I’m a smart, progressive, socially aware white woman, and I am ashamed of myself.
Last week I read a Facebook post that my college friend, Chuck, wrote, and I was ashamed that it never occurred to me what he has felt, and will feel, his entire life.
“I support Trayvon Martin. This is my wife's greatest fear for my son, Chas, when he becomes a teenager: being harassed by the police or rogue individuals. I am already teaching Chas how to act around police officers. I have personally been thrown in jail and handcuffed to a prison wall when I was driving a new car in a nice neighborhood. This happened to me when I was in college—an Ivy League school at that. I mean, what decade are we in anyway? This has got to stop! I am talking to all fathers out there. This tragedy can happen to me, my son, your son, anyone's son.”
In a general, intellectual sense I have always known about prejudice and racism, and I’ve understood that the kind of life approach Chuck wrote about is something many people of color have had to embrace out of necessity. Sure, we’ve all got our own personal stories—growing up as a Jewish girl, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I know first-hand about prejudice and the real outcome of the threat of hatred.
But rarely have I made that direct of a connection between such a tragic national story with race at the heart of it, as it did in the Trayvon Martin shooting, as I did in reading the words of my friend. Chuck took the self-portrait you see with this column as a means of standing in solidarity with the Martin family and in respectful, protesting memory of Trayvon’s death.
He also posted this image next to a shot of his own young son, Chas. However, drawing a line to protect some of their privacy, I decided to not include that image with this story in consultation with Chuck. But in seeing Chas’ smiling, sweet, little-boy face, it’s hard not to realize that Trayvon needs to be remembered as a child of mine, of yours and of the world.
What hit home the most is the idea that Chuck would need to teach his son—his beautiful, innocent, 8 year old son—how to speak to police officers so that it would give Chas the best chance of surviving that kind of encounter. An encounter with an officer of the law who Chas should look to for protection, not aggression based in racism. It’s a hard reality that shouldn’t have to be.
This issue of race is not particular to Florida, to Chuck, or to the African American community. The topic is one for discussion that must be embraced head-on because it is one of the largest issues—if not the single largest issue—affecting everything in this country, as it has for at least the last 150 years. Slavery, civil liberties, inequality, employment, education, crime, poverty, declining cities, health care, politics, you name it…race plays a factor in each.
Reading Chuck’s words, and reading all the accounts and fall-out news stories following the shooting of Trayvon’s by George Zimmerman one month ago, I reflected how we are certainly not immune to the effect of race and discrimination here at home.
Of course it’s almost impossible not to find the continued presence of race in situations like this all over as well—in Mississippi, three white men pleaded guilty last week to federal hate crimes in the 2011 beating death of an African-American man; in New York City, an unarmed Black teen was shot by a police officer in February. The list could go on. It seems no one is immune to the insidiousness of racial hate and difference.
The Trayvon Martin killing seems to have shined a searing light, though, on the issue of race. Was it his youth? Was it the idea that at first glance this seemed like unprovoked, vigilante justice permitted by ill-conceived laws? Is it that there has been no arrest made for such a horrific incident, even one full month after it occurred?
I’ve seen many a Facebook post in the last couple of days pointing out the tragic irony of how there has been no arrest in Trayvon’s shooting, and yet the anti-fur protester who flour-bombed Kim Kardashian was arrested immediately after attacking her. There’s been continued outcry in popular media and the sports world drawing more heat and attention on Trayvon’s case` with the Miami Heat athletes among others posing in hoodies to memorialize the Florida teen and keep the national conversation going.
I talked with Chuck about what we were witnessing and what reaction he’d gotten to his post. He reflected on what it’s been like for him growing up, feeling like he’s bridged many worlds—white, black, affluent, educated (both Ivy League and master’s level) and million-dollar business owner. And yet the Trayvon shooting reinforced that with a hoodie on, there are people that would only ever see “a brother in a hoodie from the streets.”
To Chuck, the biggest tragedy would be if this crime was not prosecuted. Even if Zimmerman, as is being claimed, feels remorse, there has been a crime. “This is but a single incident in the black experience,” he told me. “The mainstream, the people within the bell curve have to always make the ethical choice. When they don’t—when you let him go with the gun that killed that little boy, then you are communicating to me, to my son, that we are not valued. People are supposed to make the right decision. But they are not.”
He hopes, as do I, that with the mounting, continued outrage and outspoken attention Trayvon’s case is receiving that something will happen—in the Sanford, FL case and nationally. After all, as a recent CNN poll found, three out of four people feel that Zimmerman should be arrested for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Perhaps there's hope yet.
Despite that glimmer of hope, he said he still needs to be realistic. “I need to get my son past age 20 or 25. As a black male, if you can survive between now and 25, you’re safe. After 25, he’ll be outside the danger zone.”
I can’t imagine life in the danger zone. But we as a people need to learn how, at the least, to imagine it, especially if it isn’t our everyday experience, so that we can correct, fight against and change the prejudice — so that the Trayvons and the Chas-es of the world will no longer have to walk in fear.