Stir It Up
Boys in the hoodies
The merits of the case aside, what do we tell our black children?
Published: March 28, 2012
I'm obsessed with the Trayvon Martin case. Maybe it's the innocent aura that seems to project from his photos. He looks absolutely cherubic in the one where he's wearing a hoodie — the garment that may have helped seal his doom.
In case you've been in a coma these past few weeks, Trayvon Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old African-American boy gunned down in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando, on Feb. 26 by self-appointed neighborhood watch vigilante George Zimmerman. Martin was walking to his father's girlfriend's house after going to the store to buy Skittles candy and iced tea. Zimmerman — white father, Peruvian mother — was subsequently released by police with little investigation. His freedom has put Florida's "Stand Your Ground" gun law in the spotlight, engendered a national uproar and brought probes from a state grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department. The law gives anyone, anywhere, the right to use deadly force if they feel their life or safety is in danger.
However, there is no way Zimmerman should have felt in danger as he cruised around in his truck carrying a loaded 9 mm pistol. When he spotted the 140-pound Martin, Zimmerman called 911. The operator told him, "We don't need you" to follow him.
The case raises so many questions in my mind that I pore over every tiny piece of information trying to understand how it happened and how police could handle it so badly. Maybe some of my concern is rooted in the fact that my 14-year-old daughter will be vacationing in Florida in a couple of weeks with a friend and her family. I'm wondering if I should add more to the usual parental admonitions about safety. Should I talk to her about not getting into situations where someone could claim they feel threatened? Should I underscore her race and tell her that she could be in danger because of it?
These are the kinds of conversations black parents and their children have been having in America for decades if not longer. In the wake of the Trayvon tragedy, one news commentator talked about how, when his family moved to an upscale neighborhood, his father told him not to run because police would find a black kid running through the neighborhood suspicious — and certainly don't run while carrying something.
Is it just black boys who need that admonition? I spoke to a friend who raised a boy and a girl as a single mother. She told me that she gave her son more warnings about how to behave safely around police and white people than her daughter. She talked to him about always keeping your hands in view when pulled over for a traffic stop. She told him to avoid driving around with a car full of his friends, which is a magnet for people who think young black men are suspicious.
I spoke to another friend who says he didn't have the conversation directly with his two sons, but they had pretty much picked up on the message through their friends.
I remember hearing a commentary once about Arthur Ashe, the great tennis pro and civil rights activist. One of the points made in the commentary was that Ashe was such an outstanding person ... well, who knows what he could have accomplished if he hadn't had to spend so much of his time worrying about racial issues. With that in mind, I've tried to not overburden my daughter about race. She knows she's black and what that means in America, and as issues come up that involve race I give her my perspective. But unlike my father, who told me I have to be three times as good as the white guy to get recognition for something, I don't lay that one on her.
Maybe it's more of a guy thing. In the Higher Ground column I also write for Metro Times, I recently wrote about Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, which argues that drug laws, disproportionately used to prosecute young African-American men, have created a permanent underclass with the stigma of a felony drug record. The offender who tries to go straight can't find work, is ineligible for federal housing or education funds and often ends up in a revolving door in and out of prison. These young men may be guilty of using drugs, but their white peers who are just as likely to get high don't get arrested for it at nearly the same rates as blacks.
Trayvon Martin is another reminder of how young black males are scapegoated, feared, devalued and attacked. How they are guilty until proven innocent, and in the case of Martin, apparently executed. Zimmerman made a statement to police that he felt threatened and defended himself – one report Monday said that Martin attacked first. Maybe he was just standing his ground. Another report said the teenager had been suspended from school for possessing a bag with marijuana residue in it. This thing is going to go through major contortions – including attempts to discredit Martin.
It seems to me that when someone invokes the "stand your ground" law, there should be an investigation to ascertain whether they were justified, rather than the cops just taking the shooter's words — as seems to be the case with Zimmerman. I'm pretty sure that if Martin had somehow successfully defended himself, gone upside Zimmerman's head with his can of ice tea and killed him, there would have been an investigation. There would have been questions as to whether he was truly threatened. He would have been drug-tested. And Zimmerman's family would have been notified immediately.
It's clear from the transcript of the 911 tape that Zimmerman had a profile in mind when he saw Martin. He told the operator Martin was wearing a hoodie and added: "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about."
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