Why Is There a Fear of Black Boys?

Why Are We So Afraid of Young Black Men

“What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?”- Jonathan Lethem

 There’s something unfortunate that happens to black boys when they transition from boyhood to manhood. Somehow, their innocence and curiosity gives way to anger, pain and confusion. Young black men have long been defined by society as a threat and an enigma.  We treat young black men as if they are wild animals, dangerous and unpredictable. In society’s eyes, they are guilty until proven innocent. We make assumptions about them based on their clothing, style and attitude.  After the murder of Trayvon Martin, there was so much discussion about young black men wearing hoodies.  We unfairly judge and criticize young black men and make disparaging comments about them as if they’re all the same.  We forget that those who are angry and violent are reacting to lack of nurture, parental guidance, poverty, and senseless violence in their communities. We neglect to see the pain in their eyes hidden by an armor of hardness and false bravado.

Unfortunately our society does not always recognize the “exception to the rule”, the young black men that are law abiding citizens. Have we ever stopped to wonder how our perception and generalization of black young men affects their emotional and mental well-being? How does it feel for a young black man to see the fear and uncertainty in someone’s eyes when they are in a closed confined space?  Do we even consider how preexisting negative stereotypes of young black men create feelings of doubt and discontent within them?

Yes, statistically we have problems with violence and gangs in our communities. Yet, we can not judged all based on the actions of a few.  There are many young black men who are responsible, respectful, successful and good citizens of the world.  According to a 2010 study supported by the CDC Foundation, enrollment of black young men in college is up. There are young black men who are uplifting their communities instead of destroying them with violence, crime and drugs. We rarely hear about them because we lump all young black men in one pile.  We don’t think about the hurt we caused when we step aside in fear when they stepped onto the elevator or how we hold our breath when they brush aside us. Our young men are subjected to unwarranted police frisking, racial profiling in their communities, retail outlets, etc.

It must not be easy growing up as a black boy in a society that sees you as a dangerous, yet endangered. Young black men are forced to make other people feel comfortable around them, to make themselves appear less threatening.  Why is it a young black man’s responsibility to make others feel at ease? They sense the tension rising when they are laughing and goofing off with friends loudly.  They know that despite their best efforts, the culture of fear surrounding them is overpowering.

We need stronger advocates for young black men.  Although there are many people doing great work to address these issues, what we really need is to re-frame our thinking and see the world through their eyes. It pains me to have to remind my son of how to conduct himself if stopped by the police or what to do if he is followed in a store.  It hurts me to know that despite our best efforts, he may be subjected to society’s negative stereotyping.

These young men will continue to be discriminated against and feared. We have to bring to light the damage society’s fear is doing to their self-esteem and confidence.  We have to remind black boys and young black men that they are not scary.

Photo: DayStar297/Flickr

Originally appeared at Black Life Coaches.net


About Marie Roker-Jones

Marie Roker-Jones is a wife and mom of two boys. She is a NAMA Certified Anger Management Specialist, Youth Mental Health First Aider, and Certified Male Youth Life Skills Trainer She is the senior editor of the Raising Boy section of The Good Men Project and the Founder of Raising Great Men™ which provides parenting programs and workshops for raising boys and navigating the challenges of military deployments. Marie created #ManYouWantToBe, programs that help boys and young men to "mind up", not man up. Marie is co-founder of #CompassionConvos, #CompassionConvos are cross and inter-generational conversations using social media, online and in person around difficult subjects of bias. Conversations include, and are not limited to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. These conversations challenge biases through dialogue and taking action. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and G+


  1. I was assaulted by four “young, unarmed black men” in October of 1974 on a Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia. Don’t even try to tell me that this is a “new” or “recent” problem, because it isn’t. Should I trust a young black man before he has shown himself trustworthy, particularly now that I am older and disabled? I have been looking over my shoulder for over forty years, and I am not about to quit now. I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born LAST night.

    Have I met some very fine young, black men? Absolutely, and I have had some very delightful conversations with them, but what brought us together was that we were both caring for people who needed care and kindness. Those particular young men have grown past the stage of having anything to “prove”, and were accepting adult responsibility. They are young men whom I will gladly call my friends.

    As if it matters, I am 58 years old, white, and a Veteran.

  2. “We neglect to see the pain in their eyes hidden by an armor of hardness and false bravado.”

    I think this is a brilliant line. In the end, society’s fear and suspicion of young black men is a reflection of the fear and suspicion young black men have of society. The world’s people act far too much on their base emotions than they do their better understandings.

  3. I think you’re incorrect Joanna.. Like Corey, i’ve never profiled a black or a white person, ever, when they are dressed appropriately for the situation. On the other hand i’ve judged the character of plenty of white and black people for when they have fit an image that potentially puts me at risk. Sorry, but that’s just plain old self protection at work. Is the white guy with method mouth going to panhandle me? Probably based on my past experience. Is that black kid in colors going to hassle me ? Probably if i’m in a situation of being separated from the herd and he is in wrested in doing so. But to stupidly assess a situation based on one factor, is this a white guy or black and then act as if is probably the last stupid mistake you’ll make in some circumstances. And the way it’s going I don’t give much extra consideration for the expected sweetness of girls either. They can be just as dangerous as the boys. Perhaps more so given they know they get a ride.

  4. Yes, statistically we have problems with violence and gangs in our communities. Yet, we can not judged all based on the actions of a few. There are many young black men who are responsible, respectful, successful and good citizens of the world. According to a 2010 study supported by the CDC Foundation, enrollment of black young men in college is up. There are young black men who are uplifting their communities instead of destroying them with violence, crime and drugs. We rarely hear about them because we lump all young black men in one pile.
    Yeah this is a bit issue. Portraying a group as all bad is a very common way to give people an “enemy” to focus on. Mentioning the black men that are working to better themselves and their communities don’t make the news because when it comes to black men the commonly perceived starting point is that they are a threat and anything that is outside the illusion is ignored.

  5. This is not an issue strictly pertaining to young black men, but rather any men of any race, creed, or color that identify themselves with a violent culture. When I was a teenager I was an adherent to the punk culture. This is pre hot topic when this culture was far less accepted. I dressed in this culture, I acted as a member of this culture, and I paid for the crimes of others in this culture. When people would see me with an 18″ orange and blue Mohawk they would cross the street, hold their significant others a little culture, clutch their purses or wallets. They saw something different that identified themselves as a part of a violent culture.

    Flash forward 20 years. I am not a fairly average looking white guy. When I walk along the street and see a black man in a sweater and slacks, or a suit, or dressed in a way that is conventionally associated with mainstream business or professional culture i do not think anything of this man or his race. He is not varying himself in a way that is threatening or demonstrative of a violent culture. When I see any man, regardless of race, creed, or culture and he is dressed in a way emulating a violent culture I am more likely to protect my wife, my property, or my own safety. This is not constarined to black men. When I see a white guy who is dirty, has meth mouth, and is unkempt I am just as likely to react unfavorably.

    This is not so much a racial issue but an issue of youth who are angry, disenfranchised, and feel the need to comport themselves in a way that promotes an angry and violent image.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Corey – you do understand that you could always choose to wash out the hair dye, change your clothes and put your hair down, right?

      People of color cannot do that. People were reacting to the fact that you were CHOOSING to be outside of society’s norms. I’m not saying that they should react that way, but their reaction was to choices you made, not something you couldn’t control.

      At any time, you could’ve gotten a high-and-tight or a buzz cut and put on a suit and then you’d be everyone’s best friend. I know this, because I dressed counter-culture in my own way and was not necessarily feared but was sometimes maligned and shamed for it. I’ve been where you were in my way. But it will never, ever, ever compare to being profiled every day, by most people, based upon something you cannot control.

      You were feared because you chose to be different. It was the choice that scared people, not the fact that they’d been told over, and over and over again by nearly every system in this country for hundreds of years, to fear you based upon something so innate to your being that you can never escape it.

      Not comparable.

      • Joanna, please read past the first paragraph. Men, of all races, who act outside the norms will be treated in such a way. I have since my childhood readjusted to the mainstream world. And so too can any man. The negative reactions are going to felt by any person who identifies with a negative subculture. This includes any race. If you see any man in a suit, a pair of khakis and a polo, or wearing slacks and a button up you will react differently than if you see someone identifying themselves, through their demeanor or dress, with a counterculture associated with violence or perceived criminal activity. At any time any man can cut their hair, purchase a more professional wardrobe, and carry themselves with a deportment of professionalism and they will not be treated with fear.

    • I wish I could share your optimism but I think we would be doing young black men a disservice by not recognizing the role America Slavery, Jim Crow laws and yeeees white supremacy plays in what I would openly describe as a strong anti-establishment current within the black youth culture. I mean it’s one thing to flirt with the notion that disenfranchised youth lash out at society through artistic self representation but I’d be more worried about the pants sagging street hustlers who see conformity as an act of sheer racial treason. These of course are my lived experiences and are not to be considered the only interpretation of young black men.

  6. Edris carrasco says:

    The conversation has gone exactly where is supposed to have gone … yes the media portrays blacks a certain way !! But are we going to cherry pick now ? By that I mean … are we going to keep laughing about the angry black woman on tv always having her way or about the big black guy beating and intimidating other men on tv ? Its not funny ! Not only that , its bad ! That feeling of entitlement is bad for anybody … black men , white men , women for being beautiful etc etc .

  7. My son’s friend since kindergarten and who lives a block and a half away is half black/ half Caucasian… He is one of the sweetest boys I have ever met…he is thirteen like my son and about just as tall as me…. And, yes, I wonder how people who don’t know him will treat him… He is very polite and gracious in manner, so I think he will disarm people the moment they say “hello” to him…. But it would break my heart if people made terrible assumptions about him….

  8. Tom Brechlin says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I get the feeling that the gist of the article is being lost. The way I read it was that there is a need to do something to change the typical view of young black males/boys. And if this is what was initially intended, I agree.

    Even with the % of criminality, there are many black youth who don’t fit that role. Looping this around to men’s issues in general, we’ve seen this happen to men. How many articles have you read here at GMP that reflect men as brutes, chauvinistic, womanizers, etc. I can also see it commonly happen here at GMP about conservatives. In any event, there are segments of society that continue to be categorized in negative light.

    Given my background, I would like to comment on the “hoodie” thing. (there is no spell check for “hoodie”, so I’m not sure how it’s correctly spelled). As much as I would like to say that it’s no big deal, in reality it is. Just as something as simple as how a baseball cap is worn, there are potential problems.

    I wrote an article some months ago http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/what-your-child-wears-is-important-and-im-not-talking-about-pink/ which addressed this. So although I would like to ignore how a young man is dressed, in the world I’ve been in for 13+ years, how these kids are dressed may be an issue. It’s symbolism which is no different then cocking a ball cap (the team name on a ball cap), folded pant cuffs and wearing a rosary to name a few.

    Where do we go from here? For me, it’s been an uphill battle for a long time. So I’m open to any suggestions.

    • Thank you Tom! The point I ‘m making is that there is a culture of fear surrounding young black men. You’re right about the hoodie. Just the other night, my son went to put one on and I had him take it off. Most teens wear hoodies but I wouldn’t want someone to make an assumption about him based on what he’s wearing. This is a reality for many parents of black boys. The other reality is having a talk with him about what to do if he is stopped by the police.

      • Tom Brechlin says:

        I didn’t find out until after my son was well out of HS that he had at times been stopped by the local police. I wished he would have said something but the good new is that he obviously conducted himself well in that there were never any issues. There was one situation though, where an old women had reported that there was a terrorist type in the park across the street.

        My son now manages an establishment in our down town area and all the police know him personally now. In so far as what he wears these days is the only offensive garb is his GB Packers jacket, sweat shirts, bumper stickers, car seat cover etc….. we live in a suburb of Chicago.

  9. And btw, we cannot just look at the individual until we get to know them. Until then they are just a representative of the whole. We do this with everybody, gay, conservatives, liberals, all women, all men, Islamics or you name it. So why would we automatically assume this one young black fellow is to be given the benefit of their doubt for trust and decency, until I get to know him, and more importantly I think, her gets to know me? Does anybody in their right mind do this automatically? My bet is no. I know blacks whom i’ve talked to said the same thing about whites. So that is common human action and belief at work. Do I wish it otherwise? Of course. But I think that pollyannish at best.

  10. Theorema Egregium says:

    One interesting observation:

    Young black men are forced to make other people feel comfortable around them, to make themselves appear less threatening. Why is it a young black man’s responsibility to make others feel at ease?

    I agree that it should not be, and I would assume most enlightened readers of this website agree as well.

    However, if you strike “black” from those sentences and talk just about (young) men, the picture is very different. We are reminded that as men we are supposed to switch to the other side of the street when we are alone with a female stranger, that we are supposed to give the elevator a pass when a single woman is in it etc. Not to do so is seen as gross violation of basic human decency.

    See, for example, Noah Brand’s latest article. It closes with the words

    The trick is to be aware of how you are most likely to make other people uncomfortable, and try to minimize that out of respect for them.

    Now it is a very weird thought that Noah is only supposed to be like that because he is not black.

    To me this is a blessed conundrum, and I really do not know the answer.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      I would say that it happens with all young men – or most young men – but in particular with young Black men. So, in this case, the answer is “both” and not “either/or”

      • The problem is Joanna is that the expectation to follow what Noah said there, “The trick is to be aware of how you are most likely to make other people uncomfortable, and try to minimize that out of respect for them.” is not applied consistently.

        I’ve been in plenty of conversations where expecting black people to make sure non-blacks are not uncomfortable is considered racist but expecting men to make sure women are not uncomfortable is considered progress.

  11. As part of the previews that are shown with every movie these days, after they ask you to turn off your cell phone, they suggest that if you “see a suspicious character, report them to security.” Of the mass shootings that happen in America, the overwhelming percentage are carried out by white men. And yet, no one reports them as suspicious or dangerous.


  12. Edris carrasco says:

    Im a hispanic male 40 yrs old , 5’7 ,155 pounds, I live near south central L.A . When I walk to the neighborhood store at nights and get bullied by those young black males you are talking about I say to myself … its not their fault !? In some weird way its mine and my friend Kyle’s fault :/ … my Ethiopian , Honduran, Nigerian young black friends are not aggressive !! I wonder why not ? they also come from a tough childhood .

    • American black males are just more insecure especially considering the lack of a fathers presence. My parents came to the United States from Haiti. My father was a heavy handed disciplinarian & a true patriarch. He’d probably be in jail if he were to try that parenting style now but me and my 5 brothers and 3 sisters watched as the neighborhood children we grew up with were systematically institutionalized or murdered by the system. I guess that’s what happens when young black men are searching for proof of their manhood but all they have as a reference are clinched fists.

      • “American black males are just more insecure especially considering the lack of a fathers presence.”

        You bring up an all too familiar illusion/misnomer/fallacy.. Tell me, white boys don’t have this problem? There are just as many, if not more, actually, dysfunctional father/son relationships in the white and hispanic communities. Don’t believe the white media hype. It’s designed to be lopsided. Isn’t the author’s real question, “why are people more AFRAID of black boys than white ones?” It comes from the black male image in white America. Slavery. Jim Crow. Whites are to fear the Buck or Mandingo because he will steal white women! *gasp* There is far to this that meets the eye. Good convo though.

        • I think movies and gang culture tends to project a scary view of them too. I wonder if people are more worried seeing urban/gang wear vs more basic casual wear ?

        • Taking into full account that I grew up in the late 80’s during a period where young people had unfettered access to drug money, I could assure you that there was nothing illusory or false about what I’ve witnessed. You could say times have changed & you’d be right but unfortunately all I’ve seen from the millennial generation was more hopelessness, less violence and less money.

          If I were to attempt to answer the question “why are people more AFRAID of black boys than white ones?” I would say that maybe they’re seeing the same hopelessness that I’m seeing and are not to fond of the anger, but that’s just half a diagnosis. You can’t do much by putting rose colored glasses on the media & society and expecting an improvement. The onus of change has to come from not only how we see our young black males but how young black males see themselves. Matter of fact, young brothers need to be stopping and smelling them roses them roses, growing them roses, holding them roses,…and all that good stuff. One Luv.

  13. Because so many of them, comparatively to young white men, have proved by anecdote at least that they are very angry, and probably with cause, and to be violent. I have never met an older black gentleman, that might have been a very scary young man to be one of the nicest person I have ever run across. Age does wonders for all of us. But to deny that young black males can be very scary is to be stupid indeed. I don’t care for the idiocy of young males, white, black or otherwise. I was once a stupid young male, white too. But I will not be so politically correct to be the credit giver just because this kid may be black and put myself at risk for no damn reason. Especially when i’m in his element, not mine. Same as I feel if I’ m confronted by a white kid in his element that’s not mine. Wouldn’t trust them with a 39 1/2 foot pole. So it’s really age, not race that puts me on the wary.

    • Well said, Mark. You are a refreshing exception to how a lot of people feel/think though. Case in point, George Zimmerman.

    • Funnily enough where I live it’s usually young white men that get into fist fights but that’s probably more to do with sheer numbers. Black people have always been good to me save the odd bully or two, I’ve been good to them. Had farrr more troubles with white folk, but again that could just be because of more chances since they’re the majority here.


  1. […] worry because seemingly EVERYONE is afraid of our black men whom we love! Our brothers, our boyfriends, our husbands, our sons, our uncles.  And when they are […]

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