On Sunday, February 26, my family tuned in to the NBA All-Star Game—I enthusiastically rooted for the Eastern Conference to spite my two sons’ fervor for the West. Nearly 3,000 miles away from our Los Angeles home, a 17-year-old in Florida named Trayvon Martin was watching the game too.
We know now that Trayvon got hungry and left home for a pack of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Walking while black made him an instant suspect to neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who shot the youngster in cold blood.
I’ve followed the investigation into Trayvon's killing for a couple of weeks—I see the face of the innocent teenager whenever I look at my own 8- and 11-year-old sons. Both have been called the n-word and other racial slurs multiple times. And every black man I know is racially profiled—followed by security in stores and harassed by police—so I know all too well what racial prejudice has in store for my boys when they grow up.
Still, I still cried as I listened to the newly released recordings of the calls to 911 dispatch, which captured Trayvon screaming for help, begging for his life. Then comes a gunshot, and Trayvon’s cries stop. I've since had several nightmares in which I'm unable to keep my own screaming sons from being gunned down in similar circumstances. Many middle-class black parents I know have had a similar reaction—as have prominent commentators like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and The New York Times' Charles Blow.
Trayvon’s murder should remind us that America's black middle class remains on fragile footing, says Phillipe Copeland, a social worker and adjunct professor at Simmons College and Boston University. "We are incredibly vulnerable to violence in all its forms," he says. "The economic violence of the Great Recession; the state-sanctioned violence of stop-and-frisk; driving while black; 'trigger-happy policin',' as Marvin Gaye once sang; excessive punishment, misdiagnosing, and medicating our children in schools; and the psychological violence of white denial" have all contributed to the problem, he says. "You begin to feel that you can never really be safe anywhere."
I don’t think my sons are safe anywhere, and I often feel extreme anxiety over what might happen to them when they walk out the door each morning. But my boys don’t believe they can be gunned down like Trayvon. "I don’t think anything like this would happen to us because of the place we live," my 8-year-old told me last night after watching updates about the investigation on the evening news. "We’ve never heard of anybody getting killed on our street."
I'm glad he believes he's safe, but Trayvon was in a gated community, not an urban ghetto. Ruha Benjamin, assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Boston University, says middle-class black Americans cannot "buy our way out of racial violence." Benjamin, who has two boys of her own, says the reality is that our sons, "no matter how well-dressed, how well-spoken, might be in the wrong gated community with the wrong bag of threatening Skittles and get mowed down by someone who has decided, essentially, they are out of place."
A week before the story of Trayvon’s murder hit the national media, my Twitter and Facebook timelines were flooded with links to the Kony 2012 video and requests that I demand action for black children in Uganda. But when it comes to working for justice on behalf of a black child here in the United States, many of the millions of Americans that were fired up about bringing down Joseph Kony have been pointedly silent. "I thought it was just another story of a black kid getting shot," a friend told me.
It's hard to swallow such sentiments when I know that if Zimmerman had been a black man and Trayvon a white teen, Zimmerman already would have been indicted for murder. There would be no need for a Change.org petition calling for his arrest, or investigations by a grand jury, FBI, or the Department of Justice. Under the circumstances, those are all positive steps. But while the growing moral outrage is beneficial, cries for justice must go far beyond demanding Zimmerman's arrest.
"Once the limelight recedes, so [will] all the Facebook activism, op-eds, and prime-time reports," Benjamin says. "But the image of young black men as inherent predators will not fade away just because our attention does." She says sociologists have found that most Americans associate black skin with criminality. An experimental study [PDF] by Princeton professor Devah Pager concluded that "a white man with a criminal record is more likely to find employment than a black man without a record."
It can be difficult for many people to remember racism exists "with a black president or with the widespread cultural celebration of black athletes, entertainers, and other forms of tokenistic acceptance," Benjamin says. But when we hear the tape of Zimmerman saying Trayvon "has got his hand in his waistband and he’s a black male," we can’t ignore it anymore.
So will Trayvon’s murder become a tipping point and catalyze a movement toward racial healing in America? It’s possible, says Copeland, if we pursue justice for the sake of reconciliation, not revenge. After all, our entire society is affected by racism, not just black people, he says.
We need a “broader, much deeper, more radical justice that permeates our cultural norms and our social institutions," Benjamin adds, that can only happen "over several generations, and only then through a very concerted, deliberate effort to transform hearts and policies in such a way that recognizes the oneness of humanity." Until that happens, it will only be a matter of time till the next Trayvon Martin-style story is in the news. I can only pray that one of my boys won't be the victim.