When I was a kid, my father used to drive us from Boston to a family house in Darlington, S.C. during school vacations. He thought the relaxed pace and small-town charm was a nice change from life in the big city where we lived, so my younger sister and I would spend a couple of weeks every year riding our bikes around town and playing the Pole Position arcade game outside the Piggly Wiggly.

As I got older, the physical and social segregation became less and less quaint and more and more annoying. By the time I was 13, I had to stop making the trips, partly because I had a bad habit of saying what was on my mind to whatever audience was listening with no regard for (or knowledge of) the historical context of our interaction. Believe me when I tell you that white men in a town famous for its NASCAR track are not used to hearing a black teenager with a Yankee accent say, “Excuse me, there’s a line. And I’m next.”

I’m sure there weren’t too many local black kids talking back (or even to) adult white men in the Darlington of the mid-1980s, or anywhere else in the South, and I’d be surprised if much conversation between the two demographic groups is taking place now. I do know that thanks to a historic ruling by the United States Supreme Court, there is at least one southern state with a newfound appreciation for the lives of young black men.

In the landmark case of Graham v. Florida, the high court ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime. In other words, as long as he doesn’t kill anyone, a kid who breaks the law can be rehabilitated and has to have a chance at a life outside of prison. For young black men and the people who love them, this beginning of a change in perception has been a long time coming.

I won’t make any excuses for the defendant in the case, Terrance Graham. He made the choice to go along with his friends and attempt to rob a BBQ restaurant, so he was partly responsible when one of the kids hit the restaurant manager with some kind of metal pipe. He was also responsible for making the choice to go along with some friends on an armed robbery/home invasion some months later while on parole for the restaurant assault/attempted robbery.

But is he responsible for the fact that he was born to crack-addicted parents or for the fact that he was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school? Should the fact that the group of teens (Graham was 16 at the time but tried as an adult) didn’t actually take any money in the failed robbery have been taken into consideration? Or should he have been hit with a violation of his probation after the home invasion, been given the maximum sentence of life behind bars for the botched robbery in a state that had abolished its parole system (by a different judge than the one who originally granted probation), and been sent to die in prison? In a country that prohibits punishment that is either “cruel” or “unusual,” the answer is clear.

Yet the judge in the case, based on limited professional contact with the defendant (and probably zero contact with anyone resembling the defendant in his personal life), decided that the teenaged Terrance Graham was of no use to society — and never would be. He said, “Mr. Graham, as I look back on your case, yours is really candidly a sad situation. You had, as far as I can tell, you have quite a family structure. You had a lot of people who wanted to try and help you get your life turned around, including the court system, and you had a judge who took the step to try and give you direction through his probation order to give you a chance to get back onto track. … And I don’t know why it is that you threw your life away … . But you did … . The only thing that I can rationalize is that you decided that this is how you were going to lead your life and that there is nothing we can do for you … . I don’t see where I can do anything to help you any further.”

That kind of patronizing, casual dismissal of a young life perfectly demonstrates why we have to end the 20th century model of race relations: because it dehumanizes people.

Despite the fact that many white people will refuse to acknowledge anything other than blatantly obvious race-based discrimination as “racism,” our country’s history is rife with it. From separate but equal back through Jim Crow, Reconstruction, the Civil War, to the whole “three-fifths of a person” thing, our nation’s history is rife with examples after example of institutionalized, legalized, or socially accepted apartheid. Acknowledging that black teenagers who run afoul of the law might actually have some value to society as something other than grist for the mill that is the corrections industry doesn’t make up for that painful past, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who is trying very hard not to see racism everywhere he goes (it’s a struggle). His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at kennymack@gmail.com.

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