Black, Dead and Invisible

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

April 8, 2005

I once had a young black girl, whose brother had been murdered, tell me she was too old to dream. She was 12.

I remember a teenager in South-Central Los Angeles a few years ago saying, in a discussion about his peers, "Some of us don't last too long."

Don't bother cueing the violins. This is an old story. There's no shock value and hardly any news value in yet another black or brown kid going down for the count. Burying the young has long since become routine in poor black and Latino neighborhoods. Nobody gets real excited about it. I find that peculiar, but there's a lot about the world that I find peculiar.

Tafare Berryman was born on Feb. 16, 1983, in Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. He debuted at 9 pounds 7 ounces. His mother said he was perfect, and she was still saying it this week as she prepared for his funeral. Tafare grew, as they say, prodigiously. When he was murdered early last Sunday morning, just five weeks short of his college graduation, he was six feet seven inches tall and weighed 240 pounds.

His massive size was no defense against the bullet that came out of the predawn darkness. It was like an instant replay of all the bullets over all the years that have ended so many young lives for no good reason whatsoever.

The fact that he had stayed out of trouble, and that his parents were strict, and that he'd graduated from high school in three years and was serious about his college work - none of that afforded him any protection, either. The fact that he was a popular basketball player at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University, and that his classmates, teachers and coaches all swear he was a lovely person, counted for nothing. There are a lot of good kids who don't last too long.

The shooting happened on a street in Nassau County on Long Island. There had been a fight at a club, and a friend of Tafare's suffered a knife wound to the head. The two young men left the club in a car, with the friend driving.

After a couple of miles, they had to stop because the friend was bleeding profusely. As they were switching seats, with Tafare climbing into the driver's seat, a car approached. A shot was fired, maybe two shots, and Tafare's life was over. His friend was not hit. The police said they did not think that Tafare had been involved in the fight and that the gunman might have mistaken him for his friend, or someone else.

Tafare's mother, Dawn Thompson, who lives in Brooklyn, got a call about 6 o'clock in the morning. All she was told was that her son had been shot. She and three carloads of relatives rushed to Long Island. In the town of Long Beach, the family was given directions to the morgue.

"He was laid down with his eyes open and his mouth open, like he was saying, 'Oh, God!' " said Ms. Thompson. She began to sob. "He was just tall and stretched out. He's very tall, you know. And his eyes were open like he was looking for somebody. And I started crying. And I said: 'Yes, that's my son. That's my son. He's dead.' "

When I was growing up, I didn't worry about getting shot or getting stabbed, and, frankly, I thought I would live forever. But there have been many cultural changes since then. I've talked to hundreds of youngsters over the years who have either witnessed homicides or been very close emotionally to young people who had died violently.

Entertainers sing ecstatically of rape and homicide, and rappers like 50 Cent and The Game brag about the number of bullets their bodies have absorbed (at least 14 between them). Street gangs have spread from the cities to the suburbs and beyond, moving into those places in the hearts of young people that have been vacated by parents, especially fathers. Guns in some neighborhoods are easier to get than schoolbooks.

None of this is new. Two days before Tafare Berryman was killed, a 17-year-old freshman named Sequoia Thomas was shot to death outside Jamaica High School in Queens, apparently by an acquaintance. Her last words were: "Help me. Help me."

The big shots have other things on their minds. In New York there's a football stadium that the power brokers want to build. In Washington, the focus of presidents of the United States, past and present, has been on who would get to go to the pope's funeral. In Los Angeles the other day, the black celebrity elite turned out en masse to profile at Johnnie Cochran's funeral.

Youngsters dead and dying? Nobody of importance is much interested in that.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com

Paul Krugman is on vacation.