Unlearning Racism

Trayvon Martin’s unnecessary death happened, in part, because of racist stereotypes that continue to plague all of us. We can school our Black sons on the injustices they’ll face, but nothing less than a social transformation is what’s needed.

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.

About the author, Wil LaVeist

Wil LaVeist is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker, and author of Fired Up: 4 Steps to Overcoming a Crisis, Including Unemployment. Contact him at www.WILLAVEIST.com, and listen to The Wil LaVeist Show Wednesdays at Noon to 1 p.m. on 88.1 WHOV in Hampton, Virginia.
  1. Racism ,hatred,bulling,judging is a heart issue that will only change when we allow the love of Christ rule our hearts.

    • Lou Anne: You are correct. In the meantime our U.S. constitution allows for citizens to pracitice other religions. They also believe their faith is the rigth way. How do we find a way to coexist, instead of stereotyping each other. whether it be race, religion, ethnicity, etc.? That’s where the systematic anti-racism, anti-ISMS training comes into play. Babies do not come into the world knowing racism. It is learned. It can also be unlearned. We can also decide as a nation/culture to stop teaching it.

  2. This is a great article Mr. LaVeist. I too am an African-American father who has two sons and two daughters. My sons are 21 and 18 years old. I too have given my oldest the briefing and will give it again to my youngest.

    I do have one disagreement with you. I think you expect too much when you speak of doing away with stereotypes. I also think you expect it from the wrong people. I believe your audience for this change is too broad. The discussion starts with the church. There is so much division in the church in terms of race and politics. The issue of race has never truly been dealt with in the body of Christ. All of us hope that it just goes away or we hope Jesus comes back soon and the issue will miraculously disappear. The Bible tells us that judgment begins at the House of God. I believe, personally, that healing does as well. But it won’t take place until this conversation truly begins in God’s house (the Body of Christ). The world has had many forums concerning this, yet we’re in the same place. That’s because racism isn’t just a head issue, it’s also a heart issue. Only Christ can change the heart.

    Also, I was talking to my wife about this and this thought came to mind. Our founding fathers left us with a great nation, a great heritage, and great promise. They also left us with a great flaw. The roots of racism spring forth from the history of slavery and Jim Crow. If the church refuses to deal with this, then it will be our undoing, at least in part.

    • Edward: Your point about starting in the church is central to what Jesus’ death and resurrection is about, so I agree, which is why I listed the church as a place where anti-racism training/cleansing must happen. However, the Christian church historically has been used by the enemy to spread racism, even though racism contradicts the gospel. Racism’s roots in America actually start with the violence done to our Indian brothers and sisters. The church played a role in that too. Anti-racism training must happen in and outside of the Christian church simultaneously because our country’s Constitution correctly guarantees the equal rights of non-Christians, agnostics and atheists to practice their beliefs or non beliefs. If we only focus on the church, what would become of my sons or your sons if they are confronted by citizens who are non believers in Jesus Christ? Systemic racism is a spiritual and natural issue. It is learned in at home, in schools, the church, and the broader society, so it can also be unlearned in those places. Since nothing is impossible for God, I don’t think I’m expecting too much.

      • I also believe that with God, all things are possible. But if racism could be dealt with by giving people anti-racism training, couldn’t we also deal with other forms of hatred the same way? How about other things such as adultery, fornication, lying, stealing, etc.? I don’t think so. That’s because racism is hatred. Hatred is a sin. There’s only one real way to deal with sin and that’s with the Cross and Blood of Jesus Christ. Can training, forums, and other types of discussions help alleviate racism and even change a few minds? Yes. But anti-racism training will not do away with racism. The reason it won’t is because this is man’s effort to change man and sin has only one remedy!

        I’m not trying to snuff out anyone’s hope. Quite the contrary, I am full of hope. I just know that the Scriptures let us know that the heart is exceedingly wicked and all the training in the world won’t change the human heart. There will always be racism (or any other -ism depending on what the differences are) in a society just like there will be murder, adultrery, theft, etc. Look at how we have tried to treat all the ills of our nation. For example, look at the war on drugs. We have thrown millions of dollars at arresting the dealers, the sellers, and the users and it hasn’t made a dent. We’ve spent millions more trying to treat the problem, yet many still remain addicted. We talk about fatherlessness and unwed mothers and abortion on demand. The government spends billions of dollars trying to overcome all of these ills and we aren’t reducing these problems. That’s because it’s a sin problem, not a training problem.

        My hope is in Christ alone! It is my belief that the only hope this nation has is a revival of repentance like we’ve never seen in our lifetimes, but we’ve read about in Christian history books. So yes Mr. LaVeist, I am full of hope! I hope that we will reach the point where we are tired of trying to fix spiritual problems with natural solutions and finally hit our knees at every altar in America and cry out to God. Just like He promised to the children of Israel in 2 Chronicles 7:14, our God still responds to true repentance!

  3. Wil, Edward both your points make sense; but they also make me wonder what would unlearning racism look like? Would it begin in the church and flow out? Who would implement the unlearning? Is it even feasible in church, much less the larger society, which includes government, schools, businesses, etc.? Would there be classes similar to Afro-American studies and would there be a Euro- American, Asian American, Hispanic American class? What would it look like, what could it look like? Just remembered hearing about Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Baptist Church in Dallas,Texas. He started something like this which has been operative there and in other places across the country, but I think it’s more like the church going in to the forgotten neighborhoods, establishing relationships with kids and their families and including other organizations of the city where political, community, and church work together to tear down the stereotypes and help one another to understand the truth about each other. This is the only model I know of. Perhaps there are others. Do either of you know of any?

  4. Wanda: I believe Tony Evans is an example of how the problem can be approached. There are others. Here is one that I attended recently: http://us.mcc.org/antiracism/damascusroad
    Yes, anti-racism training in the church would flow out because that is exactly what we are supposed to be doing as Christians. By our faith and through our love for others as representatives of Christ, we draw men and women to Jesus. Because of our witness and invitation people would look at us and say, “I need to have that Jesus that you speak of in my life also.” It’s not God’s judgement that draws men, but his love and compassion as evidenced through our witness. I know I’m preaching to the choir. However, we Christians, historically have tended to emphasize God’s judgement.
    Edward: As I said, I certainly agree with the church addressing this problem, which is why I listed the church. However, you did not answer my question regarding citizens of the U.S. who are of other faiths or who do not believe in God at all. They have equal rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness under our Constitution, which God has allowed to stand until He decides otherwise. What is your answer for these fellow human brothers and sisters who are Americans? If your only answer is that “they need Jesus,” then you and I know that we are in for a long wait to prevent another Trayvon anytime soon, which is the point of my commentary. If Christians ONLY are working on abolishing racism, then what happens when the next Trayvon is confronted by a non Christian? Do you believe Americans of different skin colors and religions should strive to coexist?

    If I’m reading you correctly, you are essentially saying that we first have to get the Christian church (with all of its different denominations and traditions) to seriously take up the issue of systematically dismantling racism and going through the potentially long process of healing. Since it has taken a while for us to get to this messy point, it is logical to figure that it will take some time for us to get out of it. In the best case scenario this “Christian church only or church first” approach would likely take several generations, unless the Holy Spirit stepped in with a miracle, like Paul meeting Jesus on Damascus Road (certainly the Holy Ghost can do this). Then, it seems you are saying that after we got our act together, then we share with the rest of American society, which includes citizens who are currently fine with the non-Christian faiths they practice, as well as those who reject God. Certainly, God would use us to win them over in His time. Again, I believe it is not JUST the responsibility of the church to abolish racism. The state aided by the church established racism in America. Babies do not come into the world knowing racism. It is a social construct. The black male negative stereotype and other stereotypes are the results of that construct. There is no biological evidence to support racism (the Eugenics movement tried and failed to prove this), so clearly God, in creating us in HIS image, did not create racism. He told us in Genesis to take dominion over the earth and animals, not each other. Skin color should be as insignificant as hair color or eye color. Racism is learned. It can be unlearned by the renewing of our minds.

  5. Wil, I guess the missing piece to acquainting everyone with the work of these much needed organizations is an effective commercial/air time campaign. Television is the most powerful medium for change in America and to hold meetings behind closed doors effects those in the meetings, but clearly it needs to be taken to the nation at large. Television is the key. And who knows, that this isn’t already in the making. People need to know that a work is being effected to remove this plague from our lives.

    • What a pleuasre to find someone who identifies the issues so clearly

    • GrYCrU dunsselboupm

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  9. Keith Mondello, one of Yusuf Hawkins’s killers, now works for the New York City Department of Sanitation making over $67,000 dollars a year.

    http://www.lipstickalley.com/f328/mad-f-ck-you-rewarding-him-shhhh-383015/

  10. I am coming to you with this very important film that will help offer another side to the black man versus media stereotypes through an important film, “Black Men, Afraid of Dark”. I am passionate about this piece because I constantly keep seeing black men get murdered behind these stereotypes and not able to ever do anything about it. This has been the case for Emmitt Till, Trayvon Martin and all the other youth and men who don’t get profiled. The world is full of stereotypes, but for black men, the fear that the world has of him has cost them their lives.

    Partnering with your organization, Stand Against Stereotypes will create a movement that this film and the world needs. I have a lot of notable people in the film that we can both benefit from in promotion. So far, I have interviewed Vondie Curtis Hall, Steele of Smif-N-Wessun, Malik Yoba, Sadat X of Brand Nubian, Peter Gunz, Kenya K. Stevens of Juju Mama, Kevin Powell, NY Senator Eric Adams, Dr. Llaila Afrika, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Phillips Bradford (grandson of man that had Ota Benga in the Bronx zoo), Tom Burrell, Sam Greenlee, Lou Myers, Independent hip hop and R&B artists (mikeflo, Chen Lo, Chris Rob, Hasan Salaam, etc) and black men from all walks of life and backgrounds.

    This film is necessary because for the first time every I talk openly and honest to black men from various backgrounds and age groups about their upbringing, relationships, how they define manhood, etc. I would love to partner up with your organization and work with you to campaign against these negative stereotypes, making this a world issue that is necessary to address.

    Please help me spread the word about this powerful film by helping me raise the necessary funds needed to complete production and post-production of this very important film. This film has been self-funded and denied various grants. However, I work as a preschool teacher everyday, putting all my money in it because I know that this film will heal the world by showing a side of black men through their eyes.

    The time is now. Please help me raise $25,000 by June 24th. It’s an all or nothing campaign so if I don’t raise it all, I don’t get one single penny… OUCH!

    Here is the link. Please help bring this project out. Production is almost done, but because of the high cost of editing, I won’t be able to do it alone.

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/afraidofdark/black-men-afraid-of-dark

  11. I am coming to you with this very important film that will help offer another side to the black man versus media stereotypes through an important film, “Black Men, Afraid of Dark”. I am passionate about this piece because I constantly keep seeing black men get murdered behind these stereotypes and not able to ever do anything about it. This has been the case for Emmitt Till, Trayvon Martin and all the other youth and men who don’t get profiled. The world is full of stereotypes, but for black men, the fear that the world has of him has cost them their lives.

    I have a lot of notable people in the film that we can both benefit from in promotion. So far, I have interviewed Vondie Curtis Hall, Steele of Smif-N-Wessun, Malik Yoba, Sadat X of Brand Nubian, Peter Gunz, Kenya K. Stevens of Juju Mama, Kevin Powell, NY Senator Eric Adams, Dr. Llaila Afrika, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Phillips Bradford (grandson of man that had Ota Benga in the Bronx zoo), Tom Burrell, Sam Greenlee, Lou Myers, Independent hip hop and R&B artists (mikeflo, Chen Lo, Chris Rob, Hasan Salaam, etc) and black men from all walks of life and backgrounds.

    This film is necessary because for the first time every I talk openly and honest to black men from various backgrounds and age groups about their upbringing, relationships, how they define manhood, etc. I would love to partner up with your organization and work with you to campaign against these negative stereotypes, making this a world issue that is necessary to address.

    Please help me spread the word about this powerful film by helping me raise the necessary funds needed to complete production and post-production of this very important film. This film has been self-funded and denied various grants. However, I work as a preschool teacher everyday, putting all my money in it because I know that this film will heal the world by showing a side of black men through their eyes.

    The time is now. Please help me raise $25,000 by June 24th. It’s an all or nothing campaign so if I don’t raise it all, I don’t get one single penny… OUCH!

    Here is the link. Please help bring this project out. Production is almost done, but because of the high cost of editing, I won’t be able to do it alone.

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/afraidofdark/black-men-afraid-of-dark