Five years ago, as 17-year-old Trayvon Martin went in search of an evening snack while visiting his father in the normally sedate city of Sanford, Florida, he could not have known that it would be his last night alive.
But because he was “armed” with his habitually-worn hoodie, cellphone, exhibited city swagger and stuck out with his caramel-colored skin like a fly in the buttermilk, he assumed the persona of an opposing, menacing figure.
At least that’s what George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, decided. It was this kind of narrow-minded, stereotypical hogwash that prompted Zimmerman, Trayvon’s soon-to-be killer, to conclude that both he and his pristine, gated community were in trouble and that he might have to take the law into his own hands to secure their safety.
We all know the outcome. Zimmerman, finding himself on the losing end of an old-fashioned fistfight, took out his gun and shot the unarmed youth with deadly intent.
Black parents today could probably sleep much better at night if they thought Zimmerman’s attitude and actions were an anomaly rather than the norm. However, in cities big and small, Black men and boys tend to be viewed as criminals, rogues or troublemakers more often due to what they’re wearing or the music to which they’re listening — rather than what they’re actually saying or doing.
Since Trayvon’s death, the names of more young Black men and women have been added to an ongoing list of controversial, questionable deaths, reminding us that Black men and boys face each day in constant jeopardy of being used as target practice because of stereotypes, racism and unfounded fears. As much as Black parents arm their children with strategies they’ll need when they face those inevitable run-ins with men like Zimmerman, the chance of their returning home unscathed is far from guaranteed.
In America, “walking, driving, even skateboarding or bicycling while Black” is still a crime with those who violate the “law” more likely to end the day as occupants in the city morgue instead of finding themselves safely ensconced in the arms of their mothers.