An African American male in Waco, Texas is tried for the rape and murder of a local white woman named Lucy Fryer. With a confession and evidence that is shaky at best (and coerced at worst), he is declared guilty within minutes by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. He is then taken outside, publicly castrated, and lowered and raised in and out of a bonfire, screaming in agony, until he dies. His mutilated and charred corpse is dragged through the city as civilians jockey to purchase pieces of his body as "souvenirs."
His name was Jesse Washington. He was fifteen years old.
Not only was Washington's murder an obvious violation of the 8th amendment (which bars cruel and unusual punishment), it was an atrocity that was fully backed by the governing office and police department of his town, and over 10,000 spectators were invited to watch Washington die.
From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched, with several hundred of these victims being under the age of eighteen.
The dehumanization of the black male body and its use as an ideological weapon or punching bag for the White community has had its origins on American soil since the 17th century. The effects of these lynchings were most visible in the physical devastation and deaths of thousands of African American men and women over the course of several centuries. However, the horror of these acts inserted itself not only into a prominent place within the African American psyche and art (see Richard Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home" or Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit"), but also into the wider social consciousness. The senseless killing of African American men simply for existing was just that- senseless. However, in order to justify why one particular group "deserved" to be publicly and brutally murdered, stereotypes that grew over the course of American slavery- the overly virile and assertive "Black Buck," the borderline psychotic "Brutal Savage," and others- rose to higher prominence in the 20th and 21st centuries. These supported the assertion that certain Black men were a "danger to (White) society" and should therefore be removed permanently from the populace with extreme violence.
Stereotypes and the subsequent lynching operated as violent symptoms of pre-existing institutional racism- White Americans had- have- the power to decide who is human and who is not. Self-identification becomes meaningless when the law, the government, and, for a period in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, science and medicine, had a drastically different opinion. Because African Americans were dehumanized over the course of slavery- viewed largely as animals, chattel, or a unique sub-human species that needed enslavement in order to have a life purpose- the application of these outlandish stereotypes in the ensuing decades proved quite simple.
Fast forward to 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri with the public killing of Michael Brown. The stereotypes of Black male aggression and savagery are still widely prevalent within our society, and the grave decision of whether or not to end the life of an African American is still disproportionately controlled by local police departments. In earlier centuries, public lynchings functioned as a demonstration of brute power by White Americans who feared losing their position within the American racial hierarchy. The number of African American lynchings increased after the conclusion of slavery, after African Americans began to utilize their right to vote, and even as they became more vocal in the Civil Rights Movement. Whenever a large group of African Americans decided to exert their humanity, the mutilation of the Black male body was used as an act of terrorism to intimidate and subdue African Americans.
Less than one percent of all police departments require officers to have a college degree, and many police officers have no plans to obtain higher education over the course of their careers. The average police officer salary in Ferguson, Missouri hovers around $30,000. As more African Americans than ever attend college, apply for graduate programs, and enter into high-paying fields, the racial status quo- especially in Southern states- begins to shift. As the question "What's your race?" becomes less relevant than "What does your résumé look like?" and African Americans slowly become just as (if not more) qualified for socioeconomic status-boosting careers that were previously unquestionably White property for centuries, history shows us that legally-sponsored White backlash will become inevitable.
That White backlash is the source of the Black male stereotypes, the paltry consequence of "paid administrative leave" for killing Black American children, the biased media coverage, and the incessant portrayal of successful minority high school and college students as lowlifes and thugs for daring to wear a hoodie in the rain or forgetting that you cannot ever escape- even for an isolated, solitary moment- from the incredible pressure of knowing that you will always have to be twice as good to get half as much out of a system that you do not understand and cannot control.
Or, in this case, to get the chance to live another 24 hours.