At What Age does a Black Male Become a Threat?
My grandson is too young to know anything about the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin or the trial of George Zimmerman, yet the outcome of the trial may have a significant impact on his life. He’s too young to watch the news and frankly doesn’t care about it unless it concerns his favorite character, Elmo, after all he’s not yet 2 years old.
He started talking about six months ago, his first intelligible word was ‘Hello’. He understands it is a greeting so he uses it constantly, whenever we’re walking down the street or through a store he says hello to everyone he sees and will continue to say it until they respond to him. Because he is still a baby and very personable, he almost always gets a smile and hello back from the people he greets. Sometimes, people ignore him, or look the other way, but to date I’ve never noticed any anger or hostility or fear directed his way.
Right now when people see him they see a cute, well-dressed little boy with a winning smile and engaging personality, his blackness is a matter of minimal significance. Unfortunately, I know at some point that will change. At some point – I’m not sure at what age – people will look at him and the first thing they’ll see will be his color and everything else about him – his smile, his openness, his intelligence, his desire to engage – will be filtered by their view about his color, whether they find his very existence menacing and they will act accordingly. This fact is not new to me, it’s something I’ve thought about ever since his birth but the events of this weekend have elevated that occasional thought into a real worry.
At what age does a black male become a threat in America? Is it 15, 10 or is it as young as 5? I know police have not been hesitant to handcuff and arrest young children and treat them like criminals. The following picture is seared into my memory:
At what age does a black male become a threat? I wanted to believe that we are no longer a country that sees all black males as potentially threatening but that’s a belief not grounded in reality. The reality is we are a country where a substantial percentage of the population sees black males (particularly young ones) as potentially threatening despite having twice elected a decidedly non-threatening black man as President.
My grandson is being raised to feel free in all environments, to move fluidly across the broad span of socio-economic spaces in society. That’s how I raised his father and it’s how his father wants to raise him. One would think it’s admirable to raise a child that way but I’m beginning to fear it could be a liability. We can raise him to feel free everywhere but what happens when he runs into someone who doesn’t believe he is free to be anywhere? What happens when he runs into someone like George Zimmerman who believes people who look like him are ‘punks’ or criminals who should be monitored, controlled and even killed if they seem threatening. How do I protect him from that without restricting his freedom?
I don’t believe the majority of people think or act like George Zimmerman, I don’t even think the majority of white people think or act like Zimmerman. The problem with this case and the outcome of the trial is that it sends the wrong message. Instead of discouraging vigilantism and racial profiling, it served to justify and excuse it. Not just because of the jury verdict – which was not unreasonable given the evidence and lawyering – but because of the media and political conversation that has surrounded it.
Most observers have lost perspective of the human elements involved in the case – it is a tragedy for all involved. Did George Zimmerman pursue Trayvon Martin setting off the chain of events that led to the shooting? Absolutely, there’s little doubt of that. Is it possible that in the heat of a physical altercation, he legitimately feared for his safety and reached for and used his gun? Quite possibly. Did he have some racial animus? Most likely. But I don’t think he set out that night to hunt down and kill a black man and I don’t think he’s a racial supremacist. The problem is he lives in a country that empowered him to walk the streets with a loaded gun and know that if he used it against a minority male, he could rely on local police to believe his claim of self-defense.
This case is about so much more than the unfortunate killing of a black teenager by a Hispanic wanna be cop. It’s about the way people’s attachment to their right to own guns has become more important than others right to live without getting shot. It’s about a political culture where hatred of your enemy (Obama) would cause one to be dismissive and hostile to grieving parents and suggest their innocent child was responsible for his own death. It’s about a society that accepts without question white fear of blacks and is blind to black fears of whites despite centuries of whippings, lynchings, beatings, jailings and state executions. And despite all the talk of a “national conversation about race” I don’t think too many people are ready and willing to talk openly, honestly and listen to the other side.
I think the best outcome we can expect from this particular case is to use it as a barometer of how hot racial tensions in the country have become and a road map of the institutional changes we must make to avoid similar outcomes in the future.
My hope is that my grandson will never encounter a George Zimmerman but the question of when does a black male become a threat is one I have to learn the answer to. Why? So I can prepare him in advance for the day he walks up and says hello to someone and they look away in fear……..