A recent story about a white woman falsely accusing a 9 year old Black boy of sexual assault sends chills down my spine. If you haven’t heard, here’s what happened: a white woman in a Brooklyn deli claimed that a 9 year old Black boy sexually assaulted her (by grabbing her backside) in the store. She confronted the child and his mother outside the store and then proceeded to call the police to complain (although the local precinct had no record of an actual call). A neighbor recorded the exchange between the woman and the mother of the 9 year old boy (who angrily defended her sobbing son) and posted it on Facebook. National outrage against the woman ensued.
Two days later the woman complained to a local television reporter that she’d received threats after the incident. She then returned to the store with the reporter to view the store surveillance tape. The tape revealed that she had been brushed by the boy’s backpack. She apologized to the boy on camera, but claimed that her outrage was fueled by the mother’s anger. The neighborhood is still outraged, saying her apology is not enough.
There are so many things wrong with this story. First, watching this young boy be falsely accused of sexual assault reminds us all of the tragedy of Emmett Till, the 14 year old who was murdered in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman as she passed him on a Mississippi street. Fortunately today, some 63 years after that tragedy, technology was instantly available to prove this young man’s innocence.
But why does he have to be proven innocent in the first place? How does a woman look at a 9 year old boy with a backpack on his back who has bumped into her and immediately conclude that he is sexually assaulting her? A 2014 research study reported in an American Psychological Association journal revealed that Black boys as young as 10 are more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as dangerous and guilty, and may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers. This is what our young black boys are up against. And this is what we as their parents have to help them understand as we try to keep them safe.
But there is something else going on here as well. In this current political climate, people are feeling empowered to voice whatever racially tinged angst they might have. Our current administration is led by a man who delights in voicing and tweeting comments which are wildly insensitive (and sometimes downright racist). This has given people a “safe space” to voice ideas and sentiments which in the past they might have thought but kept to themselves. So unfortunately, we can expect these incidents to continue.
What can we parents do to help our young sons should they find themselves in this situation? First, let us hope that we are with them and can, as this young man’s mother did, step in to handle this adult to adult. Second, we must remind our boys that they need to react to any false accusation as calmly as possible, to save their anger for later, and to call us immediately. Finally, we need to assure them as often as possible that they are loved and cared for. They need all the comforting they can get from us to fortify them as they face some of the cruel realities of the outside world.