As social networks and news media have spread the story of the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, people around the world react with disbelief and outrage. For those of us who are Black in this nation there is outrage, but very little disbelief. This incident is far too real, far too familiar. Just weeks after the shooting of this seventeen year-old, we stated in a previous post, Terminology (March 15, 2012), that “Negro” and “dangerous” are for many accurate and interchangeable descriptors, particularly for young African American males. This recent tragedy supports our contention.
Within the African American community, being subjected to racial profiling by authorities is a fact of life. “Driving while Black” is the phrase used when the police detain African Americans for nothing more than “looking suspicious,” even when no apparent traffic violation has been committed. In a stark parallel example, a Harvard University professor was arrested for entering his own home even after producing identification showing his address. Despite this proof, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of The W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, was stopped when it was suspected he did not belong in that neighborhood. He resisted arrest and was charged. The incident even motivated the newly-inaugurated African-American President Barack Obama to mediate this “misunderstanding” between a Harvard professor and a uniformed policeman.
This is nothing new to many Black professionals in academic settings, in business, and in service industries who tell personal stories of how they were dismissed as subordinates while people tried to locate “the teacher,” “the author,” “the doctor,” “the owner.” One distinguished historian greeting his guests at the door was handed a woman’s coat as she entered his home while she sought out her host. In this scenario, President Barack Obama might try to hail a cab on an American street corner, and watch taxis whiz by, just like other prominent African-Americans have frequently experienced. There are two versions of this reality, depending upon which side turns up when you flip a coin:
1. Every Black person in this country is potentially dangerous, especially young males (heads.)
2. Being black anywhere in America is potentially dangerous (tails.)
Terms such as “national security,” “suspicious behavior,” “reasonable search and seizure,” and “probable cause,” have been used historically as quick justification to violate personal privacy and to suspend individual civil rights protections on the spot. This time in Sanford, Florida, the presence of a “suspicious Black male” in a gated community empowered a block-watch volunteer to “stand his ground” under a law that is cited to justify the shooting death of Treyvon Martin. Perceiving a threat from a youngster carrying a can of iced tea and a bag of candy, the volunteer shot and killed him with a weapon he was carrying after stalking him. Now under investigation, Martin’s shooting death seems to have stemmed primarily from his physical appearance – a teen-ager dressed in a hooded sweatshirt. To us, this brings to mind Justice Tanney’s Brief in the Dred Scott Decision that declared no Black person had rights a White man need respect. Like those warped perceptions, many people compare this brutal shooting to the frequent, random discrimination of apparently “driving while Black.” This time, unfounded suspicion has resulted in the killing of an African-American minor.
The US Department of Justice, at the request of local authorities, has intervened to determine if this was a hate crime. To most Black Americans who know their history, it’s Emmett Till and Medgar Evers all over again. It’s a legacy of lynching, bombings, beatings, threats, unlawful imprisonment, and summary execution. It seems to indicate the inability of Black people to adequately protect ourselves and our young from violence. It is the pattern of oppression experienced since our captive ancestors boarded those ships that brought them from the Continent; and even before the ships, the raiding and destruction of African communities to supply the demand for the slave trade. Our history is recursive. The more it evolves, the more it circles back to historical abuse. As some elders weary of this pattern have said, racial justice seems to take “three steps forward and two steps back.” However, these same elders and their youngsters, dissatisfied with our young people as targets, need to know the origins of this violence conceived in suspicion, fear, and hatred.