Columbia, SC — WHATEVER you thought about a jury’s decision to grant an acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin, the more troublesome verdict was the one George Zimmerman reached a year and a half ago when he stopped the hoodie-wearing black teen as he walked alone in the rain.
With no other information other than Trayvon’s appearance, he had determined the African-American youngster was one of those “---holes” who “always get away.” While we’re likely to never know what led to Mr. Zimmerman eventually shooting Trayvon to death, we do know that this one didn’t get away.
While a jury has spoken and we should accept its verdict, there’s no denying that Mr. Zimmerman — the adult neighborhood watchman who should have been looking out for Trayvon rather than being out for him — ultimately became the teen’s judge, jury and executioner.
There was absolutely no reason for Trayvon Martin to die.
And that’s why so many black men are angry. The incident opened deep, festering wounds over the dark history of black men in America being profiled and mistreated, to include erroneous arrests, physical harm and even death. White people earned approval for the mistreatment of black people. Many black men have been left for dead after an encounter that began with a harmless disagreement, a routine traffic stop or even a case of mistaken identity. Oftentimes, the perpetrators were never sought, let alone apprehended; and when they were brought before a court, they often were acquitted.
At the heart of this issue is racial profiling, which is, well, a heart issue. While in many instances problems arise out of insensitivity, the truth is that our state and country aren’t that far removed from their racist pasts.
Some police experts and others declare that profiling is not only an appropriate tool to use in seeking out criminals, but an essential one. But it can lead to irreparable harm to innocent people.
Some people think it was logical for George Zimmerman to conclude that Trayvon Martin was up to no good because black suspects had burglarized several homes in that neighborhood. Really? It’s that simple? Well, an African-American man is sleeping in the White House, but I don’t see folks accusing many black men of being the president.
Ask practically any black man about the times they’ve been wrongly profiled, and they will rattle off any number of instances in a lifetime of being considered a suspect.
Here are a few of my own.
• When I was a pre-teen playing football at the local Boys Club, a coach who was a Columbia police officer told me he knew a black guy with the same name as mine who carried a weapon in his afro. He then asked me if I had a weapon. (I had about as much hair then as I do now.)
• My two brothers and I would be followed the entire time we were in the local five and dime, while little white boys had the run of the store — no escort.
• As a college student at USC, I walked into a department store at Columbia Mall carrying a bag from another establishment. An employee told me he needed to staple my bag shut. Meanwhile, white patrons with multiple bags walked by without hindrance.
• During an internship while in college, a white female editor told me she didn’t think we were going to get along. It was her first time meeting me, along with the other dozen or so interns. The internship was with a N.C. newspaper; I wasn’t the only one from Columbia or South Carolina or the South. I wasn’t the only male. But I was the only African-American.
• In my first-ever trip to Augusta for an overnight stay, it took me a while to find my hotel. A police officer pulled me over; I still don’t know why. He said it seemed as if I didn’t know where I was going. I told him I was looking for my hotel. He never offered to help, but he did make it a point to ask me how long was I going to be in town and what time I was leaving.
• I lived in the Spring Valley subdivision for eight years. About every other month, neighborhood security would stop me, ask for ID and inquire whether I lived there. Sometimes it was the same officer, and I was driving the same car — with the homeowner’s sticker on the bumper.
• A couple of dozen newspaper people took a trip to Miami for training one year, and I was one of only two black men in the group. We all went out for crabs one evening, and when it was time to pay the tab, our waiter took everyone’s payment one by one and placed each in his pocket without a glance — until he got to us black guys. He stood over us and counted the money. Before either of us could say anything, our colleagues demanded to know why he picked us out. He attempted to deny it, but it was too obvious.
I could cite many more examples. What I’ve encountered doesn’t even begin to approach what some of my elders have endured.
My examples might seem trivial to some people. But no one wants to spend a lifetime under suspicion. No one should have to.
I know all of us generalize at times. Yes, we might even profile, if you will. But that doesn’t make it right or excuse the potentially dangerous consequences.
And no one is picked out to be picked on more than black men in America. While many are concerned that one day they could be wrongly profiled and end up in jail or dead, that isn’t their greatest fear. Their greatest fear is that one day, one late night, some officer or vigilante will approach their young son for no reason and the boy won’t know what to do. They fear the phone call that could ensue.
Unfortunately, part of teaching young black boys how to be men is schooling them on how to respond to the police, how to make sure they don’t make a fast move that will get them locked up, or worse, shot dead. Many law-abiding black citizens — and other minorities — have been treated as criminals under circumstances in which whites never would have been stopped.
That’s why it is critical to school our boys. The day is going to come when they will be picked out, called that name, accused of that transgression. We just don’t know when.
Recently, my younger son accompanied me to drop his big brother off at camp. When I stepped up to sign my son in, a white female staffer referred to them both — they are ages 4 and 8 — as my “criminal children.” Very bad joke? Stupid? Dumb? Bad judgment? Racist? She said it twice; the words easily rolled off her tongue. Infuriated, I called her on it — and not so kindly, I must confess — and she apologized.
But what was I to tell my 4-year-old, who kept asking: “Who is she talking about, daddy?”
The two little black boys at my side.
Wednesday: All the marching and protesting for justice for African-Americans means nothing if parents, the community and others don’t insist that our black boys pursue greater existences than that of gang-bangers, petty drug dealers, thieves or murderers — of one another and others.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.