Thank You, Post-Racial America For Making it Clear That It's Open Season on My Black Sons

A year and a half ago I was one of the over two million people who signed a petiton posted by two parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. "Prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin" it read. Through my tears, I signed that petition and shared it with everyone I knew.

The very idea that an unarmed black teenager who was watching the NBA All Star Game with his family could decide to run over to the local 7-11 and be murdered on the way home by a neighborhood watch captain—and that the person who shot him, George Zimmerman, would not be arrestedenraged me. After hearing the 911 call, I was astounded that Zimmerman had the nerve to claim self defense and that the police went along with it and let Zimmerman go free.

Did not the black teenager have the liberty to walk where he saw fit without being accosted by a threatening stranger? Didn't that black teenager deserve the same justice that would surely have been served if he'd been a white 17-year-old carrying Skittles and a can of iced tea?

As damning as it was for it to take 44 days for Zimmeman to be arrested, there was a part of my heart that wasn't completely surprised. When you grow up black in America, you've been to this rodeo before.

Maybe you know about the Red Summer of 1919. Perhaps you heard Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" playing on your grandmother's record player or heard your mother speaking in sorrowful, hushed tones about Emmett Till, about the Little Rock Nine, the Birmingham church bombings--about all the stories of the civil rights movement. Or maybe you came home one night and saw a video of Rodney King being beaten on your evening news. You might've seen Los Angeles burn after the police officers who broke King's body with their nightsticks walked free. Maybe you lived in New York City when Amadou Diallo was murdered, or perhaps you frequented the Fruitvale Station where Oscar Grant was shot by a transit cop.

You know the local stories that never make the national news. Those are shared when your aunties come over, when you're at church, and when you're at the barber shop or beauty shop, getting your hair done. You see yourself in those stories. You see people you know in those stories. You see your own children in those stories.

I've seen my black male relatives and friends followed around stores, denied jobs, and told apartments are already rented when they're not. I've seen them have to learn the nuances of what to do when the're approached by law enforcement. I've been in the car with them when they get pulled over and questioned for having expired city stickers or license plates, which are not actually expired. Tail lights which are supposedly out when the cops pull you over but then they magically work after they've run your ID.

This past year in sixth grade, my 12-year-old was pegged as the scary black aggressor after he punched a white kid. The kid was always getting in trouble for misbehaving, had a history of harassing my son, calling him racial names and swearing at him, and then made the mistake of pulling my son's shorts down in gym class, which pushed my son over the edge. I sat in a school counselor's office boiling as the white child cried that my son had been intimidating him and that he was scared of him, and oh, my son pulled down this kid's shorts first. The white child's version of what happened was being given credence until I threatened to go to the LAPD and file a hate crime and sexual harassment complaint against the other kid.

"I am Trayvon Martin" isn't just a slogan on a t-shirt for us.

My son, Mr. O, is nearly 5' 2" and this summer I've had to tell him, I don't care if you're going to get bored shopping with me or if you feel better having Superman in your pocket, you can NOT take an action figure you already own into Target because it will probably be assumed that you shoplifted it.

Liberty and justice for all? Liberty and justice becomes at least you get to have an action figure at all. 

Like every other black person I know, I have no choice but to accept the reality of living in an America that has a dehumanized vision of blackness as part of its foundation. I do myself and my sons a disservice if I refuse to admit that this country is good at facilitating inequality which creates policies, laws, and cultural practices that lead to the subjugation, incarceration, and murder of black males.

I don't have to like the way things are. I can fight against the "system" and work to change it--I tell my sons that the reason they are getting an education is that they can learn to solve the problems in our society, so they're equipped to dismantle this system and replace it with true justice and equality. I tell them that they have to be unwavering advocates for racial unity, the people who are friends with people from all backgrounds--and I'm talking true friendships, not just casual acquaintances. But they also have to learn to function in a society that is sick with racism at its spiritual core, because the alternative is to lose your mind when the racism slaps you in the face with a not guilty verdict.

A dear friend asked me earlier today, "How do you talk to your boys about the verdict?" and yet another wondered, "What conversations can we have with our children about this?"

My son's were out watching Superman with their dad and with friends of theirs when the verdict came in. I texted my husband so he could tell them the verdict on the way home. They'd watched some of the trial with me, and we've had countless conversations about racism in America and what happened to Trayvon Martin.

When you're an adult, an unidentified adult male stalking you in the dark is scary. When you're a kid, it's absolutely terrifying. My sons knew that the adult, Zimmerman, was the aggressor from the very beginning, and so they had an unshakeable conviction that Zimmerman would be found guilty. My sons were easily able to put themselves in Trayvon's shoes.  A jury of six women, who have probably been followed by a scary, stalkerish man at some point in their lives, was not.

As my 12-year-old walked in the house over an hour after the verdict had been read, I hugged him tight, and he whispered to me, "I'm so sorry for Trayvon, mom." I broke down sobbing on his shoulder because as much as I have tried to give him a childhood full of innocence, he has never had the luxury of innocence about race.

No, I don't shield these horrific incidences from my sons because they can't afford to think about the systematic impact of racism only when it's national news. Sure, some of us are busy patting ourselves on the back for electing a black President—in much the same way that some folks must've claimed America's race problem was "fixed" after Mississippi elected its first black Senator in 1870.  But in your post-racial America, part of the ritual of them learning to survive as a black male in America is getting real clear that but for the grace of God, you might be shot by someone like George Zimmerman. My sons have to understand what can happen to them because of other people seeing the world through their "black people are scary" glasses.

Indeed, Zimmerman told the police dispatcher, "These assholes always get away." I can burn all of my sons' hoodies, tell them to dress like they just walked out of an LL Bean catalog, and tell them to only play Vampire Weekend on their iPods, but in Zimmerman's world, and for too many other Americans, my sons are "those assholes" no matter what they do, and it's all because of the color of their skin.

I couldn't sleep last night and my sons couldn't sleep either. "Did that court really let that guy who killed Trayvon go free?" asked my 9-year-old several times. "Yep, it did," I replied. He seemed more shocked, and more deflated, every time I told him yes.

At 1:30 AM, my 12-year-old came out to where I was sitting on the couch and sat on my lap. "Why can't you sleep?" I asked him. "I don't know. Just bothered, I guess," he replied. He's big but I held him and rocked him like he was a little baby till he began to doze off. 

Yes, it makes me feel insane to have to have that conversation about action figures. It makes me feel insane that we've had the "should you run or stand up for yourself in this situation?" conversation. It makes me feel insane to have to explain that when the police are following you, keep your hands out of your pockets and don't dig around in your backpack. It makes me feel insane that I have to tell him the same things my parents told me--you will have to work twice as hard as your white peers because you will always be perceived as a problem, as lazy, as unarticulate, as not the right fit for our organizational culture. And now you need to be afraid of the average person, too. 

But nothing I feel right now can come close to what I know Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin must be feeling, and I know they need more than our collective anger. And so last night through my tears, I signed another petition. This one came from the NAACP asking the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against George Zimmerman. Sign it, but know that there is more to be done. Sixteen months after Trayvon Martin was murdered, the man who shot him is out on the street again with his gun. There is more to be done.


Elita said…
There is more to be done. Love you, Liz.
Anonymous said…

This isn't a simple case of a white man stalking a black boy. To present it as such is disingenuous. By the time the shot was fired, it was a fight, pure and simple.

Teenagers of all races need to learn that it is extremely dangerous to confront a stranger alone at night because they're creepy or insulting or racist. Trayvon should have run home, hung up on Rachel and called 911, or run back to a well lit public place like the convenience store.

That is the lesson your sons should learn.
Liz Dwyer said…
Love you, too. Thanks for reading--writing this was very cathartic. Sometimes I wonder how my grandparents and my parents didn't go crazy with the racism they had to deal with, and the worrying they had to do about us kids. We have to keep on keeping on, and have each other's back as we raise up this new generation.
Liz Dwyer said…
Anonymous, Actually, yes, it was a case of a man stalking a black boy. If Zimmerman doesn't get out of the car to follow Trayvon, none of this happens.

Anonymous said…
I agree with Liz here but at the same time, the above note has meaning to it. There obviously was a fight but we have no idea what happened or occurred during that fight. All we know is that a young man full of potential lost his life. That is absolutely by itself horrific, add into the fact that another mans life has been ruined by this happening and its tragic. I feel bad for both families. We as a race, the HUMAN RACE, need to get our stuff together. In the end, nothing separates anyone from another person. We are born, we live and we die. What we do while we alive...well that is the big question for everyone. What will you do while you are alive?
We heard you this morning on KPCC, and proceeded to add your blog to OUR BLOG, called GrandparentingPlus ( Your posting was so poignant. We were in tears reading it. We hope it will direct some other readers to your site. It's hard to have hope, when children, of any color, are racially profiled.
All best,
Laurie Sale & June Solnit Sale
Anonymous said…
I'm pretty sure I feel better with Liz telling her sons what lessons they should learn rather than Anonymous. I have a feeling she probably knows more about the realities they'll face in the community and country they live in.

-an unrelated Anonymous
Anonymous said…
I think it's absolutly ridiculous that Zimmerman got NOTHING for this stupid CRIME. However, to paint this as a picture of Trayvon being completly innocent is absurd. Was he profiled? Yes. Should Zimmerman have stayed in his car? Absolutly.

But what do you think happened? You think Trayvon was scared so he decided to pummel Zimmerman? Because I believe he probably had enough of the profiling, something I know all too well, and decided to teach Zimmerman a lesson and beat his ass. Unlucky for him (and maybe lucky for Zimmerman) the other guy was carrying a gun, looking for any excuse to use it.

You can say Tryvon is alive today if Zimmerman stays in in car.. Yes, I agree... But I also believe Trayvon is alive today if he puts his fists away and uses his words...
Anonymous said…
I agree that a loss of life is heartbeating. Always has and always will. However, a court case must provide evidence; not assumptions. There has been no evidence provided to the court or the public that Zimmerman acted on hatred for a particular race. Until evidence is provided, the Department of Juctice has no case against Zimmerman. All we know is that Zimmerman called neighborhood troublemakers as#@!les. He didn't directly insult Martin based on Martin's character. Calling someone an as#@! le is not racist. All that can change from this unforunate event is to have the US Supreme Court rule on Florida's gun laws. RIP T.Martin
Liz Dwyer said…
So if he puts his fists away and uses his words, he's still alive? I don't think that worked out so well for 13-year-old Darius Simmons:
Liz Dwyer said…
This is very true--what will we do while we're each alive to be a part of the solution. I firmly believe that people of all colors have work to do, whether it's dropping the inherent sense of superiority or finding it in your heart to forgive. None of it is easy but it has to happen because the blood is running through our streets.
Liz Dwyer said…
Hi June and Laurie, So kind of you to come say hello and thank you. I was in tears writing this, and the saddest part is that America being America, this won't be the last time something like this jolts our collective amnesia on race.
Liz Dwyer said…
Amen, Anonymous. Amen.
Geneviève said…
Tears Liz. Tears. Thanks for sharing your very personal, yet universal, story and perspective. I appreciate you.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks for commenting. What comes to mind is what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote over at The Atlantic:
I have seen nothing within the actual case presented by the prosecution that would allow for a stable and unvacillating belief that George Zimmerman was guilty.

That conclusion should not offer you security or comfort. It should not leave you secure in the wisdom of our laws. On the contrary, it should greatly trouble you. But if you are simply focusing on what happened in the court-room, then you have been head-faked by history and bought into a idea of fairness which can not possibly exist.

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by a jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for the lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class."
D. Chaires said…
Heard you on the radio... Seems like just the other day I was wrestling with the boys in your living room. Peace to you and your family.
Anonymous said…
This whole thing hurts so bad. It still feels so raw. Over here in Europe us black people can't get over it, we are just glad that personal guns aren't legal here. No matter what conutry you are in, black people will always be seen as 'scary', so it is dangerous that people can potentially be armed and probably use their guns on 'scary' black people. Messed up! God help and protect you guys in America! God bless you, your husband and your beautiful sons.

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