Stories Matter: Changing the Perception of Young Black Men

Trayvon Martin, Kalief Browder and Mike Brown have three things in common: parents who fiercely loved them, siblings who cared for them deeply and dreams that were never realized. They are also young black men whose tragic deaths started a national conversation about our broken justice system.

While juvenile incarceration rates have dropped in recent years, racial disparities have worsened. For countless young black men like Trayvon, Kalief and Mike, their stories are often characterized by headlines that label them thugs, presume guilt before a trial and tout every bad decision they ever made. These narratives must be challenged in order to address the increasing racial disparities in our justice system. Three new documentaries are attempting to do just this through the power of storytelling.

According to Variety, rapper and businessman Jay Z will be partnering with the Weinstein Company to produce a documentary series on Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old killed by George Zimmerman in 2012 whose story sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

Most recently, Jay Z produced the “Kalief Browder Series,” a six-part docuseries that provides an in-depth look at the journey of 16-year-old Kalief who spent three years at Rikers Island awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never convicted of a crime and was released in 2013. He committed suicide in 2015.

Jay Z is not alone in his quest to bring the stories of young black men and a broken justice system to the big screen. In March, filmmaker Jason Pollock premiered “Stranger Fruit” at the South by South West Festival, which offers an alternative account of the events leading up to police killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014.

The question remains: How will these stories stop another young black man from being killed at the hands of police or unfairly treated by the justice system?

The media frenzy surrounding Black Lives Matter has subsided in recent months, but racial disparities in our justice system persist. According to the Sentencing Project, between 2003 and 2013, youth incarceration declined nationally while racial disparities increased. The gap between black and white youth arrest actually went up by 24 percent over the same 10-year period.

Multiple studies, including one completed by the University of California, Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, have confirmed that racial disparities cannot be explained by differences in individual behavior. For young black men, in particular, there is a bias that permeates not only our justice system, but society as a whole. The American Psychological Association recently released research that suggests people perceive young black men as bigger, stronger, and more threatening than young white men of the same size.

When it comes to finding solutions to ending these racial disparities, we constantly hear about diversion or rehabilitative programs that focus on education, employment or mentorship. Although there is a need for these programs, we have to dig deeper to tackle this underlying racial bias and change the way we, as a society, view black men.

Of course there is no easy “one size fits all” solution, but a step in the right direction is to offer counter narratives of who young black men are.

Storytelling is a popular marketing tactic used by businesses and nonprofits alike to create a meaningful connection with their audience. According to research done by Paul J. Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, compelling character-driven stories actually cause our brains to make oxytocin, the neurochemical that increases empathy and signals that it is safe to approach others.

By telling stories that humanize Trayvon, Kalief and Mike, we start to change the perception of who these young men were and how they should be remembered. When you hear Kalief’s childhood friends talk about his love for video games and his sense of humor, you see a teenage boy who is no different than any other teenage boy. Kalief no longer becomes a headline, but our friend, brother or son.

These stories are powerful tools to evoke change by helping us to see each other’s humanity, and they must continue to be told to ensure the lives of young black men always matter.


Brooke Pinnix is passionate about helping young people reach their full potential and has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 7 years. She is currently completing her Master’s degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this story for the Media for Policy Change course.

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Journalism for Social Change (J4SC), a program of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), is a graduate-level training program for students of journalism, public policy and social work, which teaches them how to use journalism as an implement of social change.