Walking on the train platform this morning, a young man wearing a heather gray hoodie rushed quickly by me brushing my arm as he shot past. He simultaneously startled me out of my pre-caffeine morning stupor. In rapid fire succession my thoughts bounced from “I am Trayvon Martin” to “If Massachusetts was a Stand Your Ground state, could someone like a George Zimmerman claim they felt threatened by the young hoodie clad man from such seemingly innocuous physical contact” to “I am not Trayvon Martin” as I noticed the whiteness of the young man’s jaw line. This brief encounter jarred me.
It has been just over a month since the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was handed down and George Zimmerman was acquitted. I, like many Americans, was shocked and angry at the verdict. I question the functionality of the jury system in our country – having served on several juries both criminal and civil, I have felt for some time that our jury system is broken.
Yet it is not just our judicial system that has brought us to this point in our history. It is the fabric of our society that still feeds on racist ideologies. We live in a nation of Trayvons, young African-American boys and men who are marginalized and disenfranchised from main stream America; feared because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear and the zip code in which they were born. I am left wondering how far have we really come. When will this centuries’ long fear of black men and war against them ever end in our American society?
In response to the George Zimmerman verdict, our President has suggested we have a national dialogue on race and racism. A good place to start would be for Americans to understand and admit that race played a factor in the killing of Trayvon Martin and the freeing of George Zimmerman. What if that February night it was Tracy Martin who went out for skittles and iced tea? While driving back home, he happens upon a suspicious looking (read different than me) white teenage boy wearing a hoodie over his Red Sox baseball cap. What if the events played out as they did that February night between Trayvon and Zimmerman and the end result was a white teenage boy lay dying on the ground from a single gunshot at the hands of a black man? Take everything you know about the Zimmerman case and picture Trayvon as a 17 year old white boy and Zimmerman as a dark skinned male such as Tracy Martin. Do you think the results in this case would be the same? There is no doubt in my mind in that case, Tracy Martin, an African-American man, would have been arrested at the scene and the same jury that freed George Zimmerman with all the same evidence and testimony would have convicted a black man of murder. Race was a factor in this case from the moment Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s paths crossed, actually even before.
For some people in our country it is difficult to see the underlying race issues because they can not identify with Trayvon Martin. Many people including our President have tried to help the American public identify with Trayvon Martin and countless of other young black men who are lost to violence each year by showing us how they relate to the Trayvons of our country on a personal level. That is exactly what President Obama attempted when he said: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
For me, one of the difficult things and reasons I cannot shake the image of Trayvon in his hoodie is that I can relate. When I see Trayvon and look into his eyes, a series of images flash before me. Like our President, I see the image of the son I did not have, he would have looked something like Trayvon; I see the man in my life as he was 30 years ago, yes he could’ve been Trayvon; I see the faces of our nephews ages 2 – 20, any one of them could be Trayvon; and as someone who has volunteered as an after school teacher and mentor in the Boston Public Schools for the last six years, I see the faces of my students, Kevin, Bishop, Laquan, Rishtly, DeShawn, Jaydee, Luckenberg, Ronnie and countless others. That is what sticks with me.
It disturbs me knowing that some will never know or even care to know that Kevin is the youngest of six children, all five of his older siblings have gone on to college (his parents will accept nothing less than that from each of their children) and Kevin wants to study engineering at MIT; that Bishop is in one of BPS’s gifted and talented programs, a middle schooler with a temperament as sweet as he is intelligent, Bishop has a keen interest in history and social justice; that Laquan is a natural leader, excited to be part of the mentoring program, he is a gifted athlete who worries about the urban drama being played out on the streets around him and hopes to have a career in the NFL; that Rishtly, who is painfully shy and would barely utter a word at the start of the semester, contributes to class incessantly by the end of the semester, and wants to study aeronautics; that Jaydee is a gifted and talented artist already at the age of 12.
Inside each of my students I see the gifts and talents each of them possess; I see the possibilities of their futures; I see this and so much more while recognizing that as young men of color that reaching their full potential will be more difficult simply because in our America, fifty years after the civil rights movement, their lives are still oftentimes viewed as having less value than that of their white counterparts. For as far as our society has come, there are still too many who will judge them simply by the color of their skin. This is why, when I see a picture of Trayvon Martin, I do not see simply Trayvon but the faces of countless others who could far too easily become the next Trayvon.