There’s something insidious about the way the right-wing media is describing Adam Toledo, the thirteen-year-old child who was shot to death by police, as a “gangbanger” and a “thug”.
Andy Ngo, a journalist affiliated with right-wing groups, shared what he said were friends’ social media tributes to Toledo — who was shot to death by police while reportedly unarmed with his hands up — while claiming that Toledo’s nickname was “Lil Homicide” in gang circles. Ngo shared these screenshots alongside a video of Toledo being accosted by police.
And in a recent segment on his radio show, Sean Hannity described Toledo as a “thirteen-year-old man”. Comparatively, Fox News programming that aired in 2020 described Kyle Rittenhouse — a seventeen-year-old who traveled across state lines with an unlicensed AR-15, shot two people to death and injured another while counter-protesting a rally in support of Jacob Blake — as a “little boy trying to help his community”.
It’s also worth noting that Andy Ngo created an entire Twitter thread rationalizing Daunte Wright’s death because of an alleged warrant and missed court date, but describes Rittenhouse as a “teen vigilante”.
Under the law and according to all common sense, a thirteen-year-old is a child, not a man. A child in the seventh grade can’t fight for their country, have a beer, or go to a strip club. They can’t legally work, drive, or get a tattoo. They may not have even hit puberty yet.
Toledo was a child in crisis who needed support from his community, not a criminal mastermind or a gang leader. He was an at-risk youth who could have been introduced to programs, to therapy, to help. As a society, we are supposed to acknowledge this: He was well below the age of criminal responsibility. Instead, he was robbed of the chance to turn his life around before it even really started.
Adam will never get to go to prom, to go to high school, to know the small joys of growing up. He was just a baby who got involved with a bad crowd. And he wasn’t afforded the benefit of the doubt.
When our media paints Black and Latino men and boys as violent and dangerous — when it claims that children of the age of thirteen are full-blown adults when they aren’t white — it affects so much more than just policing. It’s why Black people are followed around stores under suspicion of shoplifting at disproportionate rates, why Black people are 115 percent more likely to have their cars searched during traffic stops despite the fact that contraband is more likely to be found in the cars of white drivers, and why Black people are six percent more likely to be arrested for drug use, despite drugs being used by the white population at an equivalent rate.
The issue is the cultural perception of people of color as a threat. There’s nothing threatening about our existence.
What makes Kyle Rittenhouse a “little boy” when Adam Toledo is seen as a man? Why was Toledo shot after dropping his gun and putting his hands up while Rittenhouse was taken in unharmed and given water?
The answer, unfortunately, is whiteness. Whiteness offers protection in American society, and the data proves it. Black children are suspended at higher rates than their white peers, 88 percent of NYPD stops in 2018 involved a person of color (despite 70 percent of stops being unfounded or innocent), and Black men convicted of the same crime as their white counterparts receive sentences that are, on average, 19.1 percent longer. It goes as deep as healthcare, where Black mothers are 3 times more likely to die in childbirth compared to white mothers, and racial bias in medicine leads to Black patients being refused care and pain relief they need. When we speak on white privilege, this is what it looks like: being implicitly safer because you aren’t a person of color.
Painting Black and Latino youth — kids who have loved ones, goals, passions, and dreams — as aggressive, threatening men attempts to rationalize and justify their deaths. And it works both ways: White youth are all too often handed ready-made excuses. Lest we forget, Dylann Roof was described as mentally ill and a “product of liberals” by a Fox News guest, and police bought him Burger King after his arrest. Rittenhouse was referred to as “innocent” and “demonized”. It remains staggeringly unclear why white men who’ve killed people receive better treatment than Black and Latino men who haven’t.
People of color who perpetuate gun violence are seen as violent thugs, while white men are protecting their communities or simply mentally ill. White youth are more likely to receive mental health services than their Black peers, despite mental illness occurring at similar rates in both populations. With the understanding that racial bias has an influence on arrests and convictions, children of color who have engaged in deviant acts are more likely to have their need for mental care ignored in favor of criminalization.
We’re still waiting for justice for Emmett Till, justice for Tamir Rice, justice for Trayvon Martin, justice for Adam Toledo. And, inevitably, we will call for justice for whoever is coming next, because nothing is changing.