Idaville, which is in Anywhere, USA, has captured the mind of my 10-year-old son these days. Instead of being nose-deep in The Hunger Games or even Harry Potter, his imagination has been tickled of late by the mystery adventures of Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective.
On our walk to school this morning, he told me that he wanted to live in Idaville. When I asked him why, he responded, “It has so many criminals! And I want to help capture them!”
For those who don’t know them, the Encyclopedia Brown books are about a brilliant young boy whose father is chief of the Idaville police force, and Encyclopedia uses his encyclopedia-like brain to help his dad solve all the local mysteries. At the end of each story, the reader is asked to try to solve the mystery and catch the criminal. There is seemingly a great deal of crime in Idaville, America, and my son has been bending his brain to try to figure it all out.
A few minutes after this conversation, a local police car drove by us, and my son turned to me with a big smile and said, “You know what I like to do? I like to wave to police officers as they drive by.”
Put two and two together, and you have a recipe for an imaginative young boy who feels smart enough (like his hero, Encyclopedia Brown) to solve criminal mysteries, and trusting enough of the police force to know that they will back him up in his quest.
My guess is that Trayvon Martin did not make the same equation in his mind.
As a young, white, Jewish boy growing up in an upper middle class home and a strong and safe community, my son has all the privileges our race and socio-economic status can buy him. While I hope that he will grow up with a heart that extends to helping others who are less fortunate than he, there is no doubt that he will grow up in an America that looks kindly upon him and flings its doors wide open to pretty much whatever he wants to do.
But much of the press that has surrounded the terrible and tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, African American, Florida teenager who was shot and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who claims self-defense, and whose death was initially unreported and unprosecuted, has been a reminder about what it means to be “walking while black” in this country.
Young black men, whether they grow up in an apartment building in the city or trimmed-lawn suburbs, are born with a stigma that is branded on their foreheads like a scarlet letter. They are under suspicion from the time they begin to walk in cute little toddler shoes, to their teenage days when they trade in those tie-ups for Zig Techs or Air Jordans, to their young adult years when they try to hail a cab and none will stop for them.
And police officers? Young black men are taught never to engage with a police officer, unless in a situation where they have been stopped by one. And then, their mothers teach them to make sure they keep their eyes down and do whatever the cop says. Listening to the adult sons of former Washington Post columnist Donna Britt on a radio show several days after the Trayvon Martin case came to light, I was particularly troubled by one of their stories recounting the ease with which a white friend of theirs was able to banter with and talk back to a cop who had stopped him, while he, a young black man, was trembling in the passenger seat. His mother had driven home the lesson about cops and black men, and he was terrified.
Racial profiling is rampant. None of us are immune. We are all suspicious, whether we realize it or not, of those who are different from us, of the other. This is why, as human beings, we tend to travel in packs, and those packs are usually comprised of a majority of people who look, think and act like we do, whether it’s a religiously-oriented pack (a church or synagogue), a racially or ethnically-oriented one (a neighborhood or community group), or one that’s made up of our classmates, our office mates, political allies or even just our friends and family.
Young African American men carry the additional burden of already being tagged and flagged and branded as “trouble.” We add this to our innate proclivity to believe that the other may be dangerous to us in some way, and voila! We are already convinced that a black man is out to get us, even if we are not consciously aware of our racism, or work assiduously to fight our inner demons around it. We may use other sensors to detect whether someone we encounter on the street poses a danger to us – clothing, attitude, eye contact – but often it is race that predominates our assessments.
The schools my children attend in our neighborhood have a highly diverse student body – kids of all colors sit together in the classrooms. As young elementary school students, the kids seemed to mix fairly seamlessly, not noticing the fact that someone looked different, or, even if they noticed, they paid it little heed. But just last week, at a basketball game at my daughter’s middle school, I noticed a group of girls sitting together who had been in her classes in elementary school. They were all black. They sat far apart from the group of (all white) girls with whom my daughter was sitting. The natural cleaving process had begun, and the kids in my daughter’s grade have found their groups, based primarily on skin color, although socio-economics, academic achievement and other factors clearly play a role as well.
For the rest of their lives, my children will likely be slotted into more privileged echelons because of the “luck” of their skin color. My husband and I work hard to provide them with a good life, and we’re proud of both our and their accomplishments. And they will probably struggle, to some degree, as we all do, with jobs and relationships and life. But in the end, they have a leg up simply by virtue of what they look like. Trayvon Martin did not.
Trayvon Martin’s death seems to have struck a chord in the annals of race relations in our country. The unjustness of the legal issues, combined with the onerous problem of his “walking while black” has opened up a deep racial wound that had never healed. Social media has brought great attention to the story; it may well spark a new phase in the civil rights movement in this country. That would be for the good.
And while it would be wonderful if we could pluck Encyclopedia Brown’s brain from the Idaville police department to solve the case of Trayvon Martin, that is not going to happen. So we solider on.
As a mother, I cannot imagine what it feels like to lose a child to senseless violence.
As an American, I am deeply ashamed of our legacy of racial intolerance, hatred and discrimination.
As a human being, I hope that I can raise myself above my own innate fears and prejudices and learn how to open up my eyes, my heart and my head to work towards a more just and fair society, one in which Trayvon Martin’s death will not have been in vain.
Photo by Stephen Rees via Flickr