One of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions.
After a nearly all-white jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, that burden I wrote about last year feels a lot like a target. One that is easy to shoot at and has no consequences for doing so, even if the shooter takes your life.
Word that the Justice Department will review the Zimmerman case perked up the pall over my mood, even though the bar for federal intervention is high. President Obama’s statement was like a soothing tonic. “We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this,” he said. “As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.” The president will no doubt catch hell for that, just as he did for saying, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” But the weariness I feel will be slow to overcome.
I’ve written about the list of “don’ts” my mother gave me when I was just a year younger than Trayvon.
“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.
“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.
“Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse.
Because of assumptions and suspicions, black kids have to be “perfect” in how they dress and how they comport themselves in public. But the Zimmerman acquittal now makes it clear that justice for an innocent black child killed requires proof that he lived his life beyond reproach at all times.
What this means is that black adolescents cannot afford to be normal American teenagers. They cannot experiment with pot. They cannot fight in any way ever, even if it means protecting themselves from a stranger. They cannot take sophomoric pictures with middle fingers, bare chests or in silly gear. They can’t have improper conversations on social media. They can’t wear anything society views as menacing. And growing up, they can never ever make bad choices or mistakes — the types that teach life lessons, foster humility and build character.
As we’ve seen with the Zimmerman defense, any of those things can be used to put black children on trial for their own death. Never mind that they were profiled as “up to no good” or were pursued and confronted by an unidentified stranger. In the eyes of the defense, those children never have the emotions, reactions or fears of children. They are presumed guilty the moment they leave the safe confines of home.
Yet we need to be mindful of something else. That presumption of guilt doesn’t go away with the change of voice or the clearing of skin. It is never outgrown. And as a result of the Zimmerman verdict, black parents are holding their boys closer and tighter, no matter their age. “Be careful out there. Watch as well as pray,” my 71-year-old mother wrote me in a text message Sunday evening. “I pray for your safety everyday. Love you. Mom.”
The circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin have fascinated me from the very beginning. As a journalist, writing about the case was akin to fussing over one of those 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles of a forest. I dove into the official documents and video reenactments and statements. I wrote piece after piece asking questions about the case, about Zimmerman’s version of events and highlighting problems with his account.
As an African American, the case was personal. The killer of an unarmed black teenager doing nothing more than returning to where he was staying on a rainy evening had to be held accountable in some way. Any life should not be taken so easily or cheaply. I wrote more than 60 pieces seeking justice for Trayvon as if my life depended on it — because one day it might.
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