One day when I was a mere child sitting in the barbershop and waiting my turn, an elderly gentlemen said to me, “son, there are three things you should never forget. Never forget about God, never forget where you come from, and never forget that you are a black man. If you forget about God, he will remind you, if you forget where you come from, people will remind you and if you forget that you are black, the world will remind you.” More than 20 years later, those words have stuck with me. I may have faltered on the first two once or twice but as far as the color of my skin is concerned, society has reminded me of my blackness time and time again.
Still, I have tried my best to look at everything from a subjective point of view. I have tried to view the world from other people’s perspectives and avoid “playing the race card.” Yet, there are moments when I can only view the world from the perspective of a black man, because quite frankly, I have no choice. These are the moments when the world reminds me of my blackness, and this is one of those moments.
Over the past 17 months, I have watched along with the rest of America as the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman saga unfolded. From the initial protests to the final verdict, I watched an all too familiar story play out.
A wide range of people have asked my opinion about the case over the past year, and I have generally tried to stay away from race during those discussions, but inside, I have always fully understood the role of race in this saga. To be truthful, I do not think that Zimmerman consciously followed and shot Trayvon Martin because he was a young black male, I believe he followed and confronted Trayvon Martin because of how society has taught him (and us) to view black men.
Trayvon was not profiled because of his own actions but because he represented a segment of the population that is generally feared by the rest of America. While it may have been Zimmerman that was arrested, it was ultimately the reputation of Trayvon Martin that went on trial. It was not what the defense proved Trayvon did that justified Zimmerman’s actions, but rather what they made the jury believe Martin was capable of doing that decided the case. Far too often in the court of law, perception becomes the reality, and the reality is that we as black men have to always remember that our actions and words will be viewed differently than our non-black counterparts. If we do not, the world will surely remind us.
As a supporter of the Castle doctrine and other self-defense based laws, I watched with horror as Zimmerman used the law to justify using deadly force against an unarmed teenager, while Marissa Alexander gets sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in the air to scare off an abusive spouse. I wish I could stop thinking about the drastic inconsistencies in the justice system and believe in the meritocracy I so long for but the voices of Trayvon Martin, Howard Morgan, Oscar Grant, Randy Prince and Troy Davis call out to me. They remind me that I am, and always will be a black man.
The question now is where do we go from here?
First and foremost, the Stand Your Ground law has to be revisited and at a minimum, amended. It is downright preposterous and offensive to those of us with reasonable intellect to believe that you can justify Zimmerman’s actions or Michael David Dunn firing into a SUV full of unarmed teenagers, while Marissa Alexander is not one shown one ounce of mercy. I believe and support the notion that everyone has the right to protect themselves when they reasonably believe their lives are in danger; however, danger cannot be defined as simply being in the presence of a Black male.
Second, take a moment to reflect. As much I may want to blame society for the murder, prosecution, and conviction of Trayvon Martin, I can’t reasonably point fingers at anyone without pointing at least one at the mirror. It was not simply the reputation and perception of Trayvon Martin that went on trial these past few weeks; it was a trial over the perception of black men in America. This is not the first time that the perception of black men has been tried and convicted in the court of law, not even close; it happens every day in courtrooms across America. This perception is not merely a creation of the media, everyone has contributed to its assembly; myself included.
The truth is that someone’s perception of black men has been shaped by my actions. That perception very well may end up in the jury pool that decides whether or a not a young brother is thrown in jail over minor drug charges, or determine whether an overzealous neighborhood watch captain decides to follow an unfamiliar young black male walking through their neighborhood. As much as I may want to downplay race or believe that it doesn’t impact my life, I must always remember that first and foremost, I am a black man. If not, then society will surely remind me.
We should all use this moment to ask ourselves how to prevent this from happening again. America has lost another son to preventable gun violence and old wounds have been re-opened. While we must respect the rulings of the court, we don’t have to accept a deeply flawed law or system. It is my hope that the Zimmerman verdict is not the end of a discussion but rather a starting point to have an honest conversation about the justice system and the role of race in it.