Trayvon Martin could have been me, uttered President Obama in a speech on Friday at the White House. President Obama reflected on the Zimmerman verdict by saying much, much more, most of it resonating with millions of black men and women:
When you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there is a lot of pain around what happened here, I think its important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue though a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing locks click on the doors of cars... There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.
Powerful words coming from the most powerful person in the world. Words that remind us that it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re black, many people will first see the color of your skin and make snap judgments because of it.
Former major league baseball player Doug Glanville wrote a book titled "The Game From Where I Stand" and in it described going to a Mercedes-Benz dealership to buy a car. He walked into the dealership wearing athletic warm-ups and wanted to purchase one of their higher end cars. The salesman, only seeing a black man and not knowing who Doug Glanville was– steered him away from the higher end car he wanted to buy and toward the entry level model. Ultimately, Doug spoke with a manager and the situation was remedied, but it is another anecdote on how the color of our skin frames how we are viewed by others.
I have experienced being followed in a department store (Saks), of hearing car doors lock when I walked by and of being next to women who were in fear of me on an elevator. My feelings in those situations went from shock or anger to “are you (expletive deleted) kidding me?!!?” Roughly ten years ago, at a Chicago Lexus dealership I inquired about a financing deal on a lease and was told that one had to have good credit to receive it, implying– with the only information he had being the color of my skin– that I didn’t have it. This stuff does happen– so when a teenager like Trayvon Martin is approached by a vigilante because he looks “suspicious,” we realize that it was the color of his skin that made him suspicious.
Ultimately, if George Zimmerman wasn’t suspicious of Trayvon Martin, he would still be alive today.
So, Saturday, July 20th brings a day of protest. Personally, I think protest is a waste of time. What is being protested? The verdict? George Zimmerman? Society? What good is a protest? Will it raise awareness about what we already know? That black men are profiled? A protest isn’t going to change that fact. Instead of another protest, black leaders need to continue the conversation President Obama started yesterday. Let’s have a honest conversation about what is happening in America and instead of wasting our breath continuing to beg America to change how it views us– maybe we need to change our behavior given the reality of how we are viewed.
So we need to have that conversation. We need to start with the premise that we will be profiled. Some people will react to our skin color before they have opportunity to speak to us. So, instead of protesting that fact, we need to accept it and discuss how we should best react to that fact, as unfortunate as it may be.
My family taught me two important lessons that are important for young black men growing up today– and are particularly relevant to what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. These are two lessons we should be teaching our children. First, my father taught me never to confront a stranger on a street. “You don’t know what he has or what he’s about and the consequences could be deadly.” We need to realize that a simple bump of the wrong person could escalate into a deadly encounter. Just ask the parents of Ben Wilson (check out ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Ben Wilson– google and watch, it is an excellent documentary– and still very relevant). So instead of escalating encounters when they happen– we need to accept that they will occur– we need to teach our children to diffuse them. Street cred? What good is street cred when you have a bullet in your chest? Diffusing a situation could be the difference between of life and death.
We must teach our children that. Especially in this day and age.
Secondly, we must respond to stereotypes better. I grew up in Elmhurst, Illinois, in the 1980s. Elmhurst was diverse because we had Germans, Irish, and Italians. There were very few people with black skin like me walking around Elmhurst (we could count our families on one hand). My family taught me that when I walked into a friend’s home, I was likely the first black person in front of this family. So, my actions in that home could enforce commonly held stereotypes or go toward changing them.
So in that atmosphere, if acted like a 14 year old boy (in other words, like an idiot), there was a probability that the people would see me as an idiot because of the color of my skin, rather than because of my age. I could either be a kid, or that “black” kid.
Was that assumption fair? Absolutely not. But we learned a long time ago that life isn’t fair. Accept it and move on.
Don’t get me wrong, I still acted like an idiot– and I’m certain many of my friends growing up will attest to that. But I knew that initial impressions were important. Those first few times– particularly in high school– a family got to know me were important. After that impression was made, I was just one of the guys. Growing up, I was fortunate to have a large group of great friends whose families always made me feel at home. I still love Elmhurst because of it.
And I should remember that many of these families likely would have seen me for just an idiot teenager upon the initial meeting. But there certainly was a knowledge that some wouldn’t. The 1980s weren’t nearly as “enlightened” as we are today.
The point is that people will initially judge us because of the color of our skin. Instead of protesting that truth– we need to just accept it and act accordingly. We’ve been protesting that truth for decades and Trayvon Martin is still dead today because of it. It doesn’t matter how much education, money or power we have, some women will still instinctively clutch her purse when we enter an elevator. That, like the sun rising in the east, just is.
So we must teach our children to fight back with the content of our character. Give people more than just the color of our skin.
Unfortunately, we’re not doing that very well. Instead of embracing a thug mentality– and reenforcing stereotypes– we must break the stereotype by rejecting the lifestyle. If you walk around acting like a thug, you can’t protest when society treats you like one.
You certainly have the right to wear whatever you want to wear. But realize there are consequences to the choices we make. And unfortunately, it is still true in our society that the consequences for us– people of color– are different than for whites. So if you wear your pants without a belt hanging below your crotch, people are going to judge you (people will judge you in a suit too). It’s disingenuous to be pissed off about being judged when you walk, dress and act like a thug– especially armed with the knowledge some in society already view us as dangerous. If the starting point is that we’re dangerous because of the color of our skin– should we perpetuate that or diffuse it?
Ultimately, we can either reject that characterization by the way we act or embrace it. Unfortunately, far too many of us embrace it. Because of that embrace, even with a Black president, the stereotype persists.
So, in 2013, that’s where we are; we have a choice. It is absolutely fair to be pissed off about how parts of society views us– but with our actions we can either perpetuate stereotypes or break them. We can use the President of the United States as the role model for our children– and BE role models for our children– or continue to be victimized by stereotypes. President Obama reminded us yesterday that although these stereotypes are hurtful, they certainly are not fatal.
Unless your name is Trayvon Martin.
Filed under: Race in America