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Will my 2-year-old nephew end up like Michael Brown?

Police brutality and the fragility of black youth

My 2-year-old nephew isn’t so great with a spoon, which means his attempts to eat baked beans with a utensil are comical.

At a recent family barbecue, he refused my help, so I let him struggle. I laughed quietly as he failed again and again to coax the slippery beans onto his spoon. Frustrated, he growled, “GRRRRR!” My first thought: This child thinks he’s a lion.

My next thought: What happens if he doesn’t grow out of this? Will police one day see this black boy as an animal to be caged? Or a beast to be euthanized? Making the mental leap from my nephew’s high chair to some hyperpoliced place years in the future is a journey I shouldn’t take, if only for my own peace of mind. But I can’t forget what Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson said about Michael Brown, the black teenager he gunned down on Aug. 9, 2014.

Wilson, who is white, told a grand jury that Brown “had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Notice how Wilson switched between calling Brown “he,” as you would a person, and then “it,” as you might call something inanimate or inhuman. Wilson also testified that Brown “made like a grunting, like aggravated sound.” Was it a sound like Grrrr?

My anxiety about state-sanctioned police brutality may be oversized, but it isn’t unfounded. Take the 2014 study “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children” by Phillip Atiba Goff of the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers tested 176 police officers, most of whom were white, to see how quickly they associated black people with apes, which would suggest unconscious dehumanization of African-Americans. Officers “who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks,” the study found. The same study showed that black boys “can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

At what age were black boys seen as responsible? 10. Sometimes, when I’m with my nephew, I can barely see him without worrying about how others will view him when he’s older. I know that his furrowed brow doesn’t signal anger. It means he’s focused, like when he’s constructing a sprawling Thomas the Train track. But in 10 or 15 years, will law enforcement interpret his intensity as aggression?

Even though I don’t have kids, I get that my nephew’s growling is typical toddler behavior. After all, his favorite song is Old MacDonald. His remixes sometimes include animals you wouldn’t find on the average farm, like tigers. But does this little black boy get the privilege of being typical? Or is normal a luxury afforded only to boys who aren’t brown or black?

My worries have worries. I worry that my anxiety about how others might constrain his life will lead me to subconsciously constrain it myself. Respectability politics is an unjust burden to place on an adult, much less a kid who isn’t even potty-trained.

In my rare calmer moments, I remind myself that this too shall pass. He will grow out of his growling. He will learn to use his words and a spoon. My worries, I fear, are here to stay.

Wendi C. Thomas is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow, a senior writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a freelance journalist. In April, she launched MLK50, an online storytelling project about economic inequality in Memphis. She hopes Dr. King would be proud. On Twitter: @wendi_c_thomas