It has been over a month since Trayvon Martin was shot dead in cold blood on the streets of Sanford, Florida. It took all of that time, and the outrage and protest of thousands of people to finally bring his killer, George Zimmerman, up on some sort of charges. Zimmerman has been charged and will stand trial for second degree murder.
What is wrong with this picture? What if Trayvon Martin was a white teenager? Zimmerman would have been behind bars minutes after the shooting. But a young black man carrying a bag of skittles and an iced tea? According to the police, that’s a credible threat to a grown man with a gun.
Since Trayvon Martin’s murder, the media has done an excellent job of smearing his reputation and putting his past under the microscope. So what if Trayvon was caught with marijuana? One in five American teenagers has smoked marijuana. Many of them smoke regularly. Does that mean 20 percent of teenagers can be shot dead on the street? Even more ridiculous is the idea that Trayvon’s hoodie made him seem threatening. How many teenagers wear a hoodie every day—are they criminals?
Behind this whole discussion is an unspoken assumption – if you are black, you are guilty until proven innocent. Ask any young black man – How many times do strangers cross the street to avoid you? How many times are you followed in a store because they think you are stealing something? How often are you stopped on the street for some bullshit reason, simply because the police find you suspicious? In fact a black youth is five times more likely to go to jail as a white youth.
And this racism isn’t limited to young black men. Look at the case of Henry Louis Gates Jr. He is a 58 year old professor at Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. In 2009, he was arrested while trying to open the door of his own home after it got stuck. The cops assumed that a black man trying to open a door in a nice neighborhood must be a criminal. Professor Gates was handcuffed and taken into custody. He was only released after the cops found out that he is a famous Harvard professor – guilty until proven innocent.
Even worse is the case of 68-year-old retired Marine, Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. Last November while sleeping in his home in White Plains, New York, Chamberlain triggered his medical alert device by accident. The cops showed up and refused to believe Chamberlain that he was OK and didn’t need help. The cops busted down the door, shouting racial slurs. Then they shot Chamberlain with a tazer, with rubber bullets, then finally with a gunshot to the chest. No police were charged. The case wasn’t even national news until Trayvon Martin was shot and the media wanted another sensational story. Otherwise, Chamberlain would have been just another entry in the police record.
These cases show the racism of this society in the most shocking extreme. But these are just the most visible symptoms of a deeper problem. Twenty five percent of black families live in poverty compared to eight percent for white families. Schools in mostly-black urban centers receive one third of the funding of schools in mostly-white suburbs. There are more black men in jail or on parole today than there were slaves in the South before emancipation. In other words, black people have fewer opportunities, fewer jobs, and are more likely to be jailed or killed than anyone else. And we are supposed to believe this is their fault?
This society blames, frames, deprives, and denigrates black people from the day they are born. And when someone like Trayvon Martin is killed, he is blamed for his own death! To pretend there can be justice in this environment is a sick joke.
No amount of racist blame can hide the truth. The real criminals are those who are destroying the future of a whole generation of young people. The banks and corporations are profiting more than ever. But young people face a future of less education, more unemployment, and increasing hopelessness. And the racism of this society assures that black youth receive the absolute worst treatment. This system of exploitation only serves the wealthy elite. We need to a build system that serves the needs of everyone, regardless of color. Only then can we have real justice.