400 Years Blog #29 – When They See Us

Posted in: Leader's Blog

While no real harm was done to any woman in the cases of Scottsboro and Emmett Till, in 1989 Trisha Meili was brutally attacked and raped in Central Park. Today at 59 she is still affected by the brain injury the beating caused. When exploring how racism unjustly targeted five teenagers, I also acknowledge the widespread misogyny in our culture.

Reports of increased crime, along with the savagery of this attack, created intense public pressure to catch the perpetrators. Authorities, out to affirm “law and order,” pressured Antron McCray (15), Kevin Richardson (14), Yusef Salaam (15), Korey Wise (16) and Raymond Santana Jr. (14) to fabricate false eyewitness accounts of this crime.  Without DNA or corroborating evidence, they were nevertheless found guilty. Politicians and district attorneys declared victory. Most Americans didn’t hear protesters chanting near the courtroom, “No more Scottsboro boys!”

In 2002, a confession by serial rapist Matias Reyes, along with DNA evidence, proved Reyes attacked Meili.  By the time New York’s Supreme Court vacated the sentences of the “Central Park Five,” they had all served between 7-13 years. The tragedy is obvious, but let’s focus on how we process it.

In 2012 Ken Burns produced a documentary based on a book by his daughter, Sarah Burns, titled The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding.  It showed how the boys, portrayed as wild animals, were “sacrificed on the alter of public opinion.” But New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis says the film does not explain why the general public, and left-leaning publications like The Village Voice, “almost immediately accepted that the teenagers were guilty.” Is it because we don’t actually see young black men in all their complexity and humanity? That question is woven through When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Netfilx dramatic mini-series about the prosecution of the boys. Too often we see young black men as only threats.

In We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks explains how historic demonization of Black men is alive today: “[T]he black male body continues to be perceived as an embodiment of bestial, violent, penis-as-weapon, hypermasculine assertion.” This leads us to warn young black men, as Times writer Wesley Morris does, “Be careful near white people…. …your sexuality, to them, is hazardous.”


It certainly seemed hazardous to the weaponized terrorist white supremacist Dylann Roof who murdered nine members of the Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in part because, as he said, “(y)ou rape our women; …you have to go.”

  • Lesson #131: Different forms of oppression – such as sexism and racism – overlap in complex ways that interfere with building social justice.
  • Lesson #132: McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Wise, and Santana were held for hours without food or bathroom breaks, yelled at, insulted, emotionally abused, told lies about other boys in the park identifying them as the rapists, told that “you can go home if you give us what we want,” and manipulated by adults skilled at the “good cop – bad cop” method where they alternately promised things one moment and threatened the next.
  • Lesson #133: We are in dire need of criminal justice reform that respects the rights of defendants and doesn’t manipulate the process to fit historically and culturally embedded racist assumptions.
  • Lesson #134: Korey Wise (16), the oldest of the five teens, probably would have never been accused and prosecuted had he not accompanied Yusef Salaam (15) to the police station to give him moral support. He paid a high price for being a loyal friend.
  • Lesson #135: Often the powerful use racism to build their reputation and media following. Donald Trump paid for a full-page ad in newspapers demanding the Central Park Five be executed, and Patrick Buchanan said, “If they took Kharey, a 16-year-old, and hung him in Central Park in front of the others, this would be a good deterrent.” More on this in the next blog.
  • Lesson #136: The racism of the few would not be so harmful to people of color if it were not for the fear, indifference, apathy, or ignorance of so many white people.
  • Lesson #137: Parents have to educate their Black male children to be aware of the myths alive in our culture that paint them as being immoral, violent, and sexually aggressive.


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