Trayvon Martin‘s death is on tape. Anyone with a decent internet connection and a strong stomach can listen to his final moments. They’re heartbreaking. It would be nice to think that this was an isolated incident, that Trayvon’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman is something that has never happened before and could never happen again. Unfortunately, that’s just not true when it comes to being black and male in America.
Trayvon was a 17 year-old boy walking home from the store with a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea. It was raining, and he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, so like most people he pulled up his hood for the walk home. George Zimmerman saw him walking and called the police, claiming that Trayvon looked suspicious. Unsatisfied with the response that they would send someone to investigate, he took it upon himself to confront Trayvon. A scuffle ensued and the boy crumpled to the ground, a single gunshot wound piercing his chest.
A minute later police arrived, but it was too late to save Trayvon. Zimmerman spun a tale of self defense and for reasons that remain to be seen, the police department took him at his word. After all, it wasn’t like a young black male had a right to walk down the street without being harassed by some stranger with a chip on his shoulder and gun in hand. So they let Zimmerman tell them his tale, and they took Trayvon’s body away, but they didn’t even bother to canvass the neighborhood to see if he belonged to anyone. They didn’t do any drug or alcohol tests on Zimmerman, nor did they secure the crime scene. In fact, they didn’t even bother to run a background check on the man who had just confessed to killing an unarmed child. Police reports indicate that Zimmerman did not spend a night in jail for killing Trayvon.
Meanwhile, Trayvon’s parents only knew that he didn’t come home. They’ve since said that they thought that he might have been arrested. Not because he was a troublemaker, or because he had a police record. No, they just know that living while black in America means that some people will view your existence as suspicious, and that carries a much higher risk of arrest. In a society where phantom black people are convenient scapegoats (see: Susan Smith, Bonnie Sweeten, Charles Stuart, etc.) it stands to reason that Trayvon could easily fit the description of a suspect for something regardless of his actual behavior. After all racial profiling, particularly of young black males, is a common practice in American schools and by the police. Statistics recently collected by the U.S. Department of Justice showing an increased likelihood of racial profiling targeting black people in schools and by the police highlight math that Trayvon’s parents already know by heart.
I can imagine his parents preparing themselves for whatever police interactions might be ahead while they tried to prove their son was innocent. What they didn’t prepare for, couldn’t prepare for, was the news that their son was dead. Not because of an accident, either; he was dead because a strange man followed him, accosted him, and then shot him for the crime of being black and walking in a gated community. When the best case scenario is harassment by authority figures, and the worst case is death what kind of math makes things easier for a black mother of a teenage son?
When I first heard this story my mind went to my two sons, especially my oldest, who will be 13 in June. He’s a big kid, nearly my height and always pushing for some new measure of independence. Like Trayvon he’s happy in demeanor, a good student who occasionally messes around because he’s daydreaming, and fond of wearing hoodies. Like most kids his age he wears them on all but the warmest days, because they’re fashionable, comfortable, and an easy way to keep mom happy without looking like a dork. He goes to the corner store a few times a week, and–like Trayvon–he might put his hood up and take his time walking home. Because he’s a kid, and that’s what kids do. Like Trayvon, my son is a perfectly average kid navigating his life the best way he can. Unlike Trayvon, he has yet to run into someone like George Zimmerman and for that I can only be grateful. But the fact that it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen in the future.
The myths attached to black men in American culture that have left far too many people incapable of remembering that our sons are children. Somehow kids like Trayvon, like my son, like the boys I see at the playground, become grown men out to do harm to everyone once a stranger starts projecting their fears and biases onto them. They don’t see gangly bodies, peach fuzz, a sweet tooth, and a love of music. They see the scary monsters that racist ideologies have helped them create in their minds. It never occurred to George Zimmerman that from Trayvon’s perspective he was being followed by a strange man in a car, or that Zimmerman’s approach would frighten this boy walking home alone. Zimmerman cast himself first as the neighborhood’s protector and later as the victim, despite the fact that he initiated the confrontation and he was the only one with a weapon. Much like the rhetoric used to justify the slaying of Emmet Till in 1955, claims by Zimmerman’s defenders that he was trying to do the right thing ring hollow. Fifty-seven years later–after all the marching, praying, and legislating–another young boy was lynched in the south for the crime of being black.
The mother in me worries, not just for my son, but also for all the sons of my friends. The idea that the fat babies I’ve rocked, the wild toddlers I’ve chased, the half grown boys I’ve nagged about chores could wind up dead on a slab hurts me in ways that I can’t explain fully to anyone but another black mother. We walk tight ropes with our children, wanting them to experience life to the fullest while also wishing we could wrap them in a bubble of protection for the rest of their lives. Our sons don’t have to commit actual crimes, or even face a judge and jury to be executed. All they have to do is be black men in America, and if the police response to George Zimmerman’s claims of self defense are any indication? Their killers won’t even face a cursory prosecution. Instead, they’ll be sent home without so much as a slap on the wrist.
Trayvon Martin’s mother has lost a child that she carried and nursed and loved to a man that didn’t even see him as a real person. Trayvon Martin wasn’t real enough for Zimmerman to pause and consider that looking suspicious wasn’t a crime, or to ask himself what made Trayvon’s presence seem so disturbing. A 17 year-old boy carrying a bag of Skittles for his little brother, and a can of Arizona Iced Tea for himself home from the store never made it. Not because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had every right to be there, to take his time walking down the street on his way back from an errand. Trayvon Martin’s only crime was being black and male in America. That shouldn’t be a death sentence for anyone, but as every black mother knows, for our sons it just might be the worst thing that could happen to them.