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Desmond Meade

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Trayvon Martin, a Victim of Florida's Jim Crow Atmosphere

Posted: 03/20/2012 7:18 pm

As I look at all the reports, commentaries, and social media comments about the tragedy in Sanford in which Trayvon Martin, a high school student from Miami, was gunned down by a white "neighborhood crime watch" member, I can't help but to think of the role our collective inaction has played in this tragedy. I can't help but wonder aloud why it had to come to this senseless death for us as a society to be outraged at the system that created an atmosphere in which law enforcement would actually attempt to justify not arresting the shooter; an atmosphere in which the life of a minority is not as valued as much as a white person; an atmosphere, created by a broken criminal (in)justice system, systemic racism, and a culture of violence, which churns out injustices every hour of every day in towns across America.

This tragedy is not new. The elements that led to Trayvon's murder have been around since the days of slavery but, most recently, these elements have once again reared their ugly heads in the Florida Legislature and Cabinet -- a legislature and cabinet that has endangered our democracy by weakening the voices of people of color, in particular, by restricting our access to the voting booth, making it harder for a formerly incarcerated individuals to find a job, find housing, and to vote. Florida has shown, time and time, again that it wants African Americans and other minority groups, who are disproportionately disfranchised, to be subjected to the racist climate that was once prevalent during the Jim Crow era. But, as each of these racially charged injustices became more entrenched within the fabric of our state, where was our massive, unified, and widespread outcry?

When Governor Scott tried to insinuate that African American legislators grew up poor, and that welfare recipients are more susceptible to using drugs, did we rise up in mass indignation? When we learned that Florida incarcerates African-Americans and Latinos at a grossly disproportionate rate, did we become incensed enough to unify and mobilize our communities? At the height of apartheid, South Africa imprisoned approximately 850 black men per 100,000, while today the U.S. imprison over 4,700 black men per 100,000. Are we we morally appalled enough to take action to reverse this?

One has to wonder whether, if the racial roles were reversed in this tragic incident, law enforcement officers would have let an African-American shooter walk away from the scene of the crime after killing an unarmed white boy who, like Trayvon, was armed with nothing more than a can of iced tea and a bag of skittles. If your mind intuitively comprehends the point of this wonder, then that's probably because, in part, the depressing racial contradictions of our nation still remain deeply embedded in our collective (un)consciousness. What should unsettle anyone who intuitively understands this scenario is that African Americans were formerly referred to, by our justice system, as NP (non-people) and that crimes in which an African-American was the victim were not investigated as vigorously as a crime in which the victim was white. Sadly, racial injustice remains a norm in our society.

Instead of merely rallying with enthusiasm around sport teams, we should also, aroused by an impassioned conscience, rally around boys like Trayvon; making sure that they are afforded every opportunity to experience a fruitful adult life, free of violence and racial discrimination. Where was the national massive and unified grassroots outrage when a slew of young black men were slain by police officers in Miami-Dade County not long ago? We should have also rallied massively and with unified indignation over reduced funding to education, which was really an overt attack on one of the key sources of our social, political, and economic mobility as a people; we should have been supporting people like D.C. Clarke and Ms. Cannon when they were fighting to prevent the shut down our inner-city schools. We should have been rallying when Florida passed a law that allows for juveniles to be housed in adult facilities. We should have been rallying over the fact that our kids are being incarcerated at an alarming rate, and being direct-filed; being given life sentences without parole (of the 77 juveniles serving a life sentence, 76 of them are African American).

Didn't we see that an African-American child is more likely than others to be disciplined in school? Were we not all sufficiently alarmed by the fact that while African Americans constitute only 22% of the juvenile population, over half of the juveniles in detention are African American? Didn't it bother us that the school-to-prison pipeline is sending black kids to prison quicker than schools sending black kids to college? Why didn't this fact and other facts bother us enough to unite and mobilize?

Why does it take the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of our nation to come to Florida before we stand up and speak out against the injustices that occur on a daily basis for African Americans in Florida? What typically happens is that after the celebrities are gone, we go back to business as usual; being more concerned about personal gains, our local sports teams, and celebrity gossip, until another Trayvon incident happens and Al and Jesse return -- a vicious and unnecessary cycle of prodded action coupled with longer lulls of inaction. Why don't we collectively resolve, over the long-haul, to make the Martin family the last family we grieve for and with? We have allowed a system that says that the life of a black child is not as important as the life of a white child to create an atmosphere that endangers our children on a daily basis. We have allowed this environment to fester in Florida and the rest of the country for much too long. And we bear the responsibility for change.

We must seize this moment and thoroughly examine a society and criminal justice system that have historically targeted, prosecuted, and imprisoned minorities at a disproportionate rate. We must examine an education system that has historically ignored the needs of minority children. We must thoroughly examine a culture of violence and systemic racism that form the root causes that foster an atmosphere in which being "dark" is inherently "dangerous." It was this very atmosphere and these very roots that gave birth to the Martin tragedy. Unless we thoroughly examine our society, identify these root causes, and mobilize to address them, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin will ruefully manifest itself well into our nation's future. It's time for our nation to think deeper and to take action. If we are truly incensed at the apparent injustice committed in the case of Trayvon Martin, then we must channel that concerned sense of outrage to battle injustices that remain abhorrently systemic.

Rather than categorizing this incident as yet another tragic isolated "white versus black" affair that requires merely an individual investigation, we should seize this moment to transform our communities -- white, black, and brown -- to realize that we have an opportunity to become part of a historic struggle of "right versus wrong." People of all colors, faiths, orientations, and political persuasions can join this struggle to right wrongs. But, I fear, that if we do not respond to this incident as an opportunity to unite to struggle together against systemic injustices, then we will continue to be plagued by the very racial tensions, violence, and criminalization that have so effectively polarized our society, rendering the American Dream a 1 percent reality that the 99% can access only when they are sound asleep. To honor the memory of Trayvon, we must unite and act over the long-term. We've seen enough tragedies. Enough is enough!