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An Old Familiar Message

Trayvon Martin with his father, Tracy Martin

On the evening of February 26, 2012 in the state of Florida, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin walked towards his father’s girlfriend’s house in a gated community. He left a local convenience store where he bought some candy and iced tea. He was followed by George Zimmerman, 28, a self-appointed neighborhood watch person of Hispanic decent.

Zimmerman called 911 and told a police dispatcher about a "real suspicious guy" who “looks black”. The dispatcher told Zimmerman he did not need to pursue this teenager. Zimmerman ignored the dispatcher. He confronted the unarmed minor and fatally shot Martin in an ensuing scuffle.

Zimmerman told local police he acted in self-defense, citing Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which justifies killing someone if your life is in danger.

The police did not press charges, claiming there was not enough evidence to disprove Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. The local community was outraged and news of Martin’s death spread across the nation. Thousands of people protested throughout the United States and Change.org amassed over one million signatures calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman.

As I thought about his claim and the law Stand Your Ground I was shocked and horrified at hearing about this law. Anyone in Florida, and 21 other states, can pursue and kill another person then simply claim they were acting in self-defense. The police weren’t even going to investigate.

I have no doubt that if Martin were white and Zimmerman were black the police would have arrested him immediately. That Zimmerman calls himself “Hispanic” may expand the racism discussion but Zimmerman can identify as a white person if he chooses. The term “Hispanic” isn’t necessarily a racial distinction.

After a month of nationwide protests, Zimmerman was indicted with second-degree murder. The police’s initial inaction infuriated me, anger that melted into despair when I heard the trial’s final verdict a year later. On July 13, 2013, a jury of six women, five white and one Hispanic, rendered him “not-guilty”.

Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s verdict repeated an old familiar message to me. It’s a message African Americans have been told repeatedly for generations in this country: Our lives are not as valuable as white lives.

According to Monique Code, former writer for The San Francisco Bay View Newspaper: “African Americans have long been the scapegoat of injustice in this country so when the verdict came down, I was angry,” she said. “But I wasn't surprised at all.” Was I that naive to expect Zimmerman would be charged with at least manslaughter?

“I have a 14-year-old son and the shooting made me realize how vulnerable our black men are in our society”, says Dr. Kenya Beard, an assistant professor at Hunter College.

Vulnerable - a word the media usually doesn’t associate with black men. The dehumanization of African Americans is rampantly played out in the media. It formulates Americans’ distorted perceptions of black men and crime. These warped ideas come from a history of dehumanization, with roots extending back beyond the creation of the U.S. Constitution itself. These mentalities have dangerous consequences for African Americans, especially men.

I agonized as I imagined having a young son. How would I be able to keep him safe when black men and children can legally be killed for doing nothing wrong? When anxious parents of black boys across the nation discussed Trayvon Martin’s death, they shared stories of giving The Talk to their sons.

That phrase itself, “The Talk,” reveals the racial divide in America. For many parents, The Talk is that uncomfortable conversation to explain how babies are created. If you are an African American parent, however, The Talk means instructing your young son how to behave around police officers so they won’t get hurt.

Numerous unarmed black men have been killed by police officers. Countless others have been racially profiled when they’ve done nothing illegal. Martin’s death reminded the head of the U.S. Justice Department, United States Attorney General Eric Holder how vulnerable his own son is today. Holder said his father gave him that talk. After Martin was killed, Holder gave his own son The Talk, just like his father once did. Generation after generation, African American parents must warn their children against the dangers of American society. “I had to do this to protect my boy,” Holder said.

This verdict was also a painful reminder for me of the reality in my country. I am incensed whenever a white person dismissively says what I feel is unjustified and I am not alone. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll after the Zimmerman verdict, which revealed that 49 percent of white people approved of the verdict, only 30 percent opposed it, while 86 percent of black people opposed the verdict and only five percent thought the trial was fair. The studies revealed that while 60 percent of white people believe the issue of race is “getting more attention than it deserves,” 78 percent of black people strongly disagree.

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post acknowledged how white privilege allows her to view American society as “a welcoming, or at least benignly neutral, meritocracy”. She says, “perhaps the ultimate marker of privilege is not having to be conscious of it.”

What can we do then, as a country, to overcome these issues if many believe they don’t even exist?

A week after the verdict, President Obama gave a press conference about the Zimmerman case and the context in which I and other African Americans experienced it. He gave voice to my frustrations whenever I discussed the verdict with others who didn’t understand my reaction. “In the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here”, he said. “I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

This history spans centuries to the formation of the nation itself. It includes the Three Fifths Clause written into the Constitution in 1787. As slaves, African Americans weren’t regarded as full human beings - only three fifths of one. The U.S. Constitution sanctioned African Americans’ treatment as chattel to be abused at their owner’s whim. In 1883, twenty years after slavery was abolished, the Supreme Court permitted the continued practice of dehumanization by making segregation constitutional.

By 1990, one in three people living at or below the poverty rate in the U.S. was African American although we were only twelve percent of the population. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush cut funding to many federal programs that fostered economic equality. As unemployment rose, their administrations continued to cut federal social programs increasing the population of those living in poverty.

The wealth gap that already existed between white and black people in the US rapidly increased. In 1984, according to a study conducted by Brandeis University, the median wealth gap between white and black families was $20,000. By 2007, it quadrupled to $95,000.

As the wealth gap worsened, President Reagan’s policy of “War on Drugs” disproportionately criminalized impoverished minority communities. These policies continued for decades. The Los Angeles Times article “A Nation of Too Many Prisoners?”, published in 2000, revealed that white people accounted for almost 75 percent of the nation’s illegal drug users but black people accounted for 75 percent of the nation’s drug prisoners.

Just this past week Holder said the U.S. Department of Justice will address some of these racial disparities in the “War on Drugs”. “This isn’t just unacceptable,” he said. “It is shameful.”

Such racial disparities in the judicial system “reinforce the notion that black men are committing all the crime and it goes from black men committing all the crime to all black men do is commit crime.” says Dori Maynard, president of The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education tries to combat this dehumanization by ensuring all segments of society are accurately portrayed in the media. “That's the work we do every day, trying to lessen the gap between the reality of our lives and the portrayal of our lives. And we talk about the real life consequences it has,” says Maynard. “Trayvon Martin’s death was a consequence of the dehumanization and the distorted depiction of black men.”

These distorted depictions may have compelled Zimmerman to get out of his car and follow Martin. "This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman says in the recording to the dispatcher. "It's raining and he's just walking around looking about."

Why does that indicate criminality?

One way to counter these distortions is through empathy. To receive empathy, we must humanize. ”I can only speculate what it must feel like to always be under the gun. To feel like everyone, when they look at you, are automatically assuming the worst before they get to know who you are.”, says Beard.

Knowing and loving someone can lead to empathy. Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, opposed marriage equality until his own son revealed to him he was gay. Portman said his “personal experience” with his gay son “allowed me to think of this from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have – to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years.”

Maynard says that Portman’s changed position on marriage equality speaks to the importance that empathy can have but also acknowledged its limitations. “Not everyone is going to wake up and find they have a black son.”, she says.

So how can we garner empathy for a stranger? One way is to change the media images we see on the TV and movie screen. A possible example is a movie currently in theatres called Fruitvale Station.

Fruitvale Station is a partly fictionalized story about Oscar Grant, a young black man, 22, killed while in police custody in Oakland, CA. He and his friends were detained at the train stop, Fruitvale Station, because of reports of a fight that took place on the train they were riding. Trying to subdue Grant who was unarmed, a police officer shot him in the back while he had him on the ground. The officer said he mistakenly grabbed his gun when he intended to reach for his taser.

While watching the movie, the viewer discovers Oscar Grant was a loving father, son, brother and boyfriend. He was fired from a job he desperately needed for repeated tardiness. He cheated on his girlfriend. He had gone to jail and had a quick temper. The movie portrays Grant as a complex individual with human traits and redeeming qualities we all can identify with. The movie humanized him so that by the end of the story, the viewer recognizes the tragedy of his death.

Watching Fruitvale Station made me unusually emotional. I cried after I heard the Zimmerman verdict because of that old familiar message. After watching this movie, I cried because it both directly and deftly combated that message and the vehicle through which it traveled for years. I cried because Oscar Grant was yet another unarmed black man killed while doing a mundane task. His mother suggested he and his friends take the train instead of a car because she thought it was a safer way to travel during New Year’s celebrations.

Just as Sen. Portman wanted the same opportunities he had for his son, America should also want those same rights for all its sons - regardless of race. President Obama, our first black president, gives me hope. But my country has a long way to go to reach true equality.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

Leigh Cuen's picture

Great Job!

Thank you for writing this fascinating and deeply personal piece.
It was a pleasure to read your perspective.

Leigh Cuen, @La__Cuen
Like Leigh on Facebook

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

GET THIS OUT THERE, NICHESA

Dear Nechesa,

I hope you'll get this strong,excellent piece of work out to your senators and to the governor of Florida --no matter how ineffectual some find him.

I, too, consider the Stand Your Ground Law barbaric and extremely dangerous. I was floored when George Zimmerman was exonerated.

Where in Florida do you live, Nechesa? And have you always lived in Florida?

I hear you.

- Sarah

Nechesa's picture

Brooklyn all day

Thank you so much Sarah. I live in New York.

I couldn't have written this without the help of Leigh, my editorial mentor. I had such a hard time articulating my strong emotions and she and Delphine supported me all the way. I'm deeply thankful.

I'd be terrified to live in states with Stand Your Ground law.

delphine criscenzo's picture

I am still crying!

Dear Nechesa,

As a woke up to a message from you telling me you posted your piece, I remembered we talked about Fruitvale Station and I wanted to see the film. So I found a showing and my husband and I biked to the movie theater and watched what must be one of the best film I have seen in a long time. I have been out of the theater for 3 hours and I am still crying. I am crying because this movie left my heart open. So much sorrow is gushing out and I am not sure how to recover from knowing what Oscar went through on that day and I can only imagined what his girlfriend, mother, daughter and friends have been experiencing since.
As we walked out of the theater, a group of Egyptian Americans were demonstrating with their families, holding signs that said "300 people killed in Egypt today", "Stop the war on people in Egypt". I am crying, my eyes out. I am crying because I do not want the world to be so messed up, I feel compassion for all people and my heart is split open...

Thank you for written such a deep and positive piece. I agree that the change will be slow, but it is thanks to excellent journalists like you, that we will be reminded that we need to continue to work as a society until all of us are heard, and loved. Your piece is a bit of healing.
Love,

Delphine Criscenzo
Outreach and Training Associate
World Pulse
www.worldpulse.com

Cali gal Michelle's picture

Delphine- Now you made ME

Delphine- Now you made ME cry! I appreciate this peek into your souls as your reply held much intimacy and emotion. Thank you for not just what you do each day, but for your passion and compassion.

Peace and Hope-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

Nechesa's picture

Tears flowing as well

As soon as I read your comment the tears started flowing again. There's something really special about that film. You even see the movie critics recognize how special it is. I still haven't quite understood why these tears flow so easily. I'm just thankful for the experience of watching it.

My heart goes out to so much that's going on in the world as well. Thank you, Delphine, for this program. It's transforming me. I'm discovering my voice and I want to share it. May my voice help alleviate some of the pain we both feel right now.

pelamutunzi's picture

this is real

we were also closely following the verdict on zimmerman and were equally shocked and troubled. zimbabwwe is different but its mainly because you rarely find poor black people in white neighbourhoods. racism is still also prevalent here and im truly shocked by the friendships made here with different people it would almost be impossibl here unless i was rich. whites are just not seen everywhere but affluent places.

it hurts when you see the look you are given, or the smile sarcastic and contemptous its difficult. racism needs to be addreses worldwide its there. period.

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest.
regards
pela

Nechesa's picture

Such beautiful words

You said it so well. Thank you for your words.

There's so much that I couldn't include in the piece. Many of the numerous unarmed black men who are killed by the police in the US are from other places too (i.e. Amadou Diallo from Guinea and Patrick Dorismond from Haiti). It's an issue of concern for not just African Americans here but any person of African descent or who is actually African.

There's a universal element to the racism imposed on black people. Colonialism and slavery are close cousins.

Yes, we must never fail to protest.

Y's picture

I cry for all poor and black

I cry for all poor and black parents, especially those who have sons. We continue to breed boys for the purpose of acting as soldiers for the corrupt capitalists that still create colonization under monarchy and feudal style rules. I was one of these parents. Even though I am white and so is my son, I had to give him "the talk" to keep him safe from the grown bullies masquerading as justice enforcement officers.

Two of the movies that most resonate with me in my shame about being white in the United States are "The Help" and "The Butler."

I voted for Mr. Obama, signed others up to do likewise, and spent my adult life teaching black adults and children many skills to better their positions. I am honored to be an editorial mentor for WorldPulse efforts.

It is time that all parents, male and female. unite in demanding that our lawmakers and the wealthy live by the laws they impose on us and our cherished children. Maybe then they would pull their heads out of each others' rear ends.

What more can I do to help?

Blessings to you, Nechesa, my fellow citizen of this broken and bloody country.
Yvette

Y

SamihaN's picture

Touching

Dear Nechesa,

Thank you for sharing these personal thoughts, fears and hopes with us. For every person who does not respect another human being and his or her rights, may there be hundreds like you spreading the message of empathy and humanity.

The world is a better place with journalists like you who will raise their voices against injustice and discrimination.

Regards,
Samiha

Maura Bogue's picture

Great article

This is a great reflection of the Trayvon Martin case – connected well to the history and the bigger picture. The part about "The Talk" being different for white and black people is a good example. Maybe next time, try using more statistics about black unarmed people being killed to support your case even more. Another strategy is to use specific words in your title that will clearly state to your reader what your story is about.

Nechesa's picture

Thanks Maura

Good advice.

I appreciate this article, as your writing portrays your courageous honesty! I'm glad you are taking part in this program. All the best to you!

Peace and Hope-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

Nechesa's picture

Thank you, Michelle

Thanks for reading the article.

Nechesa

Tara Celentano's picture

Structure

I love the structure of your piece; how the Zimmernan narrative is only the skeleton of a much larger issue still largely at play in our country today. Your voice shines through, and it's clear, concise and easy to follow. You did a really great job, Nechesa!

Nechesa's picture

Thank you Tara

Thank you for your encouraging words.

Nechesa

Nakinti's picture

Great work darling!

My sister, Nechesa,
I really never followed the Trayvon Martin case, but to tell you the truth, I can confidently join an argument concerning this case now, yes, confidently. I now have all the facts in my palms, thanks to this piece. Wao! The blend of facts in movies and the reality on the ground makes this piece super-superb. Thank you dear for imparting knowledge on me. Girl, you and your Mentor deserve something more than three cheers...
Love.
Nakinti

Nakinti B. Nofuru
2013 VOF Correspondent
Reporter for Global Press Institute
Bamenda - Cameroon
Email: nakinti@globalpressinstitute.org
nakintin@yahoo.com

Nechesa's picture

Thank you so Nakinti

I wrote this article for an audience that wasn't American but it was therapeutic for me as well to articulate what I was experiencing. I'm glad I was able to help you and others understand a bit of the context behind the hot button issue of race here in the US.

Leigh, my mentor, deserves 10 cheers for real!

Nechesa

Vweta's picture

Dear Nechesa

I always felt like an outsider looking in even though i followed the Trayvon Martin Case. Reading your powerful piece brought it really close to my heart. I cannot even comprehend how much angst you must feel, how powerless African American parents feel in the US especially in states where the Stand Your Ground law is in effect, but i feel your strength and i hear your voice - i see you changing the world for the better with them.

Keep writing; for your 14 year old son; for every African American; for every victim of racial profiling; for the world!

Our Voices make the WORLD PULSate...
Vweta.

Nechesa's picture

Thank you, Vweta

Your words are very encouraging. I'm honored to be included with you in the e-mail that highlights this assignment.

Nechesa

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