Almost instantly, Monique Joseph’s cheery disposition changed to tears when asked about 16-year-old Ralph Yarl — who was shot in the head and arm by a stranger in Kansas City, Missouri, after ringing the wrong doorbell. The case reminded Joseph of what could have happened to her 9-year-old daughter, Bobbi Wilson, last October.
“I can’t even talk about what happened to that young man without crying because I know what could have happened to my daughter and I know what happens to our children just being kids,” Joseph said.
What happened to the teenage boy seeking to retrieve his twin brothers from a friend’s house and to Joseph’s daughter spraying invasive lantern flies were similar in this way: Both were young Black people merely existing.
And yet, Yarl was shot by 84-year-old Andrew Lester, a white man who said he opened fire through his door because, he told police, he was scared to death. Last year, Bobbi Wilson was confronted by law enforcement when neighbor and former Caldwell, New Jersey, council member Gordon Lawshe, who is white, called the police to report a suspicious person. “There’s a little Black woman walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees on Elizabeth and Florence. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing. Scares me, though,” Lawshe said to dispatchers, according to footage obtained by CNN.
The fourth grader was spraying spotted lantern flies around her home because the public had been urged to “squash on sight” the insects because they threaten crops. While the young girl was not physically harmed, she and her family were shaken.
Joseph, who has become an outspoken local leader on racial equality since her daughter’s incident, added that it could have ended tragically if Bobbi were a boy.
“I understood that sometimes America doesn’t love our Black boys,” Joseph said. “It’s just the color of their skin. Our skin. But what if it were my nephew visiting me? Ralph’s case is directly related. It was like Bobbi: an amazing young person showing up like a child is expected to. And it should be OK. By the grace of God he survived. But it’s disgusting that this has happened.”
Black parents contacted by NBC News said they are infused with heightened fear and rage that safe spaces outside the home are shrinking. Yarl’s shooting is one more in a line of Black youths being harmed or killed in routine circumstances — by law enforcement or white citizens.
“This young man was trying to find his siblings,” said Alford Young Jr., the chair of the sociology department at the University of Michigan and father of two sons ages 24 and 20. “Some of the other young Black people who have been victims of violence were doing everyday things: walking, driving, jogging, playing in the park, bird-watching. What can you say other than ‘Don’t be a social being,’ which is impossible?”
Michael Bradley, of Chicago, said one day in January he arrived home in time to see two police officers standing in front of his 19-year-old son with their hands on their guns.
“I pull up and they turn to me, as if I was a threat,” Bradley said.
A white neighbor had called the police because they thought his son, who was home from college for the holidays, was stealing packages left outside houses, Bradley recalled.
“All he was doing was standing in front of the house, our house, on the phone,” Bradley said. “There were no packages in front of our door to steal. But because he was a young Black man, it was assumed he was a criminal. This has to stop. My son wasn’t doing anything. He was just standing in front of his house. And that’s reason for cops to be called — and for them to be ready to pull their weapons? How do we defend against this mark placed on us because we’re Black?”
Young called Yarl’s case “a new moment.”
“We’re challenged about precisely what to say to our young people given this,” he said. “I think about this as a societal issue. I think about it as a personal issue. And in both cases, you’re left with being unable to articulate an agenda for their survival. That’s another way of saying that ‘the talk’ has been ruptured, rendered almost untenable because how do you tell young men what they have to do just to survive, to exist in public space?”
Tamaira Johnson, a San Diego-area mother of 16- and 12-year-old sons, feels frustrated by “racism that will not go away.”
“This case is just sad, and it says that just by having Black skin our children are weaponized,” she said. “As a parent, in some ways I feel cheated out of the opportunity to give them a rosier outlook of what is out there once they get out of my shelter and out of my protection. But I don’t have any choice.”
Young also found it disturbing that in the Yarl case and those of others who were doing everyday life things, the claim of feeling threatened was used.
“It’s not even how they behave,” Young said. “It’s the mere presence of Black masculinity that is enabling people to argue they’re feeling threatened and acting with violence. And the self-defense policies and procedures give license to that. It’s almost as though policy now has made it possible for people to argue a sense of threat by one’s mere physical existence. But that’s only used against us — not by us.”
Andrea Boyles, an associate sociology and Africana studies professor at Tulane University, said the growing number of cases where Black people are victimized or have law enforcement called on them while doing seemingly harmless acts is a byproduct of American culture.
“It is the totality of anti-Black sentiments that are clearly being expressed around this nation,” Boyles said. “There’s no one place and there’s no one set of circumstances that triggers anything. Just being Black on sight gives way to criminalization, and the idea that white people are feeling very comfortable leveraging and applying what has now become a very racist script in saying, ‘I’m afraid.’ They know that that is an easy go-to defense to respond in deadly ways. This is why it’s not just happening with the police and why our young people do not feel like there are safe spaces to just live their lives.”
Yale University psychiatrist Terrell Holloway pointed to data published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma in 2021 that indicated Black youths are “more likely to report multiple ACEs,” or adverse childhood experiences “relative to their white counterparts.” And because of racism they experience potentially traumatic events, or PTE, and “their effects may be particularly harmful among Black youth given the relevance and impact of racism and racial discrimination.”
“What’s sad is that like when you think of post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s almost an overgeneralization that no place is safe, based off of a trauma that you had,” Holloway said. “But now basically existing while Black is so generalized that depending on the person and what your vulnerabilities are, and your strengths, it can be very disorienting and also can take a massive toll. It’s a really daunting duality of not only worrying about personal safety, but then as a parent worrying about your Black child’s existence as you recognize there is danger there when it shouldn’t be.”