Test Case

A self-help book editor uses what she learns at work and in life to help herself.

The Truth About the Trayvon Martin Case

Trayvon Martin represents all young black men.

I wasn't going to touch this issue with a ten foot pole for many reasons, none of which was that I wasn't completely saddened and dismayed by the Zimmerman verdict, but I find myself thinking about it a lot.

I've seen the arguments about it ("It was racism!" "It wasn't racism!" "Nobody knows if it was racism!") the dueling Facebook posts and articles trying to prove one viewpoint or another, and the emotions that have been enflamed by what happened.

As a white woman, maybe I have no right to try to explain a part of what seems missing from the conversation, but as a member of this society, I feel like I have to attempt to, especially for people who cry "It wasn't racism."

I have no understanding of the legal ins and outs of this case, and I wasn't there when Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, obviously.

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But here's the thing: young black men in this country are, often literally, TARGETED. By cops. By rent-a-cops. By business owners who follow them around expecting them to steal. By drug dealers/gun dealers/thugs. By a system that assumes that a young black man is dangerous.

Even the fact that some people have posted to Facebook about how Trayvon was a good student and logged 600 hours of volunteer work sets up this idea that he wasn't a "normal" (i.e. "thuggish") young black man.

I suspect that 99% of the people reading this post, regardless of color, would look at a strange young black man in a hoodie and, at least on some level, become more alert. Because young black men in this country are considered dangerous, violent, and unpredictable. And to me, that's the dark, seamy, dirty underlying fact that we need to acknowledge as a society.

Black men are the most likely to be imprisoned of all demographics. Also to be shot by cops. And it seems like the black community is the only group that sees this. But we ALL need to see it. It affects each and every one of us, the same way any wrong done to a group of people affects all of us, and even more so because those of us who live in areas where there's a significant black community interact with young black men all the time. It's not just a tragedy for the black community. It's a tragedy for all of us.

I don't pretend to know the answer to this problem (although some ideas might have to do with education and money for outreach and peer/community support), but underneath the tragedy of this verdict, let's remember this fact:

As a society, we are allowing an entire large demographic of young men to rot in poverty/profiling/prison because we assume they're all thugs.

That's why this kid was shot: because he was a young black man. Zimmerman may or may not be what most of us would call a racist (heck, as someone who looks latino, he's probably dealt with his own share of racism), but he was certainly a product of a society where a young black man - unless he's wearing a tie and serving us a meal - is dangerous.

Zimmerman pulled the trigger, but our society killed Trayvon Martin. And Oscar Grant. And thousands upon thousands of young black men whose names we will never know. This national tragedy, if nothing else, highlights this awful fact.

Melissa Kirk is a writer and editor who works as an acquisitions and developmental editor at New Harbinger Publications, a self-help psychology publisher in Oakland, CA. 

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