Five Lessons for America from the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

On February 26th 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy who was returning to his family's home in Florida from a visit to a store, was gunned down in cold blood by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community in Florida. Trayvon Martin was a Black young man who was out that night because he went to buy a bag of candy and a soda during the break of a basketball game he was watching on television. George Zimmerman was a white man with Latino roots watching the neighborhood for whoever he considered to be "up to no good."

I spend the majority of my professional life working with youth of color from diverse backgrounds who are seen in schools and society as "up to no good." My work with these youths is focused on finding ways to help them succeed. In particular, I work with Black males who, despite the ways they are perceived in society, exhibit extreme resolve, determination, and social awareness in both academic and non-academic spaces. With this population, my work to transform their schooling experiences has consistently led me to explore their out of school experiences, and try to understand of how they make sense of the world.

While I study of the out-of-school experiences of Black males, the most prominent theme that emerges is the ways that they are trained in families and their communities to be aware of their surroundings, be selective about the company they keep, be ever vigilant about the seemingly eternal battle between the criminal justice system and Black Males, and be on alert for situations where they may be misperceived as threatening to the world at large.

In many cases, when a Black male is killed or gets caught into the web of the criminal justice system, we use the situation to teach their peers how to avoid the same fate. I have written about the lessons for youth from cases like Troy Davis. I have told them to do all the things in their power to avoid conflict. In the case of Trayvon Martin, none of this advice seemed to matter.

I do not focus here on what young Black boys need to do to avoid incarceration, death, and poor schooling. Rather, I focus on what we all must learn and understand about the Black male experience in order to make sure there is not another Trayvon case.

1) We do not live in a "post-racial" society

One of the most dangerous beliefs that run rampant in America is the false perception that we are in a post-racial era and that race and class don't matter. The election of Barack Obama and the increased multiracial background of the nation has moved many to believe that hundreds of years of racism have been erased. This misperception, combined with the increasingly diverse and Multi-racial demographics of the country, is a recipe for neglecting the biases we hold. We can't forget that skin color cannot be erased and negative perceptions of Black people are held by Whites, Latinos, and even some Black people themselves. Despite the statement by George Zimmerman's dad that he is part Latino and therefore not racist makes no sense. Zimmerman's Latino heritage does not make killing Trayvon any less-based on racism.

2) Every black man in a hoodie is Not a criminal

In addition to our racial perceptions about Black boys, we oftentimes judge them based on attire. The music video image of a Black male in a hoodie committing crimes is ingrained into our psyche. We do not realize that the hoodie for black boys is a security blanket. A way to temporarily shut out the world and not have to be so vigilant about being hunted by the world. Placing a hoodie over your head and soaking in an uncomfortable or new place (like a new neighborhood) is simply taking a moment to be a boy in a world that pushes you to quickly to be a man. The hood that Trayvon had on, and his gazing curiously in the neighborhood was simply a boy staring curiously into the world with a security blanket. This was seen by Zimmmerman as a criminal plotting a sinister plan. The image of a black man in a hood ignited something in Zimmerman, but the dress of a black male is not a signal to classify him as a criminal.

3) Running is not an attempt to get away from a crime.

In a society where the Black male feels hunted, the immediate instinct is to run. Furthermore, Black males have been taught to run when confronted with danger because of the history of being victimized when one encounters a person who is chasing them. The adage of "don't run unless you're doing something wrong" does not apply to a group of people who have been told, that when you don't run, you will be victimized. Trayvon Martin was being followed by George Zimmerman, so he did what his instincts and history has told him to do, he ran. As a result, he was killed. It is important for us to recognize that all who run are not criminals. Very often, they are innocent boys running out of fear for their life.

4) A college degree doesn't make you an expert

In a society where one's position, title, and education drives perception, we see people as powerful, and people see themselves as such, based on their credentials (whether of true value or not). When we create a police state in our communities (gated or otherwise) and give someone the power or license to be the judge and jury, we invite scenarios where their internal biases and inflated-views-of-self shape their work. Zimmerman had no respect for authority, he previously had been arrested for assaulting a police officer. He saw himself as "the chief of the neighborhood watch." In fact, part of the justification for not arresting Zimmerman for killing Trayvon was that he is "a college grad" who took a class in criminal justice. A college class in justice and a degree should not be a reason why anyone is given the power to carry a weapon and be a neighborhood watch captain, and is certainly not a justification for being able to take another person's life without consequence.

5) This is not an anomaly

The final point that we all must recognize is that the Trayvon Martin story is not a unique situation. It may be a visible one, a particularly egregious one, one that has slowly gotten the attention of the public, but these situations happen every day. Black boys are perceived as criminals, pre-judged based on their attire, viewed as less than human by people who have overinflated senses of self, and in response, they run, they are hunted, and the cycle continues.