlethal deescalation efforts — without talking about anti-Blackness and the perception of danger in her body.

As with Ma’Khia, my Blackness and propensity to resort to bullying and fighting in my teens could have easily gotten me killed by police. And many of you would have shrugged your shoulders, perhaps briefly lamented the tragedy, and moved on.

About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police. That risk is 2.5 times higher than for white men, new research shows.

Daunte Wright’s mother just attended his funeral. The Supreme Court just upheld a decision that will keep Brett Jones in prison for life without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed at age 15. Ma’Khia Bryant is dead, but she should be alive because like every Black child, she deserved love, care and protection.

I am devastated by the messages we send Black children in this country about their worth, our belief in the potential and power of redemption and how willing we are to disappear them from our communities and society.

I cannot help but think of my angry, traumatized, but no less deserving, teenage self. I think about the adults who loved me enough to stick with me through the hard years. My grandfather could have given up on me when I became more rebellious than he wanted to handle in my teenage years. But he didn’t. My teachers could have focused on my bullying behavior in the hallways. Instead, they encouraged me, created opportunities for me to express myself and nurtured the budding activist within me.

Ma’Khia Bryant deserved the chance to explore her passions, fall in love and land her dream job. She, like me, should have the opportunity to be a 37-year-old woman reflecting on the choices she made as a 16-year-old girl and what those choices meant for her life. She deserved the chance to learn and grow into adulthood, supported by people who loved her.

I am grateful to have survived long enough to reap the benefits of my hard work over the years and to be thriving in adulthood.

Ma’Khia Bryant deserved the same.

Sharhonda Bossier is an activist and the CEO of Education Leaders of Color.


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