By now, everyone knows the name Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American boy killed while walking through a gated community carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea by a white hispanic man who claimed Trayvon looked suspicious.
There are lots of reasons this case sparked national attention, chief among them, the role that race, fear, and hostility play in our justice system.
Several noted luminaries -- among them Tulane University professor and host of her own MSNBC show, Melissa Harris-Perry -- have compared this tragedy to the murder of Emmett Till – a 150-pound 14-year-old Black boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by two adult white men for an alleged flirtation with a white woman. Ironically, Till encountered the white woman at a local store where he had gone to buy candy.
Neither of these horrendous acts resulted in the swift carriage of justice. Neither was meted out in criminal convictions for any of the killers. Neither was deemed significant enough to warrant nationwide mainstream media attention until alternative media had already vaulted the cases onto the national stage – Jet Magazine in the case of Emmett Till and social media in the case of Trayvon Martin.
Both cases involve black boys -- children doing what millions of children do everyday, going to buy candy -- yet somehow ending up dead at the hands of assailants who determined the boys' actions provided sufficient basis for justifiable homicide. And both cases lacked a full and comprehensive investigation by local law enforcement and, by extension, the local justice systems before the assailants were deemed “innocent” of any wrong doing.
In 1955, there were Jim Crow Laws. In 2012, there are Stand Your Ground Laws. When combined with racial animous, fear, and hostility both provide the cover that enable overzealous men to commit atrocities with impunity.
The sense that blacks lack equal protection under the law is the single most prevailing fear that is consistent in the lives of parents of African-American boys and men.
African-American parents have a long history of teaching their children, particularly their boys, the need to navigate in the white world with a keen awareness of and adherence to “the rules” -- a code of conduct that differs from that followed by their non-black peers. The conversation or “the talk” is had across the nation in black homes of all socio-economic strata. It is one of the constants understood by all African-Americans – from the black janitor to the black Harvard professor and even to the black president of the United States.
More than 50 years ago, Emmett Till's mother testified on the stand that she warned her son before he left Chicago on his trip to the South that he had to be extra careful. For 400 years African-Americans have had to warn their children to be extra careful all the while observing “anecdotal” evidence that demonstrates the myriad ways disproportionately punitive measures are taken against blacks for committing the most minor real or perceived infraction.
In 2012, its heartening to see that clearly the outrage spawned by the Trayvon Martin case is being expressed across racial lines. It was a white man, Kevin Cunningham, who initiated the Change.org petition that garnered over 2 million signatures and helped to make the story go viral. But it is worth noting that based on media observations, only a small percentage of protestors at rallies across the nation are white. Dick and I attended one such rally in Los Angeles at Lemert Park. Among the 200 to 300 protestors, there were less than 50 who were not black and only 10 of those people were white.
So while the story may have enraged the entire nation there is a decided racial tone in the expression and degree of outrage and perhaps in the drivers behind the outrage itself.
In his book, Privilege, Power, and Difference, sociologist Allan G. Johnson wrote of an observation he noted over time while teaching university students on the topic of racism. According to Johnson, his white students were more apt to see racism as the reprehensible act of a single individual. His African-American students saw it as part of a larger system or pattern of inequity. Johnson argues, “European-Americans tend to feel that systematic racial inequities marked an earlier era, not our own."
Although more than 50 years separate the Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till cases, many African-Americans believe the underlying issues of racism, fear, and hostility towards blacks continue to drive policy decisions at all levels of American government. The too often unaddressed elephant in the room is the lack of empathy or action taken to address the alarming rate of young black men victimized by violence in our country. For example, gun violence is the number one cause of death of black men between the ages of 18 and 34. Where is the public outcry?
Emmett Till's murder and the acquittal of his murderers – one later admitted to the killing to a reporter -- is credited with sparking the Civil Rights movement. It is still too early to predict the impact of the Trayvon Martin case. Perhaps this will be our 21st Century Emmett Till case, lighting a fire under a community that has long-standing unresolved issues with the justice system. Perhaps it will begin a healthier debate on long overdue gun control issues. At a minimum, let's hope this tragedy puts a spotlight on the danger of allowing fear and hostility to drive social policy.
Publisher, LA Progressive