My Student, Trayvon Martin
About a week ago, a jury in Florida acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin. I was upset but not entirely surprised. I remember discussing his death with my students a year ago, and many students brought up the case of Emmett Till. We compared and contrasted the two killings, and many of my students openly questioned how much had changed in the our world with regard to race and the ability of young black men to move freely throughout society.
Regardless of how you feel about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, we know that George Zimmerman followed Martin that night in Florida because he saw him as suspicious…a black teenager in a hoodie, walking down the street in a gated community. Martin belonged there…he was visiting a family member…but for too many young black men, the assumption is that they are outsiders, up to no good, or unwelcome.
Trayvon Martin’s death hits close to home. I teach at an Independent School in Maryland where fully 22% of the students are African American. I teach high school juniors, so many of my students fit the “Martin demographic”–16 or 17 year old black teenagers. I know they face daily injustices that my own blond-haired, blue-eyed son will never face. My students tell stories of being followed in stores, having white women cross the street to avoid crossing their path, or being questioned by private security guards when they visit friends in wealthy neighborhoods. They talk about dressing in a “preppy” fashion to avoid being profiled, or wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of our school so that people will know why they are in our majority-white suburb. And they share stories of smaller “micro aggressions”–teachers or other adults who commend them for being polite or speaking well, as if black teenage boys aren’t supposed to be able to do either.
I know their struggles with racial profiling will continue at the college level. I have taught young black men who were accepted to Duke, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Columbia, and Davidson, and they will go off to worlds where other students might suggest they are only there due to Affirmative Action, and campus police officers will follow them around. Don’t take my word for it…read the experiences of Jordan Starck, one of my former students who attended Davidson College. He couldn’t get anyone to open the door to take a survey.
As for my own family, I am so aware that my own teenage son will likely face few of the daily injustices and embarrassments endured by his black friends. And, as a mom, I will not share the same worries that my black friends will face as they send their children out into the world, a world where a vigilante neighborhood watch man with a gun can shoot and kill an unarmed teenager (after the police have told him to get back in his car) and go free. Ours is a world where people celebrate Zimmerman’s acquittal and call our President racist for daring to identify with the pain and fears of young black men.