Last Sunday, I got a text message no parent ever wants to receive. It was from my 16-year-old son, and I was out of state visiting my sister.
“I got jumped and injured on my way home. I’m with dad and I’ll call you tonight to talk about it.”
Terrified, I immediately called his father. I found out that while my son was taking a walk through our Cooper-Young neighborhood, six boys on bikes rode up to him and asked him for a dollar. He pulled out his money and gave them one.
One of the boys tried to snatch the rest, and then said, “Just kidding,” while another boy said, “Give me your money.” My son responded that he did not want to do that.
So, one boy grabbed my son and and held him in the air, with his arms immobilized, while another boy punched him over and over on the sides of his head. They threw him to the pavement a couple of times and continued to hit him.
My son was screaming for help throughout this event, and a neighbor saw this from her home. She emerged from her door and shouted at the group. It was only then that the boys hopped their bikes and left.
Then, she and other good-hearted people stayed with my son until help arrived.
As I was still in Wyoming, unable to see or hug my child, I logged into NextDoor to get updates. I read many expressions of love and support for my son. Sadly, alongside this, the predictable racist commentary began showing up.
My son and I are white, while his attackers are black.
Neighbors used words like “thug,” “criminal,” “animal,” “super-predator,” “subhuman,” “gang,” etc. These comments relied on the same old tired stereotypes about “bad” black boys.
They have said things like, “These kids do not belong here,” and also suggested I should “move to their neighborhood,” if I am so concerned about the other children.
I’m deeply troubled by the narrative that is underlying what happened, so I feel I have no choice but to speak now.
I need y’all to hear me. This was not a racial attack. A group of boys were violent toward another boy, a stranger to them. Full stop. You show me any random group of adult men, of any color, and there are things they did in their past of which they are not proud. That’s what our culture does to young boys, period.
And how do they know the group of boys do not live here? Is it because the kids are black? There are racist assumptions built into that comment. Regardless of their exact address, these children are my neighbors, too.
Girls bully, too, but it’s more in tearing down your self-esteem or your reputation. I know about this, firsthand.
As a child, I was bullied at school, and within my family. My father was both an affectionate and very violent man. He did things to my mother, my sisters and me that should have landed him in jail for a very long time, but he was never prosecuted. When police came to our home, they never arrested him. Not even when he broke my mother’s jaw. They talked quietly and then shook his hand and left. I wonder if this kind of treatment would have happened to a black man in the 1970s and 80s.
As a result, I grew up to be a fierce defender of those oppressed, which has made me more at home at a protest than a picnic.
I know what it feels like to be a target, and I can also clearly see how our society demonizes and dehumanizes children of color.
If I was the mother of one of the aggressors, I would feel terrible. I can say with confidence that it does not feel good to be the mother of the child attacked, but all of these boys have people who love them, too.
My son has been hurt, and the damage is more in the form of trauma than in lasting physical injury. I can only imagine this group of children also may have had some difficulties of some kind in their lives.
If my mother were still alive and I was one of the aggressors, she would have called the other kid’s mother (you know, back when we all had landlines and numbers published in phone books) and insisted we all meet in person so I could apologize and try to make amends.
Criminal charges or harsh punishment will not teach these kids anything but how to avoid getting caught. This path does not lead anywhere good. I know, because I was a very, very angry adolescent once myself. I, too, have done things I wish I hadn’t.
Please do not use this attack on my son to say we need more surveillance cameras. We already live in a neighborhood filled to overflowing with them. Cameras did not keep my son safe! They won’t keep you safer, either.
I know some Cooper-Young residents are scared. Folks in other neighborhoods are scared, too. We aren’t special. If this had happened in a non-white neighborhood, you know it would not even be news, while my son’s attack drew TV reports.
I initially spoke up on NextDoor, identifying myself as his mother because the racism was sickening and I wanted to put a stop to it. Then, someone must have given my name to the media, because a reporter reached out and asked to speak to me.
I agreed only in hopes of shifting the narrative.
How many black boys or little black girls are assaulted by other kids and it is not newsworthy?
If these kids are found, I want to sit down with them and their parents and talk about what happened. I want to know about their lives. My son was once a tiny, cuddly baby. So were each of these kids. To their mothers, I guarantee they still are.
That’s why I do not accept some of my white neighbors making this a racial issue. White people made it racial. We who are white created the entire system of race, as a matter of fact.
And I intend to be one of the people who calls it out. Don’t use my child to further your hate-filled ignorance.
Also, please calm down when I say you said something racist. I have said and done racist things, too.
As a woman with white skin, I have been intensively taught by every facet of society to see myself as superior, innocent, smarter, more capable, more trustworthy, more deserving, in short, to BE racist. Changing that within myself, my community, and the overwhelming majority of every institution in our world is the challenge before us now.
And it starts with each of us.
The Rev. Edith Love is a native Memphian and a Unitarian Universalist minister who believes her calling is to love and justice. She is on the coordinating committee for the Tennessee chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. She founded Resistance: Street Church in July 2019.
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