You've probably seen the news stories by now. Trayvon had walked to the store to get Skittles and an Arizona iced tea on the night of February 26th. On his way home, roughly 70 yards from his father's house in Sanford, Florida, he was gunned down by a volunteer neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman is claiming self-defense even though he outweighed Trayvon by 100 pounds, was armed with a loaded handgun, and followed Trayvon despite the 911 operator telling him not to.
The case will soon be a month old, Zimmerman has not been arrested, and young Trayvon Martin is dead.
When I first heard the recordings of the 911 calls from that night, I got a knot in the pit of my stomach. My next reaction was a heat I felt course through my body as I got angry. Why is Zimmerman not in jail? AND, after hearing more about his history, why was he ever authorized to carry a weapon? Furthermore, who ever thought it was a good idea for this guy to do neighborhood watch?!
Why should I care, and why should I, a middle-aged white woman, write about this?
Well, you see, like Trayvon's mother, I am the mother of young, black men. Like Trayvon's mother, my 17-year-old son often asks if he can walk a couple of blocks down to the store to buy some snacks. Like Trayvon, my son wears his pants low and often wears a hooded sweatshirt. Does this make him a criminal?
In today's America, it is his blackness that makes him a criminal.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. Maybe it's something along the lines of, "How can you say your son is a criminal just because he's black? I'm not racist. My friends aren't racist. I have black friends. We have a black President. Yada, yada, yada."
Then I challenge you this: Close your eyes and think of the words drug dealer. What image comes to mind? Most often it will be the indelible image of a young black man in his saggy pants that has been imprinted on your mind by the media.
As much as we would like to stick our heads in the sand and believe we are living in a post-racial America, it just isn't so. All you have to do is go search for the story of Trayvon Martin's murder in Florida newspapers, read the insensitive, ignorant, racist comments left by people who apparently think they are invisible on the internet, and you will quickly know that racism is alive and well in America.
To summarize the gist of the comments: Zimmerman should go free because young black men kill white people all the time (a statistical untruth) and you don't see white people protesting about it.
I am flabbergasted by this line of reasoning, but one thing I know for sure; we have not transcended race. In fact, I think we need a big "come to Jesus" moment around race. Instead of continuing to tiptoe around the issue, afraid to talk about it, I think it's time for some serious, sustained dialogue.
If I were Trayvon Martin's mother, first of all, I would want my son back. I would be devastated at the loss. I'm talking about the crippling kind of agony one feels when something tragic happens to someone you love. I don't know how I would function, but this I know for sure; I would want justice. I would want Zimmerman dead, but I would settle for having him locked up. I would want him to get his day in court. I would want answers.
There is a key difference between me and Trayvon's mother though. I'm white and she's black. There are certain rights and privileges that I take for granted that Trayvon's mother probably does not. It's called white privilege. I grew up being told that if I was in trouble, I should find a friendly police officer to help me out. A police officer was your friend.
Now, if you're sitting there saying, "Huh? What are you talking about?" you probably have white privilege. If you have never been stopped by the cops for "Driving While White" or because you were in the "wrong" part of town, you have white privilege. Be thankful. You're life is easier because of it.
As a white mother of African American sons, shamefully, I have to admit that it took me a long time to recognize that my firmly held beliefs about my rights as a citizen would not be applied equally to my sons. When they were babies I kissed their pudgy caffé latte cheeks and could not understand how the world would not love my sons as much as I do. When I sent them off to kindergarten, I did not recognize that they would not be afforded the same opportunities to participate in class that I had when I was growing up. (There are numerous studies showing the differences between how often white, female 4th graders and black, male 4th graders are called upon to answer questions.) And, now that they are young men, I warn them about hanging out in certain areas, and it frightens me to think that, because of my white priviledge, I may not have adequately prepared them for what to do if they are stopped by the police.
Neither one of my sons has an arrest record, but as the case of Trayvon Martin shows, you don't need to BE a criminal. You just need to LOOK like one.
And, apparently, that is all the justification George Zimmerman felt he needed to murder Trayvon Martin. What does it say about our criminal justice system and our society if Zimmerman is not arrested and charged?
The old remnants of racism, white hoods, burning crosses, and a hangman's noose, may be gone, but new forms of racial control have emerged to take their place. Nowhere is racial inequality more prevalent that in our criminal justice system. There are two dramatically different criminal justice systems in America, one if you're white and one if you're black. In 2000, a Human Rights Watch report found that in some states, black men are incarcerated for drug crimes at rates twenty to fifty times higher than white men even though the rates of drug use and sale are similar regardless of race.[i] Basically, cops don't tend to go into college dorms to arrest white students for drug use and possession, and if Lindsay Lohan was a black man, we can presume she would have been sent off to prison a long time ago.
Would Zimmerman be in jail right now if he was black? I can't say for sure, but I'm going to venture a "yes." Studies have repeated shown that at every level of the criminal justice system, African Americans are disproportionately stopped and frisked, arrested, charged, found guilty, and sentenced compared to their white counterparts and it has little to do with their rate of offending. It depends a lot more on who is perceived to be a criminal. Who LOOKS like a criminal? Who is disposible in our society?
So, you see, if I was Trayvon's mother I would probably feel frustration and hopelessness toward the criminal justice system. I am not his mother, however, so I can only imagine myself in her shoes. Those of us with white privilege need to think long and hard about this. What if it was your son? The administration of the law applied to the least of us affects all of us. It defines who we are as a society. Are we really okay with defining a particular race as criminal, locking them away in disproportionate numbers, and systematically eliminating them through the death penalty, life without parole, or, in the case of Trayvon, vigilante murder?
[i] Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice, Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, HRW Reports vol.12, no.2 (New York, 2000)