Having black boys and men classified as endangered species is not a new concept.
The most recent time it has been invoked, involved a comedy special called DL Hughley: The Endangered List, in which the comedian, in the style of a Michael Moore documentary, lobbies the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, to get Black men added to the endangered species list.
This, of course, is all in jest. However, former attorney and author Jean Love Cush uses the concept for a much more serious dialogue about racial injustice in the criminal justice system in her debut criminal fiction novel, Endangered.
It reads like the plot line to an episode of the classic television drama, “Law & Order.” A young black boy named Malik Williams from the inner city Philadelphia is nabbed by the police for the murder of his best friend. A good kid with no arrest record and pretty decent grades in school, he also has the misfortune of being Black and unable to afford an attorney to represent his case accurately. Therefore he is shuffled through the criminal justice system until his mother Janae, a school cafeteria worker, cautiously enlists the help of Roger Whitford, an ambitious White human rights attorney, and Calvin Moore, a Black private attorney, who is less than thrilled about being involved in this case.
Without giving too much more away, the story follows the attorneys as they argue Malik’s innocence by claiming inherited biases against Black men in the criminal justice system, as well as inherited cultural biases, which means not only can Black boys and men not get a fair trial, but that rights violations are also detrimental to life. As such, Black men should be awarded the same protection under the Endangered Species Act in order to protect them from the system and other cultural dangers, which are out to get them.
It’s an compelling concept, which Cush said she first heard back in the early 1990s, when the NAACP referred to Black boys as “an endangered species.” But as a legal tactic, Cush says she is not as convinced of its value.
“ I couldn’t find any attorneys or organizations, who tried to expand endangered species act to actually include Black boys,” Cush said in an interview earlier this week. “ And don’t know if that is needed to address Black boys.”
While the story is fictional and likely in no danger of happening, noting that the actual Endangered Species Act makes clear that the act does not apply to humans, Cush said she used her background to add a bit realism to the story.
A brief stint as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, Cush quickly moved on to family law and legal aide, where she represented low income women who were dealing with abuse, child support issues and divorce. During her time in the district attorney’s office she became alarmed by the number of Black males being processed through the criminal justice system.
Besides the color of their skin, Cush said another commonality many of her clients had, specifically clients of legal aide, was that they couldn’t afford private attorneys – and thus weren’t always afforded the same access to a defense as more affluent defendants.
“Mass incarceration becomes a result of these biases within the criminal justice system. And one and three black males will find themselves in the criminal justice system. So when you think about an endangered species, what is it? It’s an animal is threatened by its environment and what is going on in it’s environment. And that’s what I wanted to convey. Not so much so that we should try to get Black men listed as endangered species as the act is currently written, but to start thinking about what’s going on our society and inner city communities,” said Cush.
But it was also her concern about the homicide rate among Black males too. And how both of these injustices work in tandem to harm the families of mostly women and children, who are left behind. A Cush notes, as much as Endangered is about what’s happening to Malik, it is also a story about Malik’s mother Janae Williams, a single woman who did her best to provide the best for her son – even going as far as to teach him how to respond to the police (a trick, which would ultimately lead to his unfortunate arrest) – but is still in danger of losing him.
And it is also about the precarious relationship, which develops between the community and those sent there to help. Such is the case for attorney Roger Wilford, whose brashness and overall tone-deafness to cultural indifference is overshadowed by his savior complex and real desire to help. And Calvin Moore, a young rising star in law, who also has gone to great strides to segregate himself from neighborhoods, as well as people like Malik and Janae, yet finds himself back defending and basically being the reluctant savior.
As Cush adds, “We all have our roles to play to helping Malik and African-American boys in general. We don’t have the same experiences and of course Roger can’t see it the way Janae sees it. And even Calvin, who is no longer in inner city, but just because the perspective is different and not perfect does not mean it is not useful. And that is what this book is really about for me.”
Cush is currently working on another crime fiction story called Missing about two Black and White girls who go missing and how the law enforcement goes about investigating each crime differently. Like Endangered, she plans on highlighting how similar biases inhibit the investigation into the whereabouts of missing Black girls.
“I like to call what I do, social justice writing because I really like to raise issues that get us thinking and talking about making changes. Like, I don’t think you can write a story like Endangered and not care about the topic,” she said.