As a father, I dread feeling the pain that Tracy Martin has now.
Knowing your innocent son has suffered for the guilty.
I raised two sons who are now 27 and 20 years old. They’re good young men. They know God, have attended college, and are working hard as they navigate their life paths. They have no criminal records. They have no children out of wedlock or offspring that they don’t support. They don’t fit our culture’s negative stereotype of the black male — anti-intellectual, violent thugs to be feared. But judging from their tattoos, skinny jeans and partiality to wearing hoodies, perhaps you wouldn’t know this about my sons if you encountered them on a sidewalk.
Black fathers that commit to raising their boys to be good men fear for them because we know intimately the burden of the negative black male stereotype — the white myth we’ve been branded with for centuries. It has gotten worse since I was younger in the ’80s when my father feared for me. We dads (and single moms nowadays) eventually perform the ritual of sitting our sons down to have “that conversation” that has been passed down, that man-to-man talk about the rules of survival.
We say things like:
• Expect to be followed in a department store, but don’t pay it any mind.
• When (not if) the police stop you, stay cool and calm. Don’t make any sudden moves that could cost you your life.
• Pull your pants up. Dress neatly and don’t act rowdy or suspicious in public. Otherwise, you’ll scare white folks and they’ll trip on you.
“I’ve always let him know we as African Americans get stereotyped,” Tracy Martin told USA Today of his son, Trayvon Martin, who died senselessly at the hands of a gunman claiming self-defense. “I told him that society is cruel.”
By now you’ve surely heard about Trayvon, 17, who was killed Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, an apparently overzealous neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida. From Zimmerman’s 911 call, it is clear that he believed the negative black male stereotype and fit Trayvon into its deadly box. It didn’t matter to Zimmerman, who is actually Latino, that whites also burglarize in his neighborhood. Trayvon, while visiting the home of his father’s fiancée, was essentially walking while black. A black teen “wearing a hoodie” is “suspicious” and therefore guilty. That was enough for Zimmerman, 28, to justify drawing a 9mm handgun and bustin’ a cap into a teen.
A dad’s worse fear for his son realized.
We dads fear for our sons because we can’t control the minds of others who want to believe the worst about them. We fear that our sons will suffer for the young men who have bought into the negative stereotype and even promote it. We fear the white police officer who pulls them over for a traffic stop. We fear a police chief who declines to thoroughly investigate our son’s killer, even when the gunman has admitted to it.
By all published reports so far, Trayvon wasn’t a thug or gangsta but more like my sons, or perhaps yours when they were teens — a good kid carrying a package of Skittles and talking to a girl on his cellphone. Even President Obama chimed in yesterday, remarking that if he had a son, he’d likely look like Trayvon.
Trayvon wasn’t anti-intellectual. He was reportedly an A and B student. There’s nothing wrong with being an athlete or a rapper (one of my sons is both), but Trayvon dreamt of being a pilot. Clearly he was being raised to rise above the stereotype.
But the innocent often suffer for the guilty.
As much as these racially charged incidents outrage us, the fact is that most crimes are intra-racial. Whites basically kill whites and blacks kill blacks. Black-on-black homicide is the leading cause of death for young black males ages 12 to 19. Both of my sons, while in high school, have had friends die this way. In my day, growing up in Brooklyn during the Howard Beach incident, I too had more high school friends who died at the hands of fellow young black men. Why aren’t we equally outraged by black on black homicide as we are when a white person kills one of us?
I hope Zimmerman gets a fair trial that leads to hard time in state prison. But what is the black community’s culpability in perpetuating the negative black male stereotype that Zimmerman chose to believe? White people do no have a monopoly on racist thinking. Black and Latinos perpetuate negative stereotypes, too. We all bear some responsibility. It’s a result of the systemic, often institutionalized racism we are all under. We need to analyze that and get free from it.
What if we all operated on the root cause of the sickness — the systemic racism in our society, which has warped the minds of all Americans, instead of the symptom only? What if we all attacked the sin at its source? I believe we all need systematic anti-racism training — in schools, churches, and at home — to heal from racism.
There is a pattern to how we react to these high-profile, racially charged recurring tragedies (see Emmett Till, or more recently Yusef Hawkins and the Jena 6). We learn of these incidents through the media and become angry. Anger leads to protesting, marching, and chanting led by national civil rights leaders. Scapegoats are soon forced to resign, like how the Sanford police chief abruptly agreed March 22 to step down “temporarily” under pressure. Oh, we may even have a vigorous national conversation about race for a week or so. But after the news cycle has run its course, we quickly return to the same old stereotyping until the next tragedy explodes.
Meanwhile, good dads and moms are left dreading the perilous prospects that may await their innocent sons.
Whether the destruction inflicted upon our black sons comes from within our community or from without, we must be intentional about equipping them to rise above the ignorance and hate. If our black sons are to ever be as safe as young white men in America, we must get to the root cause of the negative black male stereotype that has burdened me, my brothers, my dad, and generations of African American men.
If we don’t, we’ll continue to mourn the tragic and unnecessary deaths of young men like Trayvon Martin.