What The Zimmerman Verdict Tells Blacks In America: Black Children Are Not Children
The news that’s being reported from every corner of the media is the rallies involving thousands of citizens across the country in the aftermath of the not-guilty-on-all-counts verdict in the Zimmerman trial. As much as this writer absolutely hates to appear to be jumping on the proverbial bandwagon, there are some stories that transcend that disdain and this is one of them – because I hate even more the notion that it’s alright to declare open season on Black children.
And if we think that “not guilty on all counts” was the only message sent by this trial, think again. There were many things that Black people in America were told as result of the Zimmerman verdict. None of which are new, but even after 400 years, they are no less painful.
Black people are perceived, first and foremost, as a threat
Black children, especially boys, are viewed as problems to be solved rather than potential to be released or promises to be fulfilled. No, the Zimmerman verdict says, their most mundane activities should always be viewed with skepticism. In other words, Black children are never just walking home, just going to get groceries or just hanging out with friends. A more diabolical reason has to be ascribed to those actions because, remember, Black boys, Black young men and Black children are always a threat — and threats need to be neutralized and eliminated.
It is the mindset that creates an environment where unarmed Blacks were the victims of 136 extrajudicial killings in 2012 according to a report titled Operation Ghetto Storm. It goes on to state that over the past year, every 28 hours a Black citizen was killed by a cop, security guard or some variety of self-appointed neighborhood-watch type.
Individuals such as Pat Buchanan are penning racist invectives that purport that Blacks are killing Blacks all the time — so why this huge outcry over George Zimmerman taking the life of Trayvon Martin? Are these voices seriously saying that the U.S. justice system – a system that many claim is the best in the world – should have the same outcomes as gangs on the streets? If the presumed criminal behavior of Blacks should be the determinant as to whether they receive consideration, then certainly the Zimmerman’s history of restraining orders, resisting arrest charges and allegations of domestic violence should have been relevant as well.
The argument that has been and will continue to be made is, look at places like Chicago and the violence that’s taking place in the Black communities there — why shouldn’t a person like Zimmerman be afraid? If that is an acceptable line of reasoning, then we should fear young White males in public places in light of the spree of mass shootings that have taken place; if that racialized logic has merit then every White male in the vicinity of children should be under suspicion because they fit the profile of the average child abductor or child molester. Any sane or honest person under normal circumstances would quickly realize the folly of such assertions, but bigotry blinds, and prejudice, well, presumes.
Black children are treated as adults
The Zimmerman verdict also tells Black mothers that their babies are not babies; it tells Black fathers that their children are not children. It’s not a new message; rather, it’s as old as the nation itself. Throughout this whole ordeal, 17-year-old Trayvon was treated as if he should have been just as mature as the then- 27-year-old Zimmerman.
There’s a reason why there are laws stating that minors are different from adults when it comes to a vast array of activities.
For example, if a 25 year-old has sex with a 15 year-old, even if the latter consents to the act, it is considered statutory rape because a teenager — a child — is not expected to have developed the same level of decision-making ability that adults have.
Are there mature-beyond-their-years teenagers and children? Yes, there are. Conversely, are there extremely immature 25-, 27- and 30-year-olds? Most assuredly there are. Nevertheless, in intimate interactions between adults and minors (to continue the example), the greatest burden of responsibility is placed upon the adult.
All of this brings us to the reality that in the minds of many, Black children are not considered children. It’s as if Black babies are born, and by some cruel prejudicial magic, their childhood and adolescence is skipped and we end up with the Black man-child or woman-child. This hyphenated entity causes police officers to handcuff 6-year-olds and 8-year-olds; it causes Black students to be expelled from school — under the guise of gang policy — for vague, ambiguous and even innocent behavior.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a Black child is suspended from a public school every four seconds. A Black child is arrested every minute. A Black high school student drops out of school every 39 seconds.
Certain behaviors of White children are considered youthful indiscretions or rambunctiousness, while those same things done by a Black child are viewed as irredeemable character flaws and proof positive that when it comes to the discipline of Black children, society must always err on the side of severity.
In matters of discipline or perceived infractions, Black children are not treated as children, nor are they talked to as children. Ironically, even after a lifetime of achievement and striving to excel, accomplished Black women and men are treated as neophyte boys and girls (reference the First Lady and President).
Black children, Black people don’t determine where they belong
The Zimmerman verdict tells Black people across America that things such as Stand Your Ground and Stop and Frisk are just another way of saying Know Your Place. It tells Blacks, in no uncertain terms, that the dominant culture gets the final say about where Blacks belong; they get to question Blacks’ rights and Blacks’ legitimacy. And if anyone — like Trayvon — has the temerity to object or resist, the “justice” system will back up that dominant culture.
The verdict continues the narrative of the authority of White people, especially when it comes to intercultural conflicts, being unquestionable, while the rights of Blacks are an open question; that their inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are always up for debate. Further, the right to protect oneself is reserved for Whites when the other party is Black.
In other words, in any interaction between the two, Whites can stand their ground; Blacks cannot.
This we can be almost absolutely certain of: if a Black man was told by the police and the 911 operator not to pursue a White teenager, but against those objections he decided to follow that teenager anyway and it resulted in the death of that teenager, the jury would have come to a very different conclusion.
The message was, to Blacks: we, not you, are the final arbiters of what ground you actually get to stand on.
Tray and Bill
Almost a century ago, in 1923, in Shivers, Mississippi, a teenager was almost Trayvon Martin. Bill had decided to take a swim in a pond in which many Black kids had swum for quite some time. What Bill didn’t know was that the pond, after years of open access to all, was coveted and claimed by the county’s White community and had become segregated, Whites only.
Bill was notified of this rather rudely and roughly by three White teenagers and, not wanting to cause any trouble, attempted to get out of the pond, but he wasn’t allowed to. These teenagers were going to make an example out of Bill, so that other Blacks would not commit the same folly of swimming in their pond.
Their decided course of action was lynching by way of drowning, but unbeknownst to them, Bill was a very strong swimmer and he gained the advantage in the struggle. As a result, one of his aggressors went down – permanently. His two cohorts ran away, from shock and fear, I suppose, and that was the last day Bill and his immediate family spent in Copiah County, Mississippi, because Bill, you see, didn’t have the right to stand his ground.
Bill and his family moved to Chicago; he married, became a father to 14 children, was a sheriff’s deputy and a detective, and passed away from lung cancer in 1979. Bill’s full name was William Edward Rhymes and he was my grandfather. My grandfather was not a hard or excitable individual; on the contrary, he was an easy-going and gentle man of very few words. And yet, like Trayvon, he was treated as a cancer that needed to be excised.
Bill and Tray are ninety years apart but connected in the same South, in the same nation, by the same notion of the unrecognized humanity and worth of the Black child — of the Black person.
The naysayers and detractors have already begun to speak; they’ve already begun to spew their particular brand of bigotry. “Pot-smoking thug,” they say; “got what he deserved,” they say; “Black people are inherently violent,” they say. Smokescreens and detours, misconceptions and misdirections, are the categories to which these assertions belong.
And yet, what has Zimmerman done post-verdict? n 2013, he was arrested and charged with felony aggravated assault for allegedly pointing a shotgun at his girlfriend. The case was later dropped. Two years later, he was arrested again, for charges of domestic aggravated assault for allegedly throwing a bottle of wine at his girlfriend — and again the charges were later dropped. In May of 2015 , Zimmerman was shot, only receiving minor injuries, during a dust-up with a motorist named Matthew Apperson. He also had a run-in a year earlier, with Apperson prompting him to call the police, saying Zimmerman had allegedly threatened him by saying, “Do you know who I am?” and “I’ll f—ing kill you."
In another piece and at another time, a discussion can be had about racism’s role in creating the ghettos and housing projects that are overwhelmingly populated with people of color; we can debate and discuss how intentional concentrated poverty leads to many of the social ills that we face – including violence.
The Zimmerman case is a window into the heart of the issue that has plagued Blacks in America for centuries: what can you do when the color of your skin is criminalized? When just being Black is, in the minds of the dominant culture, worthy of suspicion.
In the dark and in the rain that February night in Florida, it didn’t matter who loved and cared for Trayvon; it didn’t matter who he was to the people in his life; he was viewed, by George Zimmerman, as a clear and present danger that needed to be addressed.
There was no way Zimmerman could know if he was a banger or brilliant honor-roll student – but why should Black boys and girls first prove that they are worthy of not being suspected of any wrongdoing? It’s as if a scenario cannot be imagined where Black people or Black children are up to any good.
There are moments when this writer’s heart tears away from him; there is a silent scream, when being profiled, that yearns to be vocal — it says: I am not responsible for you choosing to fear me; it is not my responsibility to assure you that I am not going to hurt you; I am not responsible for the perception of me that you have chosen to create in your mind.
To Zimmerman, the jury and far too many Whites in America, merely being Black is cause for distrust. That, in a sense, is saying that your existence as a Black person in America is problematic. And if that is indeed the case, it doesn’t take a great leap in deductive reasoning to come to the conclusion that in the minds of some, the only way the problem ceases to exist is if that Black person ceases to exist.
We as a society, not just Black people, have to craft a better hope and future for our young people than that. We have to find a way to assure all of our children that their lives have value and worth. And that is how this tragedy becomes an opportunity to ensure that all our children – as Trayvon was trying to do – safely make it home.