Sunday, March 25, 2012

Race in America Part 1 - Trayvon Martin

“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start to think about robbery and then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." Reverend Jesse Jackson speaking at an Operation Push meeting in the 90s.

Following the Trayvon Martin story, I don’t know how I feel. My emotions are all over the place: I’m angry, I’m frustrated, and I am saddened by the travesty. Trayvon Martin should be alive. From all accounts, George Zimmerman’s zealous actions snuffed out the life of an innocent young man.

Like others, I am disturbed by the implications of this story. I fear for the Trayvon Martins in my life who are victimized for no other reason than Breathing While Black (BWB). Racism is real. Racial profiling is real. I know because I have experienced it. Everybody's incensed and outraged but who among us has not pointed a metaphorical finger at a Trayvon figure? Who hasn't come in contact with a Black male figure and felt our hearts quicken only to exhale sighs of relief when they pass us by just as Jesse Jackson said in the previous statement? Many of us, if not most of us, suffer from Scary Black Male Syndrome, a malady that is fed to us daily without question until tragedy strikes.

Like it or not, in a society that has cultivated the image of the Scary Black Male, hoodies and other styles of dress feed the myth. In my work, I know that my students are just wearing what’s trending, but a hooded figure is a more menacing one and its presence on boys of color in our society just stokes the stereotypical flame burning within too many of us. While I understand gravity of the situation before us, what I don’t understand is why the premature violent death of any child or young person is not a cause for us to be alarmed? What measures are taking to prevent tragedy rather than react in the aftermath?

In urban cities every day, our children’s blood spills into the streets. A couple of weekends ago in Chicago there were 58 shootings, 10 of them fatal. Among them was Aliyah Shell, a six-year old girl whose body was riddled with bullets in what appears to be a gang-related retaliation at someone in her family. She was six; she wasn’t gangbanging! On March 3, Bo Morrison, a 20 year-old African-American male was also killed in Slinger, Wisconsin. He, too was unharmed, but was shot to death because a man felt threatened. Bo had been at a party and was drinking, and the police were called because of the loud, rowdy behavior of the party participants and Bo tried to run and hide to avoid getting a citation. He hid on the man’s back porch, and when the man saw Bo, he shot him. According to the news accounts, Bo seemed to be a decent person who made a stupid mistake that cost him his life.

Trayvon Martin’s story is everywhere as it should be. But where are the online petitions, the marches and the vigils for the Aliyahs and Bos. Who do we take to the streets for, change our profile pictures and our status to reflect a sense of solidarity? How does the tragic death of one who will never have another birthday or see a graduation supersede that of another? I’m just asking.

Another thing that bothers me about this case, is focus on how to come out of a racist encounter alive. I have read the online letters to unborn sons, advice to black boys about how to avoid being the next Trayvon Martin, but nothing I’ve read gives them advice on how to stay alive in a situation with a trigger man who looks just like him, and is filled with so much self-hatred-- a bi-product of racism that killed Trayvon and allows his killer to be free--that the shooter devalues anyone who looks like him? We’re teaching them how to navigate through the racial jungle, but what about the intra-racial jungle awaiting them?

When George Zimmerman is charged, and the symbolic hoodies come off, then what? Will we go back to life before Trayvon just like we did with Troy Davis? We were outraged when Darion Albert, the Fenger High School student was beaten to death, but how much has changed? Is there a safer passage going to and from schools today? Do we know? Do we care? Darion’s death was thrust into the spotlight when the video of his beating went viral. But he would have been another casualty of urban violence had not the world been watching Chicago in its Olympic bid.

Is this a galvanizing movement for much needed social change in this country or is this just another trending topic for the day? Where do we go from here?


  1. Reading your piece reminded me that throughout western history, black-hooded characters were considered evil. People with hooded eyes are not to be trusted. If we call someone a "hood," they're a hoodlum--not a good thing. But we're supposed to have evolved, right? We're supposed to have ditched the mythologies of the past. The one myth we keep going is the one about race.

    1. Thank you for reminded about "hooded" characters and the "hood" It wasn't foremost in my mind when I wrote the piece, but it's there. It's scary to think how much we haven't evolved.