Authorities arrested a 16-year-old boy Saturday who allegedly used a customer courtesy phone at a Southern New Jersey Wal-Mart to harass black clientele.
"Attention, Wal-Mart customers: All black people, leave the store now," the boy reportedly said over loud speaker March 14.
Now, police have charged the unnamed boy with bias, intimidation and harassment. He faces up to a year in a juvenile detention center, if found guilty, the New York Times reports.
It's hard to imagine how I would've reacted had I been in the store when those words rang out over the intercom. I likely would have stopped in my tracks, not quite believing I'd heard them. Once reality set in, however, so would my indignation.
Just like "driving while black" can set African Americans on edge, "shopping while black" can as well. Even in contemporary America, black customers continue to be followed around in stores, ignored when they seek to be waited on and expected not to be able to afford expensive goods. With such baggage, the last thing African American Wal-Mart shoppers needed to hear that day was someone ordering them to leave. And, while adult black shoppers probably quickly regrouped from the episode, the same may not be true for any children in the store, no matter their skin color. March 14, 2010, may have marked the first time any kids in the store realized that black people are often unwanted. Thus, in a matter of seconds, the teenager who hijacked the intercom may have done damage that will take weeks, months or, possibly even, years to overcome.
Given this, you might think I want the suspect to rot in juvie for a year. Actually, the opposite is true. I don't see how sending this teen away with kids probably more disturbed than he is for 12 months will help matters. Will the suspect change his views of blacks if detained for a year? Will he realize why his remarks hurt others? Likely not. Accordingly, rather than send the suspect to jail, I'd suggest giving him some racial sensitivity training, along with making him do community service at a civil rights organization. If this isn't a teachable moment, I don't know what is.
I not only question how helpful juvenile detention will be in this situation but also what the suspect's motives here were. Does he harbor a true bias against black people, or did a friend dare him to make the remark over the intercom, and he thoughtlessly complied? Teenagers, of course, make impulsive decisions, ones that don't always reflect their true nature. That's why it's important to know if the suspect is a young racist who wanted to spread his ideology of hate in public or a knucklehead who made a rash decision to get a rise out of people using racism.
Until these details are known, I'm unwilling to rush to judgment.