I don't think there is anyone who hasn't been affected in some way by Florida teenager Trayvon Martin's death in February at the hands of a neighborhood watch man who thought he saw a threat in the tall black teenager wearing a dark hooded jacket. The story is almost too terrible for words.
I am white and my children are white. At the same time that I'm grieving with Trayvon's family, trying yet again to come to terms with the needless death of an innocent child, I recognize that I can't possibly grasp what it must feel like to know their precious son would likely still be alive if only he hadn't been black.
It wasn't the hoodie he was wearing that made him a target. Kids all across the country wear hoodies every day. It was the darkness of the skin underneath that hood that provided the catalyst for the kind of tragedy that is becoming as commonplace as it is unbearable.
We're in a place where the issue of racism opens up old wounds, forcing us to once again pull it out and examine it. I would say racism is back, but we all know it never really went away. We see it in the open hatred toward our first black president; in the collateral hatred toward his wife and daughters; in a generalized hatred toward people whose only difference is in the color of their skin.
I was a young mother during the last civil rights movement. It was impossible to explain the inexplicable to my children--that in our own country, this country that boasts about fairness and equality in story and song--there are white people who hate black people so much they want to do them harm.
But the conversations I had with my kids couldn't even come close to the painful necessity every black parent had--and still has--in explaining the same thing to their black children. How can it be explained? It made no sense then and it makes no sense now.
I look at Sybrina Fulton's face as she weeps over this latest insult to her dead son--the gleeful egging on of a story about his suspension from high school over an empty marijuana bag in his backpack; I hear the anguished rage in Tracy Martin's voice as he defends the reputation of his murdered son, and I am back to a time more than a half-century ago, when defenseless black citizens were humiliated and hurt and killed for no other reason than the color of their skin.
September, 1955. Murdered teenager Emmet Till's mother weeps at his open casket. Emmet Till was 14 years old when he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by white men for the crime of whistling at a white woman. His face was battered beyond recognition, but Mamie Till-Mobley wanted the world to see what pure hatred could do to another human being--and to society as a whole. "Civil rights activists used the murder of Emmett Till as a rallying cry for civil rights protest, transforming a heinous crime into a springboard for justice. The Montgomery Bus Boycott followed closely on the heels of the case. Indeed, Rosa Parks is quoted as saying, 'I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.'"
We are heading toward a new era of ignorance and poverty and those two ingredients become, historically, irrationally, the fuel for a dangerous firestorm. It's not a leap to suggest that the vital issue of civil rights needs to be addressed and overhauled before violence becomes the norm again.
The stink of prejudice is everywhere. Hispanics feel it, Muslims feel it, LGBTs feel it, anyone who is "different" feels it. We can't let hatred win. We owe some measure of attention to the memories of Trayvon and all other human beings who are punished, often to the point of losing their lives, for no other crime than being who they are.
(Cross-posted at Ramona's Voices)