Finding justice for Trayvon: seven actions steps for our outrage

"I take for granted that I belong wherever I happen to be." -- Joan Haskins

Trayvon just brought to light the oppressive stereotypes that all black men are living under. And the case illustrated that it can sometimes be a matter of life and death.

photo via NerdyWonka

Any plausible deniability about the negative bias that black men face in our country was pulled out from under me during our first adoption process. Americans love to see themselves as “colorblind” . . . to describe our country as a post-racial melting pot with a black president and a smug sense of satisfaction for not being as racist as the previous generation. But race preference in adoption tells another tale, and in my mind, perfectly exemplifies the disturbing social status of black males. Black males are the hardest children to place in adoptive homes. Of prospective adoptive families, only about 14% are open to an African American child, and of that 14%, even fewer are open to black males. When I asked social workers why, the answer: people are afraid they will grow up to be criminals.

When we began the adoption process from the foster-care system in Los Angeles, we received calls for placements immediately, because we were open to any race. A few calls involved biracial children, and the social workers were always quick to highlight that the children were “half-white” and “light-skinned”, as if this was some kind of selling point. We were eventually matched with our oldest, who is black. I can vividly remember having a meeting with an elderly social worker in Compton. “Now I want you to realize . . . black boys turn in to black men. Are you prepared for that?”  I remember feeling so disgusted by his question, as if he were speaking some kind of prophecy into the character and potential of my new son. My son who was six months old.

Since that time, my eyes have been wide open to the discrimination, stereotypes, and suspicion that black men face in our society. But just as keenly, I’ve been aware of how these experiences of discrimination, stereotypes, and suspicion are dismissed by some white people. Black men who speak out about their experiences are deemed as paranoid or angry or “playing the race card”, despite ample evidence of the contrary.

I have seen a shift in the last year, though, and I think the Trayvon Martin case served to rattle some people out of complacency in regards to bias against black men. Like many, I was deeply disappointed to hear the news that George Zimmerman was acquitted. While I suspected that he wouldn’t be charged with murder, I absolutely believed that he was guilty of manslaughter.  Defined as“the crime of killing a human being without malice aforethought, or otherwise in circumstances not amounting to murder”, I think Zimmerman should have at least had some criminal responsibility for the death of this young man. I find it disturbing that someone can be 100% responsible for starting a confrontation, but then not at all responsible for what results.

I felt sickened when I heard the verdict, for the message it sends to black men . . . that they can be followed on suspicion of being a thug for appearance alone, and then killed if they don’t defer. After I shed some angry tears and talked about it with Mark, I logged onto facebook, expecting things to look similar to the days following Trayvon’s murder. I expected to see people of color expressing outrage, and most white people staying silent. I was comforted to find that, at least in my feed, my white friends were just as outraged as my friends of color. And not just transracial parents, who have been ejected from the privilege seat because they have a stake in the game. I saw people of all races and generations, equally disturbed that a young black man was followed and killed with no consequence.

Of course, I also saw people who denied that race had anything to do with it. And if you are one of those people, I hope you will keep reading. Because this isn’t just about Trayvon. His death is a catalyst for this conversation, but regardless of what happened there, the issue of bias and black men remains.  It’s evident when people call the police on a black person attempting to break a bike lock but walk by (or offer assistance to) a white person doing the same thing. It’s evident when a group of children are asked about the photo of a white man and a black man and they assume the black man to be a criminal and the white man to be a teacher (despite the fact that the pictured men were Timothy McVeigh and a black Harvard professor). It’s evident when people assume a black man to be a criminal over a white man at first glance. It’s evident when children look at photos of two children on a playground and a majority of them assume ill intent on the part of the black child. It’s evident when we look at the shameful “stop and frisk” habit that profiles young black men as potential criminals.

Trayvon just brought to light the oppressive stereotypes that all black men are living under. And the case illustrated that it can sometimes be a matter of life and death.

I’m heartened to see that white people are acknowledging the race aspects of the case, but I’m also worried that after this story falls off the news cycle, the issue of race will again be ignored. And honestly, it’s likely that it will be, because for the majority of Americans this story does not have a personal impact. Parents of black children are burdened by concerns for their child’s safety as they navigate the world, but why should this injustice be left for black people to deal with?

If you are looking for ways to channel your outrage about the Trayvon case, I’ve got some ideas. But even if you felt the verdict was just, I think (and hope) we can all rally to make sure that the dynamics at play in the links above are eradicated for the next generation. (And if you aren’t buying that there is racial bias against black males, go watch the links again. Watch until it sinks in.)

As the media fury dies down, let’s remember our frustration, and move it into action:

Push back against racism when you encounter it.

To fight against racial bias, it’s vital that we create a society in which racism is not tolerated. This will only happen when enough people become vocal that the perpetrators of racism are motivated to change.Racism is more covert, but many of us still encounter it. It’s time to speak up and ask questions.

Stop being so touchy about our own racial bias.

All of us will hold racist thoughts from time to time. And there is not a one of us who is immune to racial bias . . . we are swimming in it. Social conditioning means that we all hold it. Let’s stop pretending we have to be a card-carrying KKK member to hold racial bias. It’s implicit. It’s possible that George Zimmerman wasn’t a day-to-day racist and it’s also possible that he racially profiled Trayvon. It’s messy. Racism is not so polarized anymore. We need to deal with the nuance and be willing to confront the ways we’ve all been shaped by media and stereotypes.

Talk about racism.

Race is one of those topics nobody wants to touch. Like religion or politics, people seem to want to stay out of it. The problem, though, is that in not talking about race, we are letting it fester. We are putting our heads in the sand and pretending not to see the bias that people have to endure every day. Talking about racism does not perpetuate racism. Let me repeat that: talking about racism does not perpetuate racism. We won’t solve anything if we are too scared to speak about it. One of the comments that annoys me the most, when I blog about race, is when someone says, “Well, you are just passionate because your kids are black.” Shouldn’t we all be passionate? Are we content ignoring a problem just because it doesn’t effect us? Should we ignore bullying unless our kid is actually being bullied? It’s time for everyone to care.

Educate yourself on racial injustice.

If the idea of the black man’s burden is a new concept for you, or if you believe that we are living in a post-racial society, I would really encourage you to educate yourself.  Websites like Racialicious The Root, Tim Wise’s blog, and NPR’s Codeswitch are great resources for learning more about issues of race, and have been hugely helpful for me.

Finding justice for Trayvon: seven actions steps for our outrage

Listen.

I have noticed that many white people feel an innate need to either defend or deny that racism still occurs. I think white people sincerely wish that the world was colorblind, so we pretend that it is . . . even when that involves dismissing the experience of others. But we’ve got to start listening . . . without dismissing, without derailing, without defending. We’ve got to listen to our friends of color and their experiences. Rapper Lecrae said it so well

“I pray my non-black people grasp that there is a cultural identification blacks have with Trayvon and our own experiences that cause deep emotional connectivity and sympathy. He represents our cousin, our son, ourselves, our past present and future. We are very culturally connected and this affects us in incommunicable ways. Blacks are NOT just emotionally blind to the facts and evidence and trying to pull the race card.”

Focus on what you can do.

Too often, I see white people respond to issues of racism by citing that black people are racist, too. It’s predictable that when I post on facebook about an instance of racism, someone will trot out examples where a black person has been racist. Do black people hold some racial bias? Sure! Of course they do. We can find examples of prejudice in every racial group. But just like I tell my children when they try to deflect: “Focus on yourself. Do the right thing. Don’t worry about what others are doing.”

Diversify your world.

Racial bias festers when we fail to develop friendships with people of other races. It’s vital that we diversify our relationships, not just for ourselves but for our children. Too many kids are being raised in homogenous communities by well-meaning parents. They are taught to accept others, but they have limited experience with people outside their own race. We need to make sure that the media is not our kids’ first encounter with people of other races. We need to make sure that Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg are not the cultural ambassadors to the black community for our children. If we are not intentional, our kids will develop views about other races from stereotypes instead of from relationships.

 

Black Male, Re-Imagined II: Performance by Daniel Beaty from Open Society Foundations and The American Values Institute on FORA.tv

The nation is paying attention to the burden and risk of being a black man. Let’s move to action. I was heartened to see the protests tonight, and to observe that the crowds were very diverse. I felt that the verdict yesterday sent a horrible message to black men, and I hope the protest sends a message that many people care. But we can’t leave it at a protest. We’ve got to tell young black men that we’ve got their back today, and every day. That is what community looks like. That’s how we will find justice.


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