A parent’s greatest concern is keeping her or his children safe. A parent’s greatest grief is having to bury a child. Our hearts go out to Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, parents of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was gunned down Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Although the killing of Martin, sadly, is not an unusual occurrence in our country, the wide-scale reaction to the shooting is. The killing, and subsequent callous disregard by local authorities, have outraged and galvanized thousands, shining a light on racial profiling, Florida’s backward “Stand Your Ground” law and the proliferation of handguns in our nation.
“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” wrote the great W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folks.” Our nation has made great strides in the more than a century since Du Bois’ prophetic statement, but Martin’s death is a sad reminder of how far we still have to go.
In our communities of color, our young men–our sons and brothers–are an endangered species. “Black males 15 to 19 years old are eight times as likely as white males to be gun homicide victims,” Marian Wright Edelman, chair of the Children’s Defense Fund, recently reminded us in a BET commentary.
This must stop! That is why thousands have risen up to demand justice and the arrest of George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer. Zimmerman, who outweighed the teenager by about 100 pounds, carried a 9 mm handgun during his neighborhood watch. Martin, who was returning from a local 7-Eleven when his life was snuffed out, was carrying a bag of Skittles for himself and a bottle of iced tea for his little brother. He had stepped out of the apartment of his father’s friend during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game.
I am the father of a young man not much older than Martin. We’ve watched many sporting events together, and he too has stepped out to pick up a snack. I try to hide my fear and anxiety whenever he’s out at night.
Just weeks before Martin’s killing, Ramarley Graham, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American youth, was killed by police in the bathroom of his grandmother’s Bronx home. The officer who shot Graham is assigned to the 47th Precinct, the very precinct in which my family and I live. Ramarley is in our Union family; his mother, Constance Malcolm, is an 1199SEIU member.
I and thousands, perhaps millions, across the country also consider Martin to be a family member. People of all ages, races and ethnicities have rallied and petitioned for justice in his case. They are calling our nation to a higher standard in place of the current double standard. By doing so, they are declaring that parents shouldn’t have to hold their breath each time their child ventures out of the home.
Our president also joined the chorus of raised voices when he said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” That was his way of acknowledging the bias that belies our nation’s professed ideals.
President Barack Obama’s carefully worded call for a thorough examination into Martin’s death reminds us of the last time he waded into a racial profiling incident. He was denounced for criticizing the shameful arrest of perhaps the nation’s most preeminent African American scholar and educator, Dr. Henry Louis Gates. The Harvard professor was arrested and handcuffed by a white police officer while he tried to enter his Cambridge home. Gates’ abuse was a painful reminder that racial profiling is not reserved for our youth.
Zimmerman and the Florida authorities should be brought to account. Racial profiling should be put on trial, along with Florida’s shoot-first “Stand Your Ground” law and the dangerous prevalence of handguns in our nation.
As Martin’s parents often state, we must not let Martin’s death be in vain. In that regard, I’m reminded of a stanza in the great Langston Hughes poem, “Let America be America Again.”
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!”