If Trayvon Martin were not a young Black male, he would be alive today. Despite the verdict, it’s clear that George Zimmerman would never have confronted a young White man wearing a hoodie. He would, at the very least, have listened to the cops and stayed back. Trayvon Martin is dead because Zimmerman believed that “these guys always get away” and chose not to wait for the police.
Trayvon Martin’s death shatters the convenient myths that blind us to reality. That reality, as the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board wrote, is that “Black men carry a special burden from the day they are born.”
Both the prosecutor and the defense claimed that the trial was not about race. But Trayvon Martin was assumed to be threatening just for walking while being young, Black and male. That is the reality that can no longer be ignored.
Through the years, gruesome horrors — the murder of Emmitt Till, the shooting of Medgar Evers in his front yard — have galvanized African Americans and public action on civil rights. Trayvon Martin’s death should do the same.
What it dramatizes is what Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow.” Segregation is illegal and scurrilous racism unacceptable. But mass incarceration and a racially biased criminal justice system have served many of the same functions.
Since 1970, we’ve witnessed a 600 percent increase in the number of people behind bars, overwhelmingly due to the war on drugs. Those imprisoned are disproportionately African Americans. The U.S. now imprisons a greater percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
Drug usage is not dramatically greater in the Black community, but young Black males are racially profiled, more likely to be stopped and frisked (something New York Mayor Bloomberg defends), more likely to be arrested if stopped, more likely to be charged if arrested, more likely to be jailed if charged. In schools, zero tolerance — once again enforced disproportionately against people of color — results in expulsions, creating a virtual pipeline to prison.
The results are devastating. Young fathers are jailed. Children grow up in broken homes and in severe poverty, since those convicted never really leave prison. They face discrimination in employment, in housing, in the right to vote, in educational opportunities, in food stamps and public support. As Alexander argues, the U.S. hasn’t ended the racial caste system; it has redesigned it.
As Trayvon Martin’s death shows us, the norm increasingly is to police and punish poor young men of color, not educate or empower them. And that norm makes it dangerous to be young, Black and male in America.
There are three possible reactions to this reality. African Americans can adjust to it, teaching their children how to survive against the odds. We can resent it, seething in suppressed fury until we can’t stand it anymore. Or we can resist, assert our rights to equal protection under the laws, and challenge openly the new reality.
We need a national investigation of the racial context that led to Trayvon Martin’s slaying. Congress must act. And it’s time to call on the United Nations Human Rights Commission for an in-depth investigation of whether the U.S. is upholding its obligations under international human rights laws and treaties.
Trayvon Martin’s death demands much more than a jury’s verdict on George Zimmerman; it calls for us to hear the evidence and render a verdict on the racial reality that never had its day in court at the trial.
Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.