August 2, 2017
Recently, a video made the rounds of five Black teenagers, ages 14 to 16, filming and laughing at Jamel Dunn, a 31-year-old disabled Black man, as he was drowning in Cocoa, Florida, on July 9. After posting the video to social media, public outrage ensued, leading to calls for their arrest.
On Friday, July 29, Cocoa Mayor Henry Parrish III announced that the police are seeking first-degree misdemeanor charges against the boys based on what the Washington Post calls “a little-known statute for anyone who fails to report a death.”
The fact that they didn’t jump into Magic Heroic Negro mode while watching a man walk into the water after an argument with his fiancé is causing folks to blame them because it is simply too painful to face the unbearable truth: These teenagers represent what America has created them to be.
What they did was ugly and devastating. But is it a crime worthy of prosecution and prison?
Be clear: There is nothing to suggest that these teenagers, who were reportedly high on marijuana at the time, were responsible in any way for Dunn’s death by drowning. There is no evidence that any of them knew how to swim, and even if they did, that they were equipped to rescue a drowning person from a large body of water. Or that it would have been a good idea for them to rush into the water while under the influence of marijuana.
As it so happens, the incident has become a moment for many to wax sociological, to paint with broad brushes, and otherwise recount stories of an era when such awful behavior from kids never happen. News One television anchor Roland S. Martin discussed the incident on his show. Abandoning his journalistic demeanor, Martin expressed his personal disgust and dismay by saying, “These five Black teens piss me off. I would whup the ass of my son every day if that happened.”
One of Martin’s panelists said, “This is a Black community problem.”
At the end of the segment, Martin repeats that he’d “be straight whupping his ass. If y’all disagree with spanking, it ain’t my problem.”
Martin’s comments highlight the understandable outrage, some of which is clouded by fears of looking bad, immoral, and criminal in front of the nation. It also speaks to the reflex that leads Black adults to see beating Black children as an antidote to problematic behaviors. Watching the video creates an obvious sense of horror and helplessness for many, so they target their rage at these boys to deal with their own feelings of helplessness and give themselves a sense of relief. It is this knee-jerk response that feeds the continued dehumanization of Black lives that we witness in the video.
We’ve got to pull the lens back and take an honest look at the big picture. These five young boys did not show that they valued Dunn’s life. But where exactly do Black boys in America collectively learn to value their own lives and Black life in general? Maybe the Cocoa Police Department should charge America and white supremacy as co-conspirators.
The rage at those Florida teens is pure hypocrisy: We ignore homelessness and other people who need help. We’re fine with people being drowned to death by our government. We ignore families and lives destroyed by deportations, people being worked to death, politicians trying to deny health care to millions of Americans, and what do we think we’re teaching and modeling for young people when we adults fail to respond to all the violence around us? Children are the most vulnerable and violated group in this country, and everyone wants to harshly punish these boys because they didn’t jump into superhero mode.
We witness violence, we perpetuate violence, we train and groom children to be violent. So how can we become outraged when they do as they’ve been taught and make unfortunate choices? How can we pretend to be surprised that these boys mocked a dying man, especially a dying man who looked like them?
The fact is that young children often don’t show empathy, because it develops gradually with age. According to research from Utrecht University, empathy must be taught; like any personality trait, it must be experienced in order to develop.
This research shows that girls begin developing cognitive empathy—the ability to imagine how someone else might feel or think—around age 13, and that it remains fairly high and stable throughout adolescence. Cognitive empathy in boys begins around age 15, with a temporary decline in affective empathy—the drive to respond appropriately to someone else’s feelings—from ages 13 and 16 that does recover in the late teens. The boys in the video are between 14 and 16 years old. Their decline in empathy might be due in part to their testosterone levels, which are rising—causing a desire for dominance and power over others. Research also suggests that more physically mature boys demonstrate less empathy. Add the general trend for young boys being pressured to “man up” and act hard and tough, never revealing emotions—including empathy. And even while their individual cognitive empathy skills might be developing, it might be hard for them to act on it, especially among their peers.
Children learn to express anger, aggression, and fear appropriately from their parents and the adults in their lives—they are continuously observing and mimicking those around them.
Some kids have an empathy deficit, which makes it especially hard for them to consider the negative consequences that their actions might have on others. Sometimes the inability to feel empathy is simply a result of teenage brain function. A significant number of studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop, and that it doesn’t become fully formed until our mid-20s. Thus, it is popularly believed that the immature prefrontal cortex is why teenagers are more likely to make irrational decisions—and have an undeveloped sense of empathy. Executive functioning skills including planning, organizing, decision-making, and self-control can take much longer to develop, as is the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings in appropriate ways. Plus, affective empathy is in the limbic part of the brain, which regulates emotion.
Research also reveals that teen brains function very differently from adult brains to identify emotions, which they often misinterpret. And some teens have learned from the significant adults in their lives to adopt a dog-eat-dog survival instinct that doesn’t allow much room for empathy. When daily life is a struggle, it’s natural to focus more on the self than to be concerned with others—to place personal needs above the needs of others is simply a matter of staying alive.
What bothers me is everyone’s first impulse to demonize and criminalize the kids —to dig up archaic laws or even create new ones to punish them while exonerating us as moral crusaders.
Martin’s assertion that this is “a Black community problem” ignores the very real racial context that informs the lives of these boys and all Black people to promote a sense of Black pathology that panders to white supremacy.
If we’re really about working against violence, then we have to dig deeply into ourselves and respond with more love and empathy, even for those who don’t show love and empathy to others. To go on TV and trash these kids without knowing anything about what led to their behavior in that moment contributes to the dynamic that they played out in that video. That’s the bigger challenge and the higher calling.
Reponses like Roland Martin’s are exactly what creates this kind of situation, and feeds the ironic lack of empathy for some boys and the choices they made in a moment they neither created nor contributed to. How is it right or logical to call for responding to a lack of empathy with violence? To “beat their butts” because of the warts they reveal when we look into our own souls. That is the empathy deficit we need to be talking about.
I think many of us were like these boys at some point in our childhoods, but simply spared this kind of tragedy. When we focus our response on attacking boys for failing to fulfill our racial fantasies; when we call for beating empathy into them; when we fail to view them as human enough to wonder what was behind their behavior, we are guilty of crimes far more devastating and disturbing than mocking a dying man. We are complicit in the bigger tragedy of how little Black life is valued, and how deeply Black children are demonized for being human. The fact that they had nothing to do with Dunn’s death is completely ignored in the stampede to punish them for the unforgivable crime of reflecting all the ways in which society has simultaneously shaped and failed them, and snuffed out their budding humanity before it had a chance to grow.