Zimmerman may have pulled the trigger, but how clean are our hands?

Published On: Jul 11 2012 04:03:46 PM EDT
MIAMI -

"There is but one coward on earth, and that is the coward that dare not know." -- W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn

As I have read the editorials and watched reports of the Trayvon Martin murder case, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois’ admonishments have haunted me.  One of our nation’s intellectual giants, Dr. Du Bois, explained in his book The World and Africa how thoughtless consumerism, unbridled privilege and a general failure to question or engage in our own governance, can leave blood on the hands of even a seemingly innocent London debutante mindlessly stroking her ivory keys in a suburban parlor.  In his historically detailed and gripping analysis, he explained how she was as equally responsible for the devastation across the continent of Africa as the heinous acts of murderous merchants who stole Africans for free labor, pillaged the land for precious minerals and killed hundreds of thousands of majestic elephants for their ivory tusks.  Especially in today’s world -- i.e., an intricate global network with instantaneous access to literally a billion people (e.g., Facebook) and their cumulative knowledge -- there is rarely such a thing as an innocent consumer or bystander.

Whatever the outcome as to Zimmerman’s guilt, what about the blood on the rest of our hands?  Are not most of us, like Du Bois’ London debutante, complicit in Trayvon’s murder?  How about the murders of the countless other black boys who have been killed this year alone, whose names we will never know because no one deemed the loss of their precious lives significant enough to take note?  

Think about it. We live in a society that has systematically and historically devalued the lives of large segments of our population, including most notably black men. While this was once encoded into our very Constitution, it is still prevalent in the realities of our economy, our education system, our valuation of housing and property, our justice system and countless other measures. Indeed, we have become downright desensitized to it. All too often we have come to expect images of black boys to be cloaked in a context of criminality, poverty, and deadly circumstances. Zimmerman may have been more of a vigilante in his approach, but his thoughts likely mirrored the thoughts of many who consider themselves to be in the mainstream of American society. Zimmerman’s profiling was not all that different than the profiling with which most black American families, no matter their economic or professional stature, are all too familiar.

Of course, some will argue that the perceptions and profiling are justified. And, Trayvon Martin is exactly the point. He was not the person Zimmerman imagined he was. He was not the man many of us would have imagined him to be. The figment of Zimmerman’s imagination is the product of a society that has historically benefitted, and still benefits, from the dehumanization of black men. Beyond the very profitable industries developed to contain and control primarily black men, the "exclusive" gated communities in suburbs inaccessible to public transportation, the "elite" private schools, the "select" country clubs have arguably been designed with white (or rich) flight in mind. And, the maintenance of a desperate and undereducated economic underclass has great benefits for those seeking to minimize costs and maximize profits with products and services produced through an abundance of low, non-livable-wage jobs, including those offered within the confines of the prison industrial complex. Nonetheless, it seems that so long as we distance ourselves from the fact that people's circumstances didn't just appear in a historical and societal vacuum, we are comfortable perpetuating those circumstances. So long as we don't acknowledge the privilege and benefits we gain from the suffering of others, we can in "good faith" continue to shirk our own responsibility to change things. 

While people were galvanizing to raise money for Zimmerman's defense fund, which he quickly proved himself untrustworthy to manage, how many dollars were contributed to provide for prenatal care and preschool education for young black boys? How many people saw the Trayvon Martin story, understood the underlying devaluation of black boys and men and, then, volunteered to teach or tutor at a local school to ensure black boys will be educated in and graduated out of our public schools that have to date failed them miserably? Who saw the news report of yet another murdered black man and immediately drove to the local Urban League, YMCA, Boys’ and Girls’ Club or Big Brothers Big Sisters to volunteer to impact the life of at least one youth? How many viewers offered to help raise scholarship funds to send even one young black man to college? 

Perhaps, even more relevant, who took on the responsibility to properly educate white boys and men like Zimmerman who have been misled into believing brown skin equates to criminality. Who checked the roles of his/her own company and asked why it doesn’t reflect the diversity of its clients and consumers or the community in which it sits? Who ventured to the courthouse to demand that justice be applied equally and fairly, that racial profiling be eliminated and that the bar and bench reflect the community it serves? Who went to the local juvenile detention center or prison and insisted that we educate and prepare inmates to be reintegrated into our society, rather than directed through the revolving doors that seemingly only open right back into a jail cell -- that is, a useless abyss that voraciously consumes our tax dollars and, more importantly, human potential? And better yet, who demanded that the prison industrial complex be dismantled altogether and that, instead, our policy makers and communities gather and figure out how to put an end to such waste, especially so long as certain segments of our society are specifically targeted as fodder for its financial spoils and, thereby, their images embedded in our minds as deserving of such relegation.  Who said, "Enough already! Let’s change our expectations and our vision for young black men in this country and I'll start with my own."

Of course, there are those who have done, and who have dedicated their lives to doing, such things. Indeed, part of the Trayvon Martin story is that large numbers of Americans of all races and backgrounds have pulled out their hoodies in solidarity. It is newsworthy that so many have mobilized to stand against the injustice that permitted Zimmerman to go uncharged with any crime for as long as he did. The next step is tapping into that outrage to have a tangible impact on those who are still suffering from the consequences of racial profiling, historical and societal disparities, low expectations and few opportunities -- those who may not have a record, image or educational profile as compelling as Trayvon’s. We cannot continue to be the debutante who fails to understand how our silence, inaction and blind acceptance of the current reality contribute to the problem. And, we cannot only pay attention when the casualty of war is a child who fits the profile of one who could be our own.

So, as we watch and recognize the tragedy of Zimmerman and Martin’s meeting...  As we consider the what if’s and what not’s... As we dissect and judge Zimmerman’s past and proclivities...  How about if we also glimpse the [wo]man in the mirror and look for the blood-stained hands that have stood idly by while countless lives have slipped through one crack or another. What if we check ourselves for our own racist beliefs, stereotypes and profiling? And, most importantly, what if we step up to the plate, engage and commit ourselves to end the circumstances that devalue, disenfranchise and destroy irreplaceable human lives? What if we invest ourselves and our resources in nurturing young black men and all other youth, helping them forever dismantle our inclination to act and react primarily in fear of each other? What if we put in the effort to actually clean our hands and to create a society in which our own lives and all of our children’s lives will be valued, respected and spared?

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