Walking While Black

I’m sick to my stomach about the Trayvon Martin shooting that Jamelle Bouie mentioned here yesterday.

Over the weekend, Charles Blow at The New York Times (once again, my favorite columnist) wrote:

Trayvon had left the house he and his father were visiting to walk to the local 7-Eleven. On his way back, he caught the attention of George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain, who was in a sport-utility vehicle. Zimmerman called the police because the boy looked “real suspicious,” according to a 911 call released late Friday. The operator told Zimmerman that officers were being dispatched and not to pursue the boy.

Zimmerman apparently pursued him anyway, at some point getting out of his car and confronting the boy. Trayvon had a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Zimmerman had a 9 millimeter handgun….

One other point: Trayvon is black. Zimmerman is not.

Trayvon was buried on March 3. Zimmerman is still free and has not been arrested or charged with a crime….

As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home. This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them “suspicious.”

Here’s how Mychal Denzel Smith puts it at The Nation:

On February 26, during halftime of the NBA All-Star game, the 17-year-old high school junior went to a nearby store in the Orlando suburb where he was visiting his father and stepmother in order to buy some candy for his younger brother. He returned to his family a six-foot, three-inch, 140-pound corpse.

We know who killed him.

And as the white parent of an African American grade-school boy, I feel sick to my stomach with helplessness.

Yes, Bouie and others point out that while this story is racially charged, there are other elements as well. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic puts it perfectly:

The approach here is not "either it's about race or it isn't." It's "this is about race along with..."

(Follow him more generally to keep up with the emerging facts.) As The New York Times reports in its excellent roundup of the facts of the case, the Justice Department is looking into whether the local police have failed in their duties.

If the colors here were reversed, if a white man were dead by gunshot, do you think for a minute that the black man would be walking around free?

Some months ago, I wrote about the death of D.J. Henry, a Pace University quarterback with no history of trouble from an “exemplary” middle-class family, who died at the hands of someone who believed he was enforcing order. (A local TV station reports on the latest evidence released here; Boston-area radio reporter Philip Martin posts additional evidence here.) The black man is dead. The white man is walking around free. And I feel sick to my stomach.

You may not think so, but your brain is racist, as I wrote in December. It’s sexist. It’s full of all kinds of beliefs, unless we work consciously to offset the factory settings that we didn’t install, according to the neurologists and social psychologists. We may think we understand what we think and believe, but most of the time, our minds aren't telling us what they're doing. Why again did George Zimmerman think that teen looked menacing? He probably thinks he has a reason. I bet his brain has a different reason.

I feel sick to my stomach with helplessness, once again, as a white parent of an African American boy. My little man is 8, and most people guess that he’s 10 or 11. He’s a foot taller and much broader and more muscular than most other kids his age. His feet are already longer than mine, and I’ve got big feet. In just a few years, he’s going to look 16 or 18—the age when some people look at his skin color and, instead of seeing “child,” see “menace.”

Someday my young man is going to go for a walk, and I won’t be with him.

I feel sick to my stomach. 

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