How many more graves must be dug?

July 09, 2006|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps you are familiar with Kenneth B. Clark's landmark study of children and dolls.

Beginning in 1939, Mr. Clark and his wife, Mamie, conducted tests in which they presented black and white children with dolls, also black and white. The kids were asked to decide which of the dolls were "nice" and which were "bad." Overwhelmingly, the white children favored the white dolls.

Overwhelmingly, the black children did, too.

Mr. Clark's study helped persuade the Supreme Court to strike down segregation in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education; it offered stark proof of the emotional harm that practice was doing black children. You can tell a lot about a child from the way she plays with her doll.

With that in mind, what should we make of the way 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins was playing with her doll on the afternoon of July 1? Sherdavia was out in front of her home in Liberty Square, also known as the Pork 'n' Beans housing project, in inner-city Miami, digging in the dirt. Digging the doll a grave.

Then somebody shot at somebody else - the who and why are mysteries - and a bullet pierced the little girl's neck. Yesterday, a week after she played at digging a grave for her doll, Sherdavia was to be lowered into one herself.

It is not a big story, as news stories go. Outside of South Florida, one would be hard-pressed to find much mention of it. Which is not to vilify the Chicago Tribune or The Washington Post. Surely, those communities have had randomly murdered children of their own that the rest of us knew nothing about. And yet ...

If this were a story about same-sex marriage, there would be screaming headlines.

If it were a pretty white girl gone missing, there would be breathless updates.

Instead, it's just a little black girl killed while playing in front of her home. And the chirp of crickets is deafening.

Makes you wonder about our priorities, the things we deem important.

That such a thing can happen and not stir the nation to moral outrage says something. It says that random inner-city murder occurs so often it barely registers as news.

And it says, too, that when certain things happen to certain people in certain places, we find them easier to accept. You might even say we expect it, anticipate that from time to time, black kids in the projects will die because punks and gangsters can't shoot straight.

I can't know for sure, but I wonder if Sherdavia, her tender age notwithstanding, didn't expect it, too: She was giving her doll a funeral. It has been said, after all, that black kids in poor and violent places plan their funerals like other kids plan their proms.

Can you blame them? In 2004, 14,121 Americans were murdered. Blacks, representing about 12 percent of the nation's population, were 47 percent of the nation's murder victims. Of the 6,632 blacks killed, better than one in four was 21 or younger. Violence is no stranger in certain places.

In those places, kids can tell you what it's like to pass by corpses on the way to school. In those places, the skyscrapers downtown might as well be on another planet. In those places, life is hard and money is tight. In those places, boys walk about with the mean swagger that comes of a gun in the pocket and a conscience on mute, mistaking themselves for men.

In those hard and cold places, death becomes a way of life, a lesson learned young. And then relearned endlessly. Four days after Sherdavia died, a boy named Markese Wiggan was shot to death in Lauderhill, Fla. He was 14 years old.

And so it goes. This is not a black problem. It is, emphatically, an American problem. Unfortunately, it is not an American priority.

Until it is, children like Sherdavia will continue to bury their dolls. And their parents will continue to bury them.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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