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3 Ways We Can Stop the Violence Against Young Black Men

Author: TEDTime: 2024-01-23 15:20:00

Table of Contents

Introduction: Ongoing Violence and Injustice Against Young Black Men

I was listening to Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which documents the millions of African-Americans who fled the Jim Crow South seeking better lives and opportunities in the North from 1915 to 1970. The stories of resilience and brilliance among black Americans were inspiring yet also difficult to hear, especially the horrific accounts of beatings, lynchings and other violence targeted towards black men.

Then on the radio, the news broke of yet another tragic killing of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He was shot by a white police officer and left dead in the street, his body laying there for hours as his family and neighbors looked on in horror. This incident was painfully similar to so many other instances of brutality against black men throughout American history – a lineage of violence that stems from our nation’s painful past and ingrained racial biases.

The Ongoing Violence Against Young Black Men

The killing of Michael Brown is part of a disturbing pattern of violence and injustice against young black men in America. So many similar incidents come to mind: Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo. The list goes on. As a country, we seem to almost accept this violence against young black men as a normal fact of life, when in reality it is an ongoing tragedy that stems from deep-rooted biases, fears and prejudices that still exist towards African-Americans, especially young men.

Imagining a Better Future

But things can change. We have the power to stop cycles of violence like what happened in Ferguson. By having honest conversations, building relationships across racial divides, and speaking out against injustice, we can reform the public images of young black men, protect them from harm, and allow them to truly thrive in America. Just imagine if our society embraced young black men, valued their lives and saw them as integral to our nation’s future? It would make our country so much stronger.

Get Out of Denial About Our Biases

The first step is to get out of denial about our own biases. After the Michael Brown shooting, many people claimed they didn’t have “a racist bone in their body.” But the truth is, science reveals most of us have unconscious biases that negatively impact our perceptions of minorities, especially young black men.

For example, an implicit association test taken by millions nationwide shows that it takes people longer to associate positive words with black faces versus white faces. And vice versa – it takes less time to connect black faces to negative words than white faces. Essentially, we subconsciously prefer white people over minorities. Even many black test takers demonstrate this preference.

Our instinct is often to double down on “color blindness” as some kind of solution. But pretending not to notice race does nothing to address the real issue – the way racial differences negatively impact people’s possibilities and freedoms. As scientists explain, true color blindness is essentially impossible with the implicit biases we hold.

Most People Have Unconscious Biases

Research clearly shows that the vast majority of us have unconscious reactions and assumptions about people based on race, gender and other attributes. I’ll admit that even as a diversity educator, I still wrestle with biases of my own. For example, I once felt uneasy when I heard a female pilot’s voice come over the loudspeaker during a turbulent flight. I found myself hoping she could handle the bumpy conditions – a worry I’ve never applied to male pilots. My instinctive assumption revealed my own unconscious bias. Each of us needs to reflect on our inner defaults and associations. Who do we automatically trust or fear? Which groups do we subconsciously favor? Digging into our biases takes courage but is an essential first step.

Colorblindness Doesn't Work

For many years, promoting “color blindness” has been a popular diversity tactic – urging people to not even notice or consider race when making judgments about others. But this approach hasn’t moved the needle on closing racial divides. The truth is, the problem has never been simply noticing color itself, but rather the damaging assumptions we layer on top of that observation. Pretending not to see race doesn’t make racial barriers disappear or prevent people from being treated unfairly based on their skin. In fact, scientists now advocate the exact opposite approach to color blindness. Rather than pretending not to notice race, they urge us to boldly recognize and even celebrate racial differences, dismantling the typical connotations and judgments we assign. Things like staring at photos of accomplished black professionals can help rewire our biased neural connections over time.

Build Relationships with Young Black Men

Once we expand our awareness of unconscious bias, the next step is actively building authentic relationships with young black men to rewrite our misguided prejudices. I cannot overstate the raw power of person-to-person connections in overcoming stereotypical narratives that different groups have about one another.

It’s admittedly uncomfortable to approach unfamiliar people and situations. But great rewards lie on the other side of that initial discomfort – empathy, compassion and realizing our shared hopes and humanity. We must push past our instinctive avoidance to see young black men as fellow brothers, sons and future leaders worth understanding and supporting.

Move Toward Discomfort

I’ll never forget the time I was walking down the street late at night with a colleague who was a Korean woman. We were lost in an unfamiliar part of the city. Spying someone across the way, I immediately thought ‘Great, a black guy is over there. He probably knows where we’re going.’ And I started to walk toward him without hesitation. My friend noticed this reaction and said she'd had the total opposite response to seeing this black stranger in the dark – wanting to avoid him out of caution rather than approach. Despite considering myself very progressive on racial issues, my reaction revealed an unconscious positive bias toward black men simply because of all the close relationships I’ve built with them over my lifetime. We all have to push ourselves out of our racial comfort zones. Take an honest inventory of who fills your inner circle at school, work and in your community. How many young people of color do you truly know beyond a superficial level? Pick someone who intrigues you and make an effort to connect authentically. Moving toward discomfort is the only way to grow.

Expand Your Social Circles

Building real relationships across racial lines rewrites our misguided prejudices in powerful ways. The empathy and compassion that emerges from knowing someone’s personal stories dismantles dangerous, fear-based stereotypes. The good news is meaningful connections don’t require perfection. They simply ask us to be open and vulnerable enough to see shared hopes and struggles in people different from ourselves. Black youth in particular need to know there are people who see beyond media narratives and view them as future co-workers, leaders and neighbors worth supporting. Expanding social circles sends a crucial message – not everyone expects the worst from young black men. Still, the effort must come from both sides. Young black men should also be open to overtures from potential allies seeking to understand their experiences. Mutual understanding between groups represents progress.

Speak Up Against Racism

Finally, building an empathetic mindset isn’t enough. We must be brave enough to speak up to defend young black lives – even confronting our own friends and family members when harmful language appears.

This can be challenging, especially at gatherings like holiday meals where we don’t want to start conflicts. But allowing racist talk to go unchecked normalizes injustice in the eyes of both children and adults. We cannot shelter kids from society’s painful problems when black parents walk them through "the talk" to keep them safe.

Confront Biased Family Members

It’s inevitable that we’ll hear backward racial talk from older relatives around the holidays. Reforming not just systems but mindsets means having the courage to speak up when Grandma or Uncle Joe says something demeaning – even telling them directly “we don’t use language like that anymore.” Doing so brings tension in the moment but plants important seeds. If society loses patience for racist talk, those mentalities gradually shift from generation to generation. But our silent complicity simply teaches coming generations that bias is acceptable rather than something to fight.

Teach Children About Injustice

Honest conversations about racial struggles must start early, before kids absorb society’s harmful assumptions as normal. Shielding children from difficult realities may feel protective, but it allows biases to strengthen. We should teach kids that while America has come far, we still struggle to see the full dignity and humanity in groups like young black men. Grappling honestly with that empowers children to become forces for justice. The next generation can pressure systems to reform and affirm that the full promise of equality applies to all young people, allowing them to build futures unburdened by stigma and suspicion.


The long road toward racial healing may feel daunting, but we all have a role to play through vigilance about our biases, forging personal connections across divides and speaking difficult truths, even when it causes short-term pain. Anything less keeps us complicit in tragedy.

Martin Luther King said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The dehumanization of young black men diminishes all of our freedoms. But redeeming America’s promise requires more than passive sentiment. We must stare injustice in the eyes, demand far better from society, and walk arm-in-arm with marginalized groups – guided by love and courage versus fear.


Q: Why is violence against black men still happening?
A: Violence and brutality against black men has gone on for centuries in America due to racial biases and stereotypes that are deeply rooted in society.

Q: How can we stop violence against young black men?
A: We can stop violence by getting out of denial about our own biases, building relationships with black men, and speaking up against racism when we see it.

Q: What is unconscious or implicit bias?
A: Implicit bias refers to stereotypes and attitudes that occur unconsciously and can negatively impact our perceptions and behaviors towards certain groups like young black men.

Q: Is colorblindness a good strategy for reducing racism?
A: Research shows that colorblindness or pretending not to notice race does not actually help reduce racism or biases, and may even allow more room for biases to impact our behaviors.

Q: How can I build relationships across racial barriers?
A: Expanding social and professional circles to include more diversity, moving toward discomfort and having authentic relationships with people of different races helps break down barriers.

Q: Why is it important to speak up about racism?
A: Speaking up disrupts the transmission of racist ideas to younger generations and makes clear that biased attitudes are unacceptable, helping promote justice.

Q: What can I do if a family member makes racist remarks?
A: You can respectfully speak up when a family member makes racist remarks, making clear that derogatory language and stereotyping people by race is wrong and not tolerated.

Q: How are children impacted by racism?
A: Children witness and pick up on racist attitudes from adults, further perpetuating injustice unless adults counter those messages by teaching kids empathy, compassion, and anti-racism values.

Q: How can society better support young black men?
A: Society can better support young black men by countering negative stereotypes and seeing them for their full potential, talents, and humanity.

Q: What needs to change for violence against black men to end?
A: Biases and racism that devalue black men need to be eliminated from society and institutions for violence against them to truly end.