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Maryland leaders, will you take a pledge to support black kids?

Baltimore police peacefully disbanded a crowd of more than 400 youths at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on Saturday according to the police.

Sometimes racism is subtle. That was not the case with the inflammatory and offensive tweet dehumanizing black children posted by the Fraternal Order of Police last weekend.

That message, and other recent comments expressed by public leaders, represent a disturbing return to overt racism. The coded language public servants and elected officials use and the racist themes they invoke set the tone for what is acceptable. We call on all public officials to pledge that they will not use and will not tolerate the use of disparaging and dehumanizing language about people of color, especially black children.

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Such a pledge shouldn’t be necessary in 2019, but it is. Here is a sampling of things public officials have said in Maryland recently about black community members:

  • Baltimore’s Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Mancuso said of black children in a tweet, “don’t fall into the trap that they are only kids. Some are criminals!”
  • Baltimore County Delegate Robin L. Grammer Jr., said of former black school officials, “Hang them high and leave it for the village to see.”
  • Harford County Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti called the district represented by many black colleagues in Prince George’s County the “[n-word] district.”

This escalating pattern is unacceptable. Our leaders must be held accountable for their racist comments, because such language shows they cannot be trusted to uphold or make life-changing decisions for our diverse communities — and especially for black people. These leaders decide what laws govern our communities and against which people the laws are enforced, what money is spent on which programs for which children, and which communities get investment and which don't.

Black children are children. Yet because our society equates blackness with criminality, they rarely get to be seen and valued as children. Their desire to spend time with each other — as children and teenagers have always done — should not be viewed as threatening. Like all children, black children must be allowed to make mistakes, learn from their mistakes and engage in their communities without being targeted, stereotyped and labeled as “criminal.”

The dangerousness of linking black children to criminality is most acute in policing. We know that trust between community members and the police has been broken for a long time across the state. When elected officials wring their hands and ask what can be done, we say: Look at the FOP. Its racist tweet does nothing to repair that trust. Instead it encourages racial profiling and excessive force, and it sanctions officers in advance to disregard the rights of black children.

Instead of calling for the best from police, for years, the FOP has stood up for the worst. The FOP has fought hard to block changes to Maryland’s extreme Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) and continues to adamantly oppose any semblance of reform that would bring police accountability to all the communities they are supposed to serve.

At the same time, the Baltimore City Schools’ police union has prioritized allowing resource officers to carry loaded guns in schools. Given the FOP president’s dangerous tweet, why should anyone trust that school officers will see the humanity in black school children who need the same guidance and correction from caring adults as any child?

Black children, like black adults, must already learn to navigate a world that is structured to dehumanize and criminalize them. Unlike their white counterparts, black children and black communities persistently face disinvestment, disregard and demonization. When we talk about black children in our city, why must we always talk about what’s wrong with them and their parents? Black children deserve to have their whole, human selves considered always — not just when they are on their best behavior.

Our public officials know this. If they don’t, it’s time for them to not just learn it, but act on it. It’s time for our public officials to not cravenly cater to the worst racist impulses. And it’s time for our public officials to not unwittingly perpetuate the bias that pervades American society against black children. Public officials need to model the way we expect adults to talk about and support black children in Maryland. And they need to be held accountable when they don’t.

More than just not being negative, we need our leaders to see all the positivity we see in black children, black families and black communities and to embrace it and name it whenever they can.

Public officials: Will you pledge to reframe the narrative linking blackness with criminality? Will you be intentional in using language that recognizes that black people and black children belong everywhere in this city, and the “white L” on the map is for us, too? Will you pledge to call out the use of language that dehumanizes black children — even when they make mistakes?

Will you take the pledge?

Dana Vickers Shelley (dana@aclu-md.org) is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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