Trayvon and Jordan: Why Knowing Their Names Hurts

After the death of Trayvon Martin, his mother, in her painfully eloquent manner, wondered rhetorically about the safety of "black and brown boys" because you can't walk fast, you can't walk slow... how do you get home without people... assuming you're doing something wrong?

How do they get anywhere at all? They clearly can't drive their cars either.

I have two black sons, 25 and 31, both of whom play loud, thumping music when they drive and, I'm certain, when they stop to pump gas. Why? That's how they like it. I may not agree with it and have asked both, in vain, to lower the volume when I'm with them. But their choice to do otherwise doesn't mean they are thugs or bad people or leading lives without value. It certainly doesn't mean they deserve to die. How hard can that be for a jury to discern that this is straight up murder?

We would not fathom the outrageous Jordan Davis shooting being excused by "self defense" if the race of the perpetrator and victim were reversed. Ponder that hypothetical scenario honestly, play it over in your head like you're watching YouTube. For too many white people, President Obama is possibly the only non-threatening black man they can imagine, and maybe not even him. (The president's black male initiative is quite timely.) Just ask the many black and brown brothers who fell victim to New York's stop and frisk law before Mayor DiBlasio entered the scene, in no small part, I imagine, because his own son fits the profile of those stopped. Ask Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, called a "thug" by many in the media because of his brash bravado after a heated game. (Meanwhile, when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hurled curses at a referee he was chided for "losing his cool," not being a thug.) And ask African American writer, Brent Staples, about his need to "whistle Vivaldi" when walking near white people, fearful they might categorize him negatively and recoil or worse.

By now it's a cliché that parents of black young men often school them on how to act in certain neighborhoods or when approached by the police. I have had "the talk" several times with both of my sons who have been stopped and harassed on numerous occasions by those charged with protecting them. Thankfully thus far, they have not been physically harmed, but this constant mistreatment does take its toll. My sons prefer not to talk about Trayvon and other victims like him. It cuts too deeply and hurts too much. They have noticed the difference in their treatment upon entering a retail establishment (closely followed, stalked) in stark contrast to how their white friends are treated (left alone, ignored). It's not difficult for them to imagine a more tragic outcome.

A friend, also a mother of a black son, told me hers stays in the house more these days. He hasn't said so but she believes he is fearful. Another friend told me her 16 year old is afraid to ride the subway alone, fully aware that as a black male teen he is an endangered species. But what about how scary George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn might have appeared to the ones they killed? Trayvon said as much to the young lady on his last cell phone conversation.

Young black men understand that they are disposable as far as society at large is concerned, and they have internalized that message, often harming themselves in the process in addition to being harmed by others. There are reminders everywhere, starting with the number of black men in prison. According to Michelle Alexander's brilliant work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

I understand that fear of blackness compounded by its comparative devaluation is at the crux of this state of affairs, but how did we get to this place? Irrational fear with devastating consequences occurred during enslavement and beyond. Think about the various laws and restrictions that existed against education, integration, miscegenation, etc. -- precursors to some of today's laws including stop and frisk and the disparate crack and cocaine sentencing laws. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but, rather, to harness and master it.

How prescient. One might add -- do so before it turns into hatred as it did for both Zimmerman and Dunn. If only they had "harnessed and mastered" their fear, then each might have engaged in a conversation with, rather than fatal harassment of, those teens and found out what they were really up to.

Things will not change until those who act out of fear and malice toward our children get a grip on that fear and in the meantime reap full legal consequences when they fail to do so.

We are far from that place.

I for one am tired of the heart-wrenching stories of cold-blooded murder that this country is desperate to justify. I am tired of the dignified grieving of faith-stoked black parents. I want everyone in this country to be outraged at the death of an innocent child, a child who belongs to all of us, not just the darker-hued. I want us to collectively say and mean that we are not going to take this anymore. It is wholly unacceptable for anyone's child to be killed by a reckless gun-toting adult, regardless of whether or not he thought he was entitled to stand his very shaky ground.

So I think for a while, in my own private desperate protest, I will play my music loudly as I pump my gas.