Why the Trayvon Martin case matters

[I’m just muddling through, trying to think out something that matters to me – but something I know little about. If I’ve got something wrong, please let me know, and be assured that I mean no offense.]

Recently, a tragic case has been making headlines – an African-American teenage boy named Trayvon Martin was walking back from buying Skittles and iced tea, and was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman. The watchman has not been arrested, and the police appear to have mishandled the case. You can find all the details elsewhere, along with a change.org petition, started by the Martin family, asking for the shooter to be arrested. It’s a tragedy, and I can’t imagine what Trayvon’s family is going through.

This case brings to the fore something I was already learning – young black men have a host of negative stereotypes to fight against, and too often the stereotypes obscure the facts. In the worst cases, kids die. In more mild cases, kids are subjected to small injustices and you-aren’t-good-enoughs. If we don’t personally know any young black men, we get only hints of this. Of course, we don’t want to believe it – we’re supposed to be past this, right? So we discredit it, which perpetuates it. In some cases, we act in accordance with those stereotypes, because we’re so ignorant that we buy into it. We don’t mean to do any of these things, but we do. Then we don’t understand why these kids aren’t succeeding in life!

I say “we” for a reason – I don’t think I’ve ever crossed the street when some teenaged African-American guys have walked towards me in undershirts with their pants sagging, but I haven’t felt safe, either. Maybe it was called for, maybe it wasn’t. But maybe fear isn’t the answer in either case.

I know this guy. He’s really great – he’s funny, kind, respectful, good with kids. He happens to be black. He happens to be the child of a single mother with little education. If he doesn’t do well at school, or if he gets accused of something, it is all too likely that he will end up not getting the academic assistance he needs, or paying the penalty for something he didn’t do. Partly because his skin color causes people to have different expectations of him. Partly because his mother may not be taken very seriously – perhaps because of her skin color, more likely because she hasn’t been equipped what she needs to be the most effective advocate for her son. The people doing this may not realize what they’re doing..but they do it anyway.

How can I help with a solution? How can I keep from becoming part of the problem?

Please consider reading a man’s NPR article about how this is his reality and a mother’s CNN blog about how her son could be Trayvon, in which she says: “I know America is the land of liberty, but my child has to understand he’s just free-ish.” 

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