The case of Trayvon Martin — shot by George Zimmerman after a runaway sequence of events — sure got everybody’s attention.
Those whites who have little sympathy or patience for considering the black experience generally, simply wouldn’t examine what, if anything, they could learn from an event that may illuminate troubling patterns in the interactions between black males (of any age) and authority. Those whites seem to bristle at the notion that simply being black could ever result in outcomes or life experiences that might — if all other factors could be held constant — be different than those of white people.
And many blacks, quite familiar — personally or through incidents told them — with the sort of surveillance, or monitoring, or actual questioning that Trayvon may have experienced, were filled with anger and outrage at his death. To those blacks, Trayvon’s death is both an individual death and a symbol of the humiliation and too-often-invisible injustice of a thousand questionable traffic stops, harassments and mistreatments.
The blacks and whites — and their reactions — who I’ve just described are a giant gap apart. But many blacks and whites can see the terrible simultaneous realities that make these cases so difficult. In many urban areas, blacks are disproportionately the perpetrators (and victims) of crime, and troubled black male youths are really overrepresented in crime statistics (and in prison populations). There is a legitimate reason that law enforcement authorities and ordinary, unbigoted citizens sometimes look hard at urban black youth.
At the same time, black males — innocent or guilty — are constantly on the receiving end of those looks. It’s the rare black man who has not experienced the reality of being questioned or of making a stranger uncomfortable. If you are a law-abiding black man, you learn to adopt strategies to cope with these realities. But it can certainly make you feel anger, resentment, bitterness, humiliation and the object of injustice.
There is a real reason that the phrase “driving while black” exists. In other circumstances, it can be “walking while black” or “shopping while black.” White people who cannot understand the black reaction to Trayvon’s death will never understand it unless they let themselves imagine what it must be like to be stopped repeatedly — while innocent of anything — to be questioned about your very presence on this street, in this car, in this store, or in whatever place you happen to be stopped.
All of that said, plenty of fair-minded blacks and whites recognize the sometimes no-win position of law-enforcement officers who must daily — time after time after time — strike the right balance between actively monitoring the activities in the streets and respecting the privacy and rights of citizens exercising our considerable freedoms.
Furthermore, as many black leaders have exhorted, young black men have to take more responsibility — to the degree possible — for their lives, families, activities and advancement. I have personally spoken with many young black men who — with few resources of all kinds — have determined that they will become constructive forces in their own lives.
But large-scale change and the empowerment of black youth en masse will require attention to the many deficits that surround them, and the many deficits that personally they have. And as Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has spoken about, the deficits that young black children have — as early as age 3 — are not moral failings or personal shortcomings, they are deficits in knowledge and skills. And they have developed those deficits because nobody has modeled, or taught them, the skills and personal qualities that our society values and rewards, and that individuals must possess in order to be successful in our culture.
And really, to emphasize the point about the critical role of skills and deficits, we know that struggling or failing human beings can be persons of any skin color. We know that any child or young person can be put at risk by neglectful parents, absent parents, inadequate nutrition, inadequate brain stimulation, severe poverty, dysfunctional schools, drug cultures, gang pressures, bullying, physical or emotional abuse, or lack of employment opportunities. In our urban black communities today, we see an overwhelming concentration of these factors.
Positively, lots of black and white leaders are speaking and writing about breaking the cycle of black poverty, dysfunction, violence and underachievement. Cornel West, William Julius Wilson, Deborah Meier and Robert Bellah, among many others, have written about both the policies and the habits of mind and heart that would improve the chances of a just and healthy society for all.
And on the ground, many citizens and organizations work every day to improve the skills of at-risk children (of all colors) to further their odds of success. Geoffrey Canada, Greg Croteau of UTEC in Lowell, Molly Baldwin of ROCA in Chelsea, Dorothy Stoneman of YouthBuild in 46 states, the Boston Ten-Point Coalition and, locally, Linda Saris of Salem CyberSpace are examples involved in this work.
Racial issues are real, and we should be unafraid to state them. As James Baldwin wrote, about this issue we must insist on full consciousness. Blacks and whites together must see what is, even when there are more than enough realities involved to make both peoples uncomfortable. We can take encouragement from the spectacle of extraordinary achievement so far in history.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.