So much for the over-hyped notion of a post-racial America: It’s open season on black men.
Black America took an emotional gut punch Saturday night after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of racially profiling unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and then gunning him down on a rainy street on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida.
The jury’s mind-numbing verdict sends a clear message to America that the life of a black male teenager means absolutely nothing. Moreover, the judgment will forever change the discussion of race in this republic and further polarize Americans along racial lines even though President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, occupies the White House.
“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy,” Obama said in a statement Sunday. “Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
“We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities,” Obama said, weighing into the thorny issue of race. “We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”
The president makes perfect sense, but as an African American man, I find this verdict particularly disturbing because every black man in America is a potential Trayvon Martin. In addition, the legitimate issue of racial profiling was summarily dismissed by jurors once they allowed Zimmerman to walk out of the courtroom.
What exactly was this jury’s message to black men? What are jurors telling my friend in Chicago who is raising three black boys? Or a mother of two black boys in St. Louis who told me she is “utterly horrified” by the verdict.
By acquitting Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, the all-female jury of five whites and one Hispanic set a dangerous precedent by giving neighborhood watch captains and would-be cops the legal authority to stalk unarmed black men — and shoot them without fear of being jailed for using deadly force.
It means that some overzealous gun owners will undoubtedly use this verdict to justify profiling black men because they look suspicious, perhaps defy police orders to stand down, as Zimmerman did, shoot — even if black men are not carrying weapons — and then claim self-defense.
“Every American ought to be afraid that my child can do nothing wrong and can be killed,” Rev. Al Sharpton said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
While many black Americans are expressing shock and disbelief over the Zimmerman verdict, I, too, am outraged — but I’m not surprised.
And that’s a shame.
Sadly, Trayvon Martin’s family never had a chance to seek justice for their son once this jury was empaneled. During jury selection, I watched carefully while Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, skillfully found ways to dismiss any potential black jurors. He knew that stacking the jury with as many whites as possible may guarantee an acquittal for his client.
This was clearly not a jury of Trayvon Martin’s peers. There were no African Americans or men on the jury. There were no people on the jury who understood or cared about racial profiling or the challenges black men face just by walking through the streets of America.
There was no one on the jury who had the life experiences of a black man in America so how could anyone expect this jury to sympathize with Travyon Martin?
It’s no secret that black Americans have always been distrustful of the nation’s racially skewed judicial system and Saturday’s verdict only confirms that justice for black people is often elusive, like sand slipping through fingers.
“Our kids are still defined by the color of their skin,” Sybrina Martin told me in April.
In the months ahead, I’m concerned for the safety of young black men while, regrettably, watching history repeat itself: First there was Emmitt Till, who was murdered in 1955 at the age of 14 by white men who claimed Till was flirting with a white girl. Then, Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, was murdered in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
And now, Trayvon Martin.
The sad truth is that black men are no strangers to racial profiling. Almost all of my black male friends have been racially profiled at some point during the lives – and that includes me.
It happened again earlier this summer while I was visiting family in Sacramento, California and taking a morning walk around their neighborhood.
I was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, a cap, and listening to music on my iPod. It was about 8 a.m. and sunny and I noticed a van following me. A white man was behind the wheel and he continued to stare as he pulled alongside me.
I didn’t think about it initially until the van made a U-turn and slowly followed me from a quarter-mile back. When I walked faster, he sped up. When I slowed down, he dropped back. He continued to trail me as I walked around the block three times. He backed off only after he watched me walk into my aunt’s house.
I cover the White House, I’m a radio commentator on national radio, I’ve interviewed Obama twice face-to-face, and I’m a father, but the white man who followed me in Sacramento only saw me as a suspicious black man, perhaps a suspect, and possibly up to no good.
A friend asked me if I plan to see the movie “Fruitvale Station,” which opens later this month. It’s the true story of a 22-year-old unarmed black man from Oakland who was shot and killed by police.
I will definitely see “Fruitvale Station,” but not today. I’m still pondering the true meaning of justice.
Michael H. Cottman, a Senior Correspondent for BlackAmericaWeb.com, covers the White House. He also serves as a political analyst and co-host for “Keeping It Real with Rev. Al Sharpton,” a daily national radio show.
(Photo: Courtesy of Martin Family)