News And Politics

LA responds: The reality of the Black Male Code

March 27, 2012, 10:07 a.m.

Terrence Mann, Jr., 13, who was at Monday's "Million Hoodie March" with his father, said he felt "insecure" when asked about the Black Male Code and just wants "to be a regular student." (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

Always be mindful of your surroundings. Be ready for people to assume that you're a criminal. Never argue with police. And don't assume that all white people view you as a threat, but be ready to do everything you can to prove that you're not.

Those are the tenets of the so-called "Black Male Code" according to Jesse Washington, a writer on race and ethnicity for the Associated Press. In an AP article, he details why and how life is different for a black male growing up in the United States.

In simple terms: It's an understanding among black males that people might be afraid of them simply because of what they look like – and that they have to act accordingly.

The Code has gained traction in the media because of the recent killing of 17-year-old Florida high school student Trayvon Martin, but it's been in effect for a lot longer than that.

On February 26, Martin was found shot and killed in Sanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, who ABC describes as a "self-appointed neighborhood watch captain," was found standing over Martin with a handgun, a bloody nose and a wound in the back of his head. He told police he'd shot Martin, who had been unarmed, in self-defense.

The New York Times reports that Zimmerman had been patrolling the neighborhood when he spotted the hoodied Martin. After following him briefly, he called 911, where the dispatcher told him not to follow Martin. The call ended with a voice crying and pleading for help, and then a gunshot.

Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime, in part because of Florida's stand-your-ground law, which justifies the use of deadly force for self-defense not only in a person's home, but in public, which is more liberal than standard self-defense laws. People do not have to retreat in Florida if they feel threatened – they can "stand their ground" and fight back to protect themselves.

Martin's death reignited public discussion about the Black Male Code.

The reality of the Black Male Code

Gerard Patterson, 65, is a quiet, soft-spoken man from Indianapolis, Indiana. He was at Monday's Million Hoodie March for Martin in Pershing Square in downtown L.A., wearing a hoodie underneath a T-shirt with Martin's face on it.

He was there to show support, he said, because he believes Zimmerman should be held accountable for pulling the trigger. He said he has five kids himself. Then his voice became pained.

"My daughter was killed herself when she was a teenager," he said. "White kid shot her with a gun on the playground."

Since then, he said, he's started believing in a harsher form of justice, in spite of himself. "I know it's wrong, but I think if you take a life, they should take your life," he said. "I believe in that. After she got killed, I believed they should have taken his life, but they gave him eight years. So there it is."

Patterson affirmed the existence of the Black Male Code.

"Oh yeah, you're going to get stopped if you're black, get stopped for just walking and being black," he said. "The police are going to stop you regardless. I've talked to my kids, who are all grown now, but they were stopped and they knew what to do. Say yes sir, no sir, and maybe they'll let you go. Maybe they won't. It depends on the cop."

Chase Conerly of Pasadena, who was also at the rally, also admitted there was something there with the Code, even though he hadn't experienced it personally.

"I think growing up in Pasadena, my friends and I were aware of it," he said. "I can't say I personally had any really bad experiences, but I was fully aware of it. But I've got to say, there is that thing where you watch where you walk, or where you're aware of your surroundings at all times in certain areas. You hear stories about younger kids getting caught in the wrong place, so it became second nature."

Conerly was holding his five-year-old daughter, Sicly, and said he was hopeful about her generation. He said when Barack Obama was elected president, he was excited, and his dad and grandmother were brought to tears, they were so happy. His other daughter, though, didn't see what the "big deal" was.

"It was kind of cool that she didn't see it as anything big," he laughed. "Just that he was a black guy and he won."

He admits that if he had a son, though, things might be different.

"Honestly, I think if I had a son, it would be a little different," he said. "I wouldn't want to raise him in fear, but just give him that awareness."

And even though he laughed and said he's never been pulled over for something he didn't deserve, he said the fact that he's black was definitely on his mind while he was waiting for the cop to approach his window.

"You keep your hands on the wheel," he said. "You hear stories about dudes [acting up] with cops and getting punished for it, so there is that awareness when I get pulled over – hands stay on the wheel, no sudden movements, don't reach for anything in the glove compartment. Rational or not, it's definitely something that I was aware of."

Terrence Mann, another rallygoer, said it was "just a way of life," citing a sort of rule of non-engagement.

"We have to train kids how to deal with law enforcement," he said. "When you're walking down the street, don't make eye contact with a cop that's passing by. If you're driving and they pull up next to you at a light, look straight ahead. You don't want to make any contact. It's not that you're scared; you just don't want a problem."

His 13-year-old son, also named Terrence, was with him.

"I feel insecure," Terrence, Jr. told OnCentral. "I just want to be a regular student, person, human in society, equal to other people."

"This is something we have to adjust to survival," said his dad. "This is how we survive."

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