In wake of Ralph Yarl shooting, Black teens face fear and resignation
What the sixth-grader does know is that “not all cops are actually going to help you in the situation that you’re in,” he said, recalling his mother’s advice. Like many Black moms, Katrice Fuller, has had “the talk” with her young sons. It’s a rite of passage for Black children, the somber conversation about the special rules they must adhere to when talking to police, where to place their hands when pulled over in a traffic stop, tips on how to avoid becoming a target. People are more likely to think they’re dangerous, they’re told, so be careful.
But a new fear is creeping into “the talk” in the wake of the shooting of a Black teen in Kansas City, Mo., last week. There have been tearful conversations, new rules about interacting with strangers and, for some, a sense of resignation. It’s another sign, parents say, that Black children, particularly boys — which research has found are often seen as older and bigger than they are by people of other races — are at risk.
On a quest to pick up his siblings from a friend’s house, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl mistakenly rang the doorbell of the wrong home. The White man who opened the door, Andrew Lester, 84, told police that he was “scared to death” by the late-night visitor, shooting him twice — once in the head and then again in the arm after Yarl fell to the ground.
With each new tragedy, there is also a growing sense of desensitization to the violence affecting Black children, families say. While parents say they are doubling-down on measures to keep their children safe, from tracking their movements through cellphone apps to stacking their schedules with activities to avoid trouble, they say it can feel futile in a climate hostile toward Black children.
“The Ralph Yarl story did shake me,” said Fuller, a D.C. resident, who has four sons, including Justin, who range in age from 3 to 13 years old. “It’s not uncommon that my 12- and 13-year-olds would grab their little brothers from an activity or something.”
Yarl survived the April 13 shooting and has returned home to recover, but Yarl’s mother, Cleo Nagbe, has said the “residual effect” of Yarl’s injuries is going to stay with her son “for quite a while.” A GoFundMe started by Yarl’s aunt has raised more than $3 million and he has spoken to President Biden. Lester, meanwhile, has been charged with two felonies, including first-degree assault, and faces up to life in prison. He pleaded not guilty.
The Kansas City, Mo., shooting has sparked protests across the state by activists who complained local police didn’t act quickly enough to arrest Yarl’s shooter and rekindled debate about the easy access of guns and when it’s appropriate to use lethal force for self-defense.
It’s also prompted many conversations within Black households about how teens can avoid similar situations.
Matthew, 14, a Black eighth-grader at a private Catholic school north of Atlanta, learned about the shooting from his mother.
“My mom said, ‘Did you hear about that boy who was shot when he went to pick up his siblings?’ I didn’t know, and she told me about it, and it made me feel like that could happen to me when I start driving,” said Matthew.
The teenager, who plays basketball, football and runs track, has 12- and 10-year-old siblings. If he’s ever tasked with bringing them home, he’ll be careful, Matthew said.
“I’ll make sure I’m at the right house. I’ll call my brother and ask him to come outside,” he said. He has also been thinking of ways to stop the next shooting, Matthew said. “This wouldn’t happen as much if gun control was a thing. People aren’t going to run outside and kill you with a knife. People are less likely to be harmed if they couldn’t use guns.”
Matthew’s mother, Almaz, 49, said it’s easy to imagine her children in Yarl’s place.
“I just want my son to know what the world is like and to be careful. Children are so innocent and unaware, and I can totally see any of my children making a mistake like that,” said Almaz, who asked that her family’s last name not be published to protect their privacy. “And even now, I considered sending my daughter across the street to give her Girl Scout cookies to a customer, but I said, ‘No, no, no.’ She could go to the wrong house.”
Ty Jones, a Black Atlanta 14-year-old, says he doesn’t want to be paralyzed by the fear of what might happen to him if he knocks on the wrong door. “I thought about it happening to me,” said Jones, who loves baseball and music. “But if I walk around being scared of everything and everyone around me, I won’t get anything done.”
His mom says she hasn’t spoken to him specifically about Yarl. “If you’re having these heavy conversations as frequently as these horrible things are happening, I personally feel that’s stealing his childhood and any joy he can have as a kid,” said Tisha Jones, 40.
It’s just another burden for children already navigating a world in which they are often singled out because of their skin color, Jones said.
“We don’t want to exist in fear, but especially as he is getting older and will be going out in the world more independently, I can’t help but worry,” she said. “I know that all moms worry, but there is an extra layer of worry. To know that a judgment can be passed on him on sight because he’s a Black boy, it’s just scary.”
Thirteen-year-old Tyrell Monroe, the brother of Justin Monroe, says he has been thinking about his safety in the days since Yarl was shot but doesn’t want the threat of violence to affect his everyday life. “When I’m outside, I don’t think about it as much, but I’m still conscious about it,” he said. To avoid trouble, he keeps to himself. “I try to be in my own lane when I’m outside.”
He doesn’t feel free, Tyrell says, including to do simple things outside, like telling jokes. People might not understand his dark sense of humor, he says. And “it could put me in danger.”
Personal safety was already a frequent topic at home after repeated shootings of young people in the District. Last month, a former classmate, 17-year-old Dalaneo Martin, was fatally shot in the back by U.S. Park Police. The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Martin’s shooting.
This week, the brothers recited their mother’s reminders to be aware of their surroundings and look out for each other. If they found themselves in danger, they would try their best to de-escalate the situation and get away.
Underneath their cool exterior, their mother senses something else may be going on. “They don’t push to go outside, they don’t push to go to social gatherings,” she said. She worries they are becoming desensitized to the violence affecting Black children. “It’s just another one, another one, another one,” Fuller said.
And she knows there are limits to how much she can do.
Tyrell, the 13-year-old, is approaching six feet tall and has locs growing past his shoulders, which his mom fears can make it more likely others will see him as a threat. The 13-year-old is also on the autism spectrum, inviting even more assumptions.
“He stims. His hands might flap, eyes will flutter,” she said, referencing some of the repetitive behaviors Tyrell displays in stressful situations. She warned him: “They won’t think ‘Oh, I’m looking at you as a kid on the spectrum, a 4.0 [GPA] student.’ They can’t see that looking at you.”
News about racist incidents, along with racism itself, takes a toll on young people’s mental health, research shows. In a survey conducted by the AAKOMA Project, a mental health nonprofit, 18 percent of young people of color said they had experienced “racial trauma often or very often” in their lives.
More than half of the respondents said they have dealt with anxiety, depression or both, said Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist and AAKOMA Project founder. Children are not only reeling from racism but other stressors, including the lingering effects of the social isolation they experienced during the pandemic.
“These young people are experiencing the negative impacts of what it means to have a marginalized identity,” said Breland-Noble, who has a Black 16-year-old son. She added that many parents assume their children are too young to have anything to worry about, but data show that’s not true. “The first thing parents have to do is, we have to be willing to close our mouths and open our ears … we have to acknowledge that our young people are dealing with things that sometimes we don’t know anything about.”
Elani Dwyer, an 18-year-old high school senior from East Orange, N.J., said that she is not confident that anything will change anytime soon.
“You’re always going to be seen as a threat, as much progress as this country or the world will ever make, because there’s so many stigmas and stereotypes about the Black community, it’s going to be so hard,” she said.
Until recently, Dwyer lived and attended high school in Radnor, Pa., a mostly White and affluent suburb of Philadelphia, through a program called A Better Chance that places students of color in homes in the suburbs with adult supervision.
Dwyer said that she felt isolated at the school and in the community and it began affecting her mental health. She decided to leave in the middle of her senior year and transfer to a school in her hometown. The four years of living in a mostly White community took a toll on her, she said.
“You have to put your best foot forward at all times,” said Dwyer. “But it shouldn’t even be like that, where you have to prove to people that you’re not a threat. It’s exhausting. You get burnt out. Being in a community where you don’t feel welcomed is exhausting.”
America needs to address its gun problem and systemic racism, she says, but society may already be broken at a more fundamental level.
“At the end of the day, it’s like you don’t feel safe anywhere to be honest, there’s just a lot of stuff happening so it’s about being cautious,” she said. “We need to go back to the basics, just being kind to other people, kindness is really important and people overlook that a lot and take that for granted.”
Felton reported from Philadelphia and Shavin from Atlanta. Rachel Hatzipanagos contributed to this report."