All American Boys is centered around an incident of police brutality: Paul Galluzzo’s violent arrest of Rashad at Jerry’s convenience store. The novel shows how the attack shocks and disturbs the town of Springfield, while also emphasizing that this incident is representative of a broader problem of racist police violence that affects the entire country. Meanwhile, Mrs. Fitzgerald’s stories about the civil rights movement indicate that police racism and brutality are not recent problems, but rather a long-lasting, substantial part of American history. For several of the characters, and particularly Quinn, the incident at Jerry’s serves as a wake-up call to the reality of racism in America. Crucially, this extends beyond the particular issue of police brutality and into less severe manifestations of racism, such as the differential treatment of black students versus white students at Springfield High.
Not only does the novel depict the different ways in which racism manifests itself in everyday life, it also explores the fundamental reasons that racism exists, showing how it can be perpetuated even by those who do not mean to cause harm. The novel indicates that police brutality is based on the psychological foundation of stereotypes, hypocrisy, and fear, which are exacerbated by the abuse of power and excessive authority. Quinn realizes that he harbors an irrational fear of black people based on the stereotypes that black people are tough, violent “thugs.” Although he does not consciously harbor racist beliefs, his subconscious fear causes him to behave in a way that perpetuates racism.
The novel also emphasizes that while white people may be more susceptible to believing such negative stereotypes, these stereotypes can also affect black people too. Toward the end of the narrative, Rashad’s father, David, reveals that while he was working as a cop he shot a black man, Darnell Shackleford, whom he believed was the perpetrator of a crime. In fact, it was David’s own unconscious bias which led him to believe this; in reality, Darnell was being attacked by a white man and was simply trying to pull out his inhaler, not a gun. This incident suggests that the animosity between black people and the police is bigger than individuals––rather than being grounded in the race or beliefs of a given police officer, it is a structural issue. David’s conscious and subconscious biases, along with his role as a police officer, compel him to shoot someone who looks like his own son. This demonstrates the insidious power of racism and suggests that it is perhaps unrealistic to imagine that anyone—even black people themselves—can erase racist stereotypes from their thinking on their own. Instead, these stereotypes must be tackled collectively (as the students and teachers at Springfield Central High attempt through their organization of the protest) in order to create lasting change.
Racism and stereotypes do not just impact the way the black characters in the novel interact with the police. Rather, racism affects many aspects of the black characters’ lives. For example, David disapproves of Spoony’s clothes and dreadlocks, and when Rashad tells his father the story of what happened at Jerry’s, one of the first questions David asks is if Rashad was wearing baggy pants. The reasoning behind this is that black hairstyles and clothing associated with black culture (particularly poorer black communities) are associated with negative stereotypes about black people.
David believes that black people should strive to defy such stereotypes, which is part of the reason why he embraces police and military uniforms as a standard of discipline, responsibility, and assimilation to white, “American” culture. Thinking like this is often called “respectability politics,” a phrase that refers to the pressure for minorities to conform to a (conservative) idea of respectability as a way of protecting oneself from racism. David’s actions prove that both black and white people can be guilty of inflicting respectability politics on black people. As the novel shows, the problem with respectability politics is that it places the blame and responsibility of repelling racism onto black people. This logic is backwards, because it is black people who are the victims of racism; regardless of how they dress and behave, they cannot exempt themselves from racism, and should not be forced to take on that responsibility.
Another important aspect of the novel’s portrayal of racism lies in the issue of stereotypes and hypocrisy. As a young black man, Rashad is subject to the racist assumptions that he is violent, steals, and uses drugs. In reality, he does none of these things; he specifically mentions that he has never stolen anything and, later in the novel, English points out that Rashad has also never used drugs. Quinn, meanwhile, who is celebrated as an “all-American boy” whose father is a town hero, admits to having stolen alcohol from Jerry’s and smoked marijuana. While the novel doesn’t suggest that either of these acts is particularly unforgiveable, it does show that Quinn’s white privilege allows him to escape from such misdemeanors without consequences, whereas Rashad is punished simply for the assumption that he steals. Racial stereotyping is thus revealed to be self-perpetuating, creating a vicious cycle of negative expectations, stereotypes, and brutality.
The novel was written in response to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, two black teenagers shot and killed by white people who were not convicted of the murders. Martin was 17 (a year older than Rashad) and only carrying a bag of skittles when George Zimmerman shot him; the detail that Rashad is holding a bag of chips when he is arrested and beaten by Paul recalls Martin and the skittles. Mike Brown, meanwhile, was killed by a police officer while his hands were in the air. Again, this is linked to the brutality with which Paul treats Rashad even though he is unarmed and innocent. The killings of Martin and Brown helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement, which tackles the issues of anti-black racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration. All-American Boys contributes to the ongoing conversation around these issues and highlights the way in which young people are often at the forefront of anti-racist activism in the contemporary moment.
Racism, Stereotyping, and Police Brutality ThemeTracker
Racism, Stereotyping, and Police Brutality Quotes in All American Boys
I didn’t need ROTC. But I did it, and I did it good, because my dad was pretty much making me. He's one of those dudes who feels like there's no better
opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army. That's literally how he always put it. Word for word.
Honestly, I just wanted to take it easy for the rest of the day. I didn’t want to hear Spoony preach about how hard it is to be black, or my father preach about how young people lack pride and integrity, making us easy targets. I didn't even want to think about the preacher preaching about how God is in control of it all, or my mother, my sweet, sweet mother caught in the middle of it all. The referee who blows the whistle but is way too nice to call foul on anyone. That’s her. She just wants me to be okay. That's it and that’s all. So if football was going to be the thing that took our minds off the mess for at least a few hours, then fine with me.
I felt like such an ass. I'd quickly convinced myself I had no idea who that kid with Paul was that night. And yeah, there were like a thousand kids in each grade at school, or whatever, but I did know him. Or know of him, really. I'd seen him––Rashad––in that uniform, and it'd made me think of my dad wearing his own at college. How my dad had looked proud in all those pictures.
“I mean, it's Paul. This is the same guy I’ve seen carrying my mom up the front steps, for God's sake.” I was thinking about that time Ma got trashed because it was her first wedding anniversary without Dad. Paul had been so
gentle. He'd taken the frigging day off just so she didn’t have to spend it alone. “She was tanked,” I said to Jill. “And he helped her home. I remember him putting her down on the couch and pulling the afghan over her.”
“Paulie's always been the good guy.”
“That's what I want to think.”
“Why does it automatically gotta be Rashad's fault? Why do people think he was on drugs? That dude doesn’t do drugs. He's ROTC, man. His dad would kick his ass. You do drugs, asshole.”
“Just a puff here and there, man, come on. I don’t do drugs."
"I’ve seen you smoking a blunt. Metcalf sold you that shit. Metcalf––a white dude, by the way. Man, that shit could have been laced with crack, or fucking Drano. You don’t know what you talkin’ ‘bout.”
Now I was thinking about how, if I wanted to, I could walk away and not think about Rashad, in a way that English or Shannon or Tooms or any of the guys at school who were not white could not. Even if they didn't know Rashad, even if for some reason, they hated Rashad, they couldn’t just
ignore what happened to him; they couldn't walk away. They were probably afraid, too. Afraid of people like Paul. Afraid of cops in general. Hell, they were probably afraid of people like me. I didn’t blame them. I'd be afraid too, even if I was a frigging house like Tooms. But I didn't have to be because
my shield was that I was white. It didn't matter that I knew Paul. I could be all the way across the country in California and I'd still be white, cops and everyone else would still see me as just a “regular kid,” an “All-American” boy. “Regular.” “All American.” White. Fuck.
There was a cabbie who straight up said he wouldn't pick me up if he saw me at night. That really pissed me off. I mean, I had heard Spoony talk about that
for years. I never took cabs (the bus was cheaper), but he was always going on and on about how he could never catch a cab because of the way he looked. But I didn't look nothing like Spoony. Nothing. I mean, I wear jeans and T-shirts, and he wears jeans and T-shirts, so we look alike in that way, but who doesn't wear jeans and T-shirts? Every kid in my school does. And sneakers. And sweatshirts. And jackets. So what exactly does a kid who "looks like me" look like? Seriously, what the hell?
My dad, my dad, had paralyzed an unarmed kid, a black kid, and I had had no
idea. My dad shot a kid. I mean, to me, my father was the model of discipline and courage. Sure, he was stern, and sometimes judgmental, but I always felt like he meant well. But to that kid––and now my head was reeling––to that kid, my dad was no different than Officer Galluzzo. Another trigger-happy cop who was quick to assume and even quicker to shoot.
My brother took the bus trip down to Selma. He begged me to go. Begged me. But I told him it didn't matter. I told him that he was going to get himself killed, and that that wasn’t bravery, it was stupidity. So he went without
me. I watched the clips on the news. I saw him being beaten with everyone else, and realized that my brother, in fact, was the most courageous man I knew, because Selma had nothing to do with him. Well, one could argue that it did, a little bit. But he was doing it for us. All of us.
Well, where was I when Rashad was lying in the street? Where was I the year all these black American boys were lying in the streets? Thinking about scouts? Keeping my head down like Coach said? That was walking away. It was running away, for God's sake.
I did not want to be a hero. I did not want to make any of what had happened in the last week about me. There was a guy who'd just spent six days in the hospital because the guy who'd been my personal hero for four years had put him there.
Pictures of me throwing up the peace sign, some––the ones Spoony feared––of me flipping off the camera. Carlos and the fellas had been cropped out. These images would have nasty comments under them from people saying stuff like, Looks like he'd rob a store, and If he'd pull his pants up, maybe he would've gotten away with the crime! Lol, and Is that a gang sign? Other pictures were of me in my ROTC uniform. Of course, those had loads of comments like, Does this look like a thug? and If he were white with this uniform on, would you still question him?
Me, Spoony, Carlos, English, Berry, and Shannon were in the front of the crowd, and all of a sudden, our arms locked and we were leading the way like—the image came to me of raging water crashing against the walls of a police dam. Marching. But it wasn’t like I was used to. It wasn't military style. Your left! Your left! Your left-right-left! It wasn’t like that at all. It was an uncounted step, yet we were all in sync. We were on a mission.