For black Americans, justice with an asterisk

I was strapping on a pair of bright red suspenders for a ’20s flapper party when “George Zimmerman: Not Guilty” flashed on my television screen.

This haze immediately came upon me. At once, so many parts of my identity — a New Yorker, a 28-year-old, a journalist, an all-around good guy — felt stripped away. All I was left with was this reductive feeling that made me feel sadness no different from any other black man in America.

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Dozens gathered on the streets of Oakland, California in protest hours after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.

Dozens gathered on the streets of Oakland, California in protest hours after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.

I was shocked by my shock. I spent my emerging adulthood in Florida and was familiar with the state’s broad self-defense laws. Expecting Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last week, I half-jokingly said to a friend: “Do you have your first question lined up to facilitate the upcoming national conversation on race?”

I realized just how haughty this question was when the verdict echoed from my television to my cellphone to my Twitter feed. Forget the national conversation. I needed one with myself.

How appropriate that I found myself dressed up at a ’20s party, escapist and pure fun in its fantasy. In the morning, I returned to the present. I found myself with a line from “Strange Fruit,” the Abel Meeropol poem about black men being lynched. The description of the trees from which they hung was immortalized when Billie Holiday sang the line: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”

I was haunted by how profound the metaphor was. There was the gruesomeness of overt racism that anyone could see. And beneath, there’s this systemic problem that prevents fully flowered equality. This is the dualism that compels black moms and dads to teach their boys that American justice, for them, comes with an asterisk.

It is the lesson that so many black men try not to believe, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

If I were to facilitate the national conversation of race regarding this case, I realized my first question would be: “Do we believe the justice system treats everyone equally?”

And the follow-ups: “When decisions are handed out that some feel unfairly target one person, how would you characterize that inequality? Is it blood on the leaves or blood at the root?”

The first question to myself was much more basic: Why is this case consuming me?

There were easy reasons. My first reporting assignment out of college was to cover life and politics in Trayvon Martin’s home town, Miami Gardens. My family just retired to a city not too far away from Sanford, where Zimmerman shot Trayvon.

And I’ve always resented how much I love my hoodies. Last year, I described it in an essay as the most comfortable and complex piece of clothing I own.

And then there was the reason I felt so bad even verbalizing: For most of my time in Florida, I was 5-foot-11 and weighed about 155 pounds. From the back, I was physically indistinguishable from Trayvon Martin. As part of my job, I walk around neighborhoods all the time. This could have been me.

What if I were walking home in the dark and I noticed someone following me? What if he came out and yelled, “What are you doing here,” as Trayvon’s friend Rachel Jeantel testified.

Would I even think to call the cops, who might just assume that a young black man might be suspicious?

Would I even do what I think I’d do? I like to think that I’d try to calmly explain my reason for being there, even though there was no reason to explain. I’d hope he’d apologize for conflating me with black punks ransacking the subdivision. Maybe we’d even have a beer summit.

But a part of me fears I’d be crippled by fear — mine, or his.

In my personal life, my response to being profiled and stereotyped might vary from pure rage, to dismissal, to being the explainer-in-chief on behalf of my people. And then, I place myself in the dark, walking home, being accosted by a stranger with no badge as if I were a common criminal.

Maybe I’d throw something at him. Maybe I’d stay calm.

But would it matter? What if I thought I was calm, but he thought he was in danger? And what if he shot me?

I woke up Sunday morning and had no desire for a national conversation on race because the situation still felt a little too real. I felt justified in my fear. And yet I felt wrong for even verbalizing them, fearing I might sound like a paranoid wacko.

I went for a walk to get my mind off everything, but my mind kept on walking through the details of the case.

I centered on the moment I knew that the defense had truly invoked a reasonable doubt.

During his closing arguments, defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked jurors to take a moment to reflect on everything that he said. Then, he remained silent for four minutes. Four minutes.

He pointed out that four minutes was the same amount of time between Trayvon’s call with Jeantel and the firing of the shot that would kill him. No one can know for sure what happened.

It reminded me of when Michelle Obama noted that her husband, as a black man, could be shot and killed indiscriminately at any time — so she needn’t worry greatly about attempts to assassinate the man who would be the first black president.

That is the lingering fear of being a black man in America: that there can be four minutes, in the dark, scared for your life, that can change it all. That death could happen suddenly, powered by the indiscriminate eye of prejudice. And when it happens to a 17-year-old boy carrying home some snacks, you find yourself with an inexplicable instinct of having to prepare.

There is the physical shock, the confusion, the rage that comes out in the parade of indignity on a news feed. And there is the mental craziness that comes with the realization that Mom and Dad might be right when they sat you down and told you about America. Pain on the leaves and pain at the root. And yet, we live. And we continue to walk on.

As I walked around my neighborhood, I hunched the way I typically do when my thoughts weigh heavily. Then, a man confronted me.

“Brotha,” he said, on his way to church. “Keep ya head up.”

I tried to walk again with my head held high, defying the fear that I find myself living in because of the color of my skin and reminding myself to be proud, for this was the pigment bestowed upon me by God.

 
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