Between Barack and Trayvon

 It seems so long ago now.  I remember the tears I shed as I witnessed something I never thought that I would live to see – the election of the first black president of the United States. Among all of the hoopla and emotion that those historic events generated, I thought about my two youngest children – an eight year old daughter and a son who was one month short of his fifth birthday on Election

Albert Samuels Ph.D Guest columnist

Albert Samuels Ph.D
Guest columnist

Day, 2008. In the first presidential election that they were old enough to pay attention to, not only did a Black man wind up ultimately being elected, but a woman proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that gender should henceforth never be seen as a barrier to attaining the highest office in the land. Tears welled up not simply because I witnessed history; rather, they came from a sense of boundless hope for our country. Finally, as a Black parent, I could look my children in the eyes and tell them what is drilled into every American – the idea that “In America, you can be anything you want to be” – without feeling that I wasn’t being completely straight with them.

On Saturday, July 13, 2013, after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murder in the February 26, 2012 slaying of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, I cried again. This time, my thoughts went to my children again – but especially, my son. He was playing a video game in the next room as the verdict was read – being a nine-year-old boy without a care in the world. I shudder at the implications of what this verdict means for him and young Black boys just like him. And the message for little Black girls isn’t much better. In that verdict, our nation communicated to Black Americans in language that was difficult to misinterpret:  that our lives – especially those of our young people – simply do not matter as much as the lives of White Americans.

The implications extend well beyond the facts of this single case. Trayvon Martin, armed with only a pack of Skittles and an iced tea, was walking home from the store, minding his own business. He intended to go home to watch the NBA All-Star game. However, because of his race, George Zimmerman, “Mr. Neighborhood Watch” and wannabe cop, assumed that “he must be up to no good” if he was in his neighborhood. Disregarding the advice of the 911 dispatcher, he takes it upon himself to pursue Trayvon Martin with a loaded weapon and initiate a confrontation with him that results in his death. Worse yet, Zimmerman then concocts a fanciful tale of how his actions were justified because he was acting in self defense, an argument that was cynically underwritten by a perverse panoply of laws on the books in the state of Florida that encourage George Zimmerman’s brand of vigilantism. Furthermore, at his trial, Zimmerman’s lawyers essentially murder Trayvon Martin a second time by portraying him as a menacing predator who somehow deserved his own death. Not only is Zimmerman acquitted of this heinous crime, he is actually celebrated as a hero in the right-wing universe of the American political and cultural landscape – as if he is white America’s sweet revenge for the O.J. Simpson trial of two decades ago.

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin through the heart. But on July 13, 2013, the six-person jury in Seminole County, Florida shot Black America through the heart metaphorically in the same way that George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin literally.

Baton Rouge artist Antoine GHOST Mitchell portrait of Trayvon Martin

Baton Rouge artist Antoine GHOST Mitchell portrait of Trayvon Martin

It was if the jury was saying to Black America that even though the nation has a Black president, you people still are not equal. And just in case you harbor the fanciful notion that a new day has dawned in America, we are here to show you what time it really is.

Despite the deeply emotional effect that Obama’s election had on me personally, I never fell for the media’s declaration of the  “post-racial America” that his successful campaign had supposedly ushered in. From the start, I was deeply suspicious of that sentiment – primarily because it was coming almost exclusively from white people, I smelled a rat. Even in the midst of the euphoria about “Hope and Change,” I never believed that the election of one man would somehow magically transform systemic, seemingly intractable layers of structural inequality that still lock a disproportionate segment of Black Americans outside the gates of access to true equal opportunity and prosperity. Nor was it fair to put a burden that great on any one man in the first place. Moreover, we did not need the verdict in the George Zimmerman case to be reminded of the persistence of racial inequality in America – especially in our criminal justice system.

But the reason this verdict cuts so deeply to the heart is because rarely are we reminded so starkly of the distance that we still need to travel as a society. The premature celebration and after party that took place when Obama was elected has officially been called off. Reality has reasserted itself.

The reason this case resonates so profoundly within Black America is that far too many Black Americans – especially men – realize that they could have easily been in Trayvon Martin’s shoes. I recall a summer job during my college years as a door to door salesman in suburban Chicago. The neighborhoods I canvassed were overwhelmingly White. Several times, various residents called the police on me because they considered me a “suspicious character” in the neighborhood; my ID badges proving that I worked for a legitimate company apparently were insufficient to allay their fears. In one instance, a White woman came bursting out of her front door, demanding to know what I was doing on her street. When I explained that I was a college student selling educational materials to earn money to complete my education, she replied, “Well, I thought you were trying to steal my car.”

My story is hardly unique. Black people trade stories like these among themselves all the time. When we talk about racial profiling, it’s not just a theory – it is the lived experience of Black communities. Yet, when Black people try to explain this reality to the larger society, our words are constantly discounted, disparaged, denied, and ignored. We are instead offered other supposedly “reasonable” explanations for what happened to us. Whites appear not to realize how profoundly they insult black people whenever they do this: it is as if they are saying that black people are not competent enough to interpret their own experience. It is like being victimized twice – in the same way when a rape victim is treated as if the assault really was her fault and she had it coming.

And, as the 2009 arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates shows, even being a professor at Harvard University, one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, offers no protection from racial profiling. Cambridge, Massachusetts police arrested Dr. Gates for trying to break into his own house!  One of his own neighbors called the police on him, thinking he was a suspicious character! Moreover, when his friend, President Barack Obama, said that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly,” the White House found itself under tremendous pressure to backpedal – never mind the fact that the Cambridge police did act stupidly when it arrested a man for breaking into his own house. One might have hoped that if someone as prominent as Dr. Gates could be racially profiled, then maybe America may finally pay attention. But the “Beer Summit” soon faded from the news, and with it, so did any national attention to the issue of the ease with which our society sees Black men as potential criminals. If the arrest of Henry Louis Gates could not force a serious reexamination of racial profiling, then certainly a kid like Trayvon Martin never had a chance.

By the way, the lesson of this verdict does not bode well for Black girls either. The George Zimmerman verdict not only slaps Black men in the face, but it represents a broadside to the nation’s most vulnerable populations more broadly – the very groups that Black women find themselves disproportionately counted among. The message is that the weakest members of our society cannot necessarily count on the law to protect them even when they are the victims of crime. This is true despite the fact that these groups are the very people most in need of the protection of the state from threats to their safety.

All of this brings me back to my children. One day, my son won’t just be a happy go-lucky kid simply playing video games: he will be a teenager like Trayvon was when his life was tragically cut short.  Will society see him as a threat? Will White women hold their purses tighter when they see him walking across the street because they think that he’s a thief? Can he expect to be pulled over if he’s driving a nice car because some cop thinks, “You must be a drug dealer, because you couldn’t have possibly worked for this!” When my daughter reaches into her purse at a local store, will she encounter a clerk who is visibly surprised when she does not pull out a food stamp card to pay for her purchase? Will she have to have the same conversations with her sons that my generation still feels obligated to have?

Ella Baker said it best: “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”

By Albert Samuels, Ph.D.
Guest Columnist

Albert Samuels, Ph.D. is professor and chair of political science and geography at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge.

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