Before he became the latest and most-Tweeted victim of racial violence in America’s long, dirty history, Trayvon Martin was just another kid growing up in Miami. He was a high school junior, got A’s and B’s in his classes, planned to go to college and become a flight mechanic. His folks were separated, so he split time between his mom’s house and his dad’s. He was just another kid.
Just another black kid, that is.
To George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon last month in the gated community outside Orlando he shared with Trayvon’s father, Trayvon was suspicious. Up to no good. A walking, talking threat of darkness.
Trayvon’s innocence — what could be more all-American than bringing home a bag of Skittles to watch the NBA All-Star game? — juxtaposed with Zimmerman’s vigilante persona makes this appear a classic case of right and wrong, black and white (or at least light-skinned.) But this is bigger than two individuals. This is bigger than the District Attorney who – unbelievably – still has yet to arrest Zimmerman. This is the reality of institutional racism in 21st century America: a racism that creeps along quietly, strong and determined, touching every corner of American life, until before you know it, it has touched a new corner of American death.
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By coincidence of work and schedule, I spent the last week in Miami. I was here on an arts residency, doing spoken word and youth empowerment workshops in the Miami public schools. And so as Trayvon’s murder became world news, I got a chance to experience the reality of Trayvon’s hometown, his community, his generation. One week in this city — or any big city in America — and it is plain to see the legalized pain and prejudice that led to the demise of another black boy before his time.
For my residency, I went to five public high schools all over town — North Miami, Wynwood, Little Havana. Except for the one charter arts school I visited, I never saw a single white student. Not one. Plenty of white teachers and principals of course, but not a single blonde ponytail with a backpack in any of Miami’s largest public schools. Segregation may be off the law books, but American schools have never been more separate, less equal.
At the first school I visited, I was shown around by a Latina teacher who gave me a the uncut, unofficial school tour. “You see how there’s no windows on this building?” she pointed out. “The same company that built this school builds jails all over Florida. That’s why our school looks like a jail, it feels like a jail…it’s not getting these kids ready for a college quad, it’s getting them ready for a prison cell.”
Two schools later, I got to meet a 16-year-old poet named Tavaris. In the second grade, Tavaris told the class, he saw a policeman shoot and kill his neighbor. To this day, he has flashbacks whenever he hears sirens. In his poem, he spit about his own dreads, baggy clothes, and black skin: “They say I fit the description / but the truth is, no matter what I wear / the description fits me.”
Meanwhile, on my day off amidst the white sand and five-star hotels of South Beach, I overheard a group of white college students on spring break. One kid was complaining about the recession and his job prospects after graduation, a familiar problem these days. His solution, however, was more Tea Party than Occupy: “You know, what I need is some black spray paint. I’ll paint myself up, then Obama will get me all the food stamps and welfare I’ll need.” They rushed off before I could tell them that they shouldn’t waste their money on paint (after all, most people on welfare are white), but as they sped off to their next keg stand, I wondered which one of them might be the next George Zimmerman.
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Here’s the thing that most white people don’t understand: race matters. It destroys. It dehumanizes. And it kills.
The killing is the noise. The murders, the riots, the protests: these are the loud outbursts we hear about when we hear anything about race these days. But it’s the everyday things — the interactions and the isolation, the public policies and the marketing strategies — that quietly set the stage for the Next Racial Unrest.
It’s not just the cops, although they are often the worst of the worst. It’s not just the vigilantes or neighborhood watchmen. It’s the principal expelling a boy for a fistfight. It’s the retail store manager following a girl around his store. It’s Hollywood executives killing off the black X-Man first — and not showing any real-life black superheroes. And it’s me every time I cross the street because a young man is walking towards me, and damn if he doesn’t look a lot like Trayvon.
And here’s another hard truth: the problem is not just white people. Here in Oakland, three kids under the age of five were killed this past year. Innocent bystanders, even though they were too young to stand. Black on black, black on brown, brown on black…but it would never be a white two-year-old who got shot like that here. Not just because of geography, but because the sad truth is that in America, white lives are valued more. By the police, by the schools, and yes, even by criminals. They know which cases will get judicial and media attention — and which ones will quickly go away.
The issue is not individual cases here and there. The issue is institutional racism and white privilege. The media loves to remind us that George Zimmerman was half-Peruvian (as if there’s no racism in Latin America), but that’s not the point. We all internalize America’s racist stereotypes – of black men, Muslim women, Asian athletes – to different degrees. The question is: do we recognize and fight against those personal and social prejudices, or do we ignore them and allow them to fester? To survive silently, noiselessly, until one day…
And now Trayvon Martin.
Now is no time to be quiet. Now is the time to be loud, to be together, to be organized. We have had moments for justice before: some we won, and many we lost. In this moment, in this time, let us be strong and let us be victorious. Not just this case, but let us win over this country that points a quiet gun to a black boy’s face every time he steps outside the door to get some Skittles.