Imagine today is March 23, 1962 and a black teenager is walking down the street with candy in his hand. He’s coming home from a segregated school to a segregated neighborhood. He can’t vote because he’s too young but it may not matter because depending on where he lives in America, he probably won’t have the right to vote anyway. Sadly it won’t matter. It won’t matter because this child is shot down in cold blood as he’s walking down the street in the “wrong neighborhood.” The local police investigate the “incident” and find it was “self defense.” His murderer is still walking the streets of 1962 America. While this may be a fictional character and scenario, it’s not far off from the truth.
Fast forward to today, March 23, 2012. A black teenager named Trayvon Martin was murdered 27 days ago. He was strolling down the street with Skittles and was gunned down by George Zimmerman because he was ”walking around staring at the houses.” Today, March 23, Zimmerman is walking the streets of 2012 America. And sadly Trayvon can’t. Trayvon will never vote. Trayvon will never graduate from high school much less attend college. Today, March 23, 2012, George Zimmerman can do all of those things.
My fellow MSNBC Contributor Jonathan Capehart recently said “I could have been Trayvon Martin” when walking through his childhood neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. What’s more sobering is what he said afterward: “I still could be Trayvon Martin because of someone else’s suspicion.” Capehart’s statement forced me to look inward at my own suspicions, my own racism and frankly it’s past time for each of us to examine our own stigmas.
I grew up in a sleepy southern town. I had no black neighbors. I had virtually no black friends other than a few high school acquaintances. I had a black nanny but virtually no interaction with her children. In my childhood of the late-1960′s to the mid-1980′s, blacks stayed in their neighborhoods and whites stayed in theirs. To me, this was as normal as the sun setting and the moon rising.
I’ll readily admit that as a child I would’ve looked twice had I seen a young black man walking down my street. I probably would’ve run inside and told the nearest adult. What my nanny would have thought. I’m describing learned behavior. I’m describing racism. And racism isn’t just a southern thing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind folks of the Boston busing riots of the late 1960′s. Bigotry crosses state and regional lines.
As the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama addressed the issue of race in a speech in Philadelphia. He discussed white resentment and black anger in depth and by most accounts, his was a watershed speech. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 85% of Americans either watched the speech or read about it. That’s an amazing statistic, considering he was just one of 100 Senators and wasn’t yet President. It’s also important because this national issue of race is rarely broached by our elected officials.
We don’t have enough of this. If it’s good enough for our nation to have a “religious freedom” debate during this Presidential election season, then doesn’t it seem legitimate to debate the continued problem of race relations? This type of debate isn’t just for the voting age population or those tuned into the media. We owe it to our children to have this debate, to expose them to the ugly face of racial stereotypes. We owe it to our children to make them better than us.
I reckon back to my own childhood and am reminded further of what my friend Jonathan said in his interview with Reverend Al Sharpton. Capehart was taught by his mother not to run, not to put his hands in his pockets. What was I taught? I was taught to watch for anyone black who ran or put his hands in his pockets or looked “suspicious.” My father, who’s deceased, frequently used the “N” word and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit I did the same as a kid.
Over time, I learned right from wrong. Today, Jonathan Capehart is my good friend and his race is irrelevant to me. I’ve never asked him this but I assume my race doesn’t matter to him either. What could have been a vicious cycle was broken. Sadly in Florida 27 days ago, it reared its ugly head again in a very tragic way.
We all have a moral obligation to look inward in times like these and ask ourselves real, substantive questions about our religious, moral, and racial beliefs. Some have criticized President Obama for making a statement on the death of Trayvon Martin. To be fair, each of the candidates for the Presidency has made their thoughts known on this tragedy. Sadly, these speeches and statements came almost a month after Trayvon’s death and not by coincidence after the President spoke of this tragedy from the Rose Garden. It was almost as if everyone running for any office this fall was waiting for someone higher up to speak first. No profiles in courage here.
Shouldn’t we expect the men running for the Presidency to step up, to soothe a country angry and grieving over the relationship between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman? I do. I also expect parents across this country to have this conversation with their children at the dinner table in the coming weeks. I expect our religious leaders to preach on this subject as well.
If this conversation could be had by our political and religious leaders in a 1962 America don’t we deserve one in 2012?