It's Not Just About Trayvon Martin
Editor's update, 7/13/13: A Florida jury today acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in Trayvon Martin's death. We'll be monitoring reaction and pointing you to must-reads, and encourage you to share your reaction as well. -- Julie
July 13, 2013 - Sanford, Florida, U.S. - A George Zimmerman supporter, who did not want to be identified, holds a sign outside of the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center Saturday. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen, in 2012. (Image: © Jacob Langston/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com)
I have not talked much about Trayvon Martin -– his death, George Zimmerman or the murder trial that has been going on in Florida –- for a number of reasons. For one thing, I think that armchair quarterbacking a murder trial is a bad idea. We are not privy to everything that goes on in the courtroom; each side has their own witnesses to support their case, so much of public opinion is based on factors that have relatively nothing to do with this specific incident and the media gets things twisted all of the time. Watching a livestream is not the same as being there, and ultimately, it’s what goes on in the jurors' minds that really matters. So I've left trying this specific case to the judge and attorneys in the courtroom.
However, there’s been so much public attention on this trial, as well as so much racial and social anxiety surrounding it, that one can’t help but be pulled into it on some level. I think we should be paying attention, because this case is as much about how American society views young Black men as it is about the loss of Trayvon’s life.
I have a Trayvon. In fact, I have two. My sons. They may have different names, but they fit the same basic profile: Black and between the ages of 18 and 35. That’s it. Black males in that age group are being killed and incarcerated at alarming rates, and while it is true that the Black community has to take responsibility for growing instances of Black on Black crime, much of White America has tried to turn its head, or deny any culpability whatsoever. The truth is that society views young Black men as dangerous, lazy and violent. It is a blanket statement that creates situations like what happened in Florida that ended in the death of a 17–year–old, unarmed Black boy.
As the parent of young Black men, I am acutely aware of how dangerous it is for them in the world. I hate to admit it, but often, when Mr. C goes out with his friends in the evening, I have trouble sleeping until he comes home. Although our other son lives away from us, I still can’t help but be concerned, because it’s more than just random violence that plagues our streets and our children. It’s also being perceived as a threat or a problem that puts them in harm’s way. As a parent, you try to prepare them to maneuver through what can prove to be a hostile environment. This was always a struggle for me, particularly with Mr. C., because he is probably one of the nicest young people that I’ve ever known. He is genuinely a kind soul, and I think that most people who know him would agree. The thought that anyone could ever see him as a threat was (and is) truly laughable. But, I know that they do, and it can be based on nothing but the color of his skin.
There is a phrase in the African-American community, “Driving While Black” (DWB), that refers to being pulled over by a police officer for no apparent reason. The odds of this happening increase if you are driving a nice car or in a nice neighborhood. No traffic violation, no suspicious behavior, no loud music ... no provocation necessary. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It happens all of the time. African–American parents know it’s coming, and prepare themselves and their sons for interacting with the police, because if you are Black and male in America, nine times out of 10, you will have a police encounter whether or not you have done anything wrong. Keep your hands visible; look the officer in the eyes; say “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir”; don’t just hang out -– "loiter" -- with friends, get to where you are going and go inside. I heard my father tell these things to my brothers, and I and my husband told them to our sons. I’m guessing that White families have similar discussions, but the difference is that for Black families it is a fact of life, not a suggestion just in case this happens. This instruction will be needed at some point -- not because all of our sons are bad, but because of racial profiling. They are all viewed the same, simply because of the color of their skin.
About a year ago, while we were still living up north, Mr. C. woke us up at about 1:30 in the morning, after being out with friends, to tell us that it had finally happened. His first DWB. We questioned him about the circumstances and he said that there was nothing out of the ordinary. He was a 21-year-old kid driving at 1:30 in the morning in a college town. Pretty normal. No warnings, citations, or tickets were written. No explanation given. They simply asked him for his identification, then let him go. He was fine, maybe a bit perturbed. On the other hand, Big Poppa and I couldn’t go back to sleep. We were so glad that we had taught him how to handle himself under these particular circumstances, but angry that here we were, in 2012, dealing with the same bigoted BS that our parents dealt with 40 years ago. And we were scared, no, we are scared for the safety and the future of our sons and their future sons who live in a country that views them and their worth in large part based on the color of their skin.
I can’t imagine what Trayvon Martin’s parents are going through. I will say that I applaud them for the grace and dignity with which they are handling this situation. I have cried and prayed for them over the past year since they lost their son. It just hit too close to home. Post-racial America? No, not really. Actually, that phrase makes my blood boil. It is a lie perpetuated by people who just want to make themselves feel better. We still live in a country wrought with bigotry, racism, and socioeconomic warfare. Instead of lying to ourselves, why don’t we try to make a difference? It would be painful, but real change is always difficult. It would take courage, but real change always requires bravery. It would take honesty, but real change always requires conviction. It would be nice, but I’m not going to hold my breath. God Bless America ... we really need it.