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Monday, July 15, 2013

Feared and hunted: early reflections on the Zimmerman trial aftermath

If you are of a certain age, you probably got “The Talk” from your parents – or even your grandparents.

While my white friends had the luxury of just squirming through an awkward discussion about the mechanics of sex, I, and others who share my skin color, often received a different kind of lecture on the facts of life.

The Talk centered on how to behave in stores. How to act around police. How to respond in the streets.

One wrong slip, we were warned, could cost you dearly. Being at the wrong place, at the wrong time and always the wrong color, could be deadly.

Many of my friends, now parents themselves, wanted to free their children of the burdens and fears that come with The Talk. They sought to let it lapse, mothballing it as a part of a shameful history. 

After all, this is the “flattened” era, powered by digital know-how and technology. This is supposed to be a time when King’s “Dream” has finally come into view. This is the Age of Obama.

A sentiment born by many. Photo courtesy of Roberto Gonzalez/AP
With all of that, many reasoned and rationalized that The Talk is not only outmoded, but also inhibiting at a time when our children have to embrace their full power in order to compete effectively. We resented The Talk, this notion of having to act differently than our peers. After all, that’s what the marching and lobbying of the past was supposed to resolve, and in many of our minds, had resolved.

Except for those glaring reminders that still emerge, those mind-numbing, soul-crushing incidents whose steady presence belies the usual title of “aberrations.”  This time it was Trayvon Martin. Before him there was Oscar Grant. Before him, it was Amadou Diallo. And before him, Yusef Hawkins. You can go back as far as Emmett Till. The circumstances vary, but the theme remains the same – unarmed young black man seen as a threat to a jittery, if not angry, one who isn’t black. Slaying ensues.

And those are just the high-profile cases, where names are known. Countless others remain unknown, just words on a police blotter, a brief in a local paper – if they were lucky.

The verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial means many things to many people, but a distinct message sent is that it is open season on those deemed “threatening.” That the definition of self-defense now extends to tracking and killing said “threats.” For the record, that group historically has been darker in hue. Brown like me and mine and condemned to assumptions of criminality because of it.

Some have long advocated for such exterminations of “undesirables,” and still do, proven by perusing the web. This trial seems to have codified those notions.What played out in the national spotlight is the continuation of a meme that black male lives have little value and their presence always is suspect. 

Yet the mirror image of that assessment is the mounting body count in urban centers across the country, from Oakland to Chicago to New Orleans to Philadelphia, where black men gun down themselves with as much regard as George Zimmerman has. Beyond any chicken-egg, cause-effect debate, the result of the attitude prevails: maimed or dead black males. And justice in these cases frequently remains at an impasse, be it due to prosecutorial incompetence or a “no snitching” intransigence.

Human extermination, in Dachau, in Bosnia, in Sudan, in Sanford, Florida, in Philly, is morally bankrupt, no matter the color or gender bearing the weapon. But cheapened life makes that weight of conscience remarkably light. And social acceptance renders it lighter still. Those reminders keep repeating.

Yes, in Florida, there is a devastated mother and father whose 17-year-old son was slain for being black, and making someone who was not, afraid, just by his mere being. But in Philadelphia, there are scores of equally devastated parents grieving sons who are killed, when you boil it down, also for being black in the wrong space and time.

There are those willing to parse and qualify how one murder is totally illegitimate whereas others, though tragic, are somewhat expected, even accepted. Yet tolerance of the latter allows room for the former. They are all value judgments on the worth of black – and in many cases, brown – males. Anger at one outrageous incident does not negate the many others that are still happening, most of which occurring without the benefit of 24/7 cameras or pundits, markers of merit in this media-fed era.

In this nation of wealth and laws, most Americans find it difficult to wrap their minds around a reality that holds that a boy returning home from the store with snacks could be killed because he made someone “nervous.” Just as they don’t condone one boy killing another, before either of them sees 21.

Until you add race. Then somehow it all seems to make sense. Even when it doesn’t.

So for as much as my generation may want to put The Talk to rest, until something real changes, we’d be remiss not to offer that well-worn lecture, at least for a while longer. To do otherwise may just further endanger those we hold most dear, even today. In 2013.

Real change began after Emmett Till was slain. It must continue, beginning with us, if the slayings of Trayvon, Oscar, Amadou, Yusef and all the rest are ever to make sense. Not just to black people, but to the entire nation -- and world.