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Judith Browne Dianis Headshot

Just This Once: What We Need After Trayvon

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As of Tuesday, young people in Florida have been staging a Dream-In at the Florida State Capitol Building for a week. The Dream Defenders and Power U Center have lived and slept in the Capitol Building to demand justice for Trayvon and hundreds of thousands of others. I'm joining them this weekend -- but why? While people in my racial justice world bubble understand why this outcry is happening, many Americans are asking, why this time? What's the big deal? It's a legitimate question based upon life experience.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, another wound was inflicted for many people of color. The sore of racism that has festered for centuries was yet again exposed from the killing through the arrest, charge, process, trial and verdict. It wasn't just George Zimmerman who was on trial; it was race and institutional racism too. People who already have little faith in law enforcement and the justice system saw another display of inequity. Through their eyes the lax handling by police of the killing of a young black man was nothing new.

The failure to swiftly charge the killer was yet another example of a system that brings little justice. The refusal to frame the case as a racial profiling case by the prosecution and the judge was another instance of Jedi mind tricks to make us believe we live in a colorblind society, though lived experience shows otherwise. The verdict was the final nail in the coffin; not only for Trayvon, but for the countless other innocent black men and women and other people of color and gay people killed without consequence. A lot was riding on this case for so many.

Trayvon Martin was a symbol for many young people of color. They, as well as older folks, saw themselves in Trayvon. Too many have experienced racial profiling. In New York, men of color, including teenagers are stopped and frisked by the police regularly. In 2011, more than 685,000 were stopped, 86 percent were blacks and Latinos; 88 percent of these stops were of innocent people. This type of racial profiling is commonplace.

Years ago when I lived in Silver Spring, Md., my then-boyfriend, now husband, was parking his car on his way to visit me. He's African-American and at the time drove a Jaguar. As he pulled into a spot he was surrounded by three police cars. Officers jumped out with guns drawn. They eventually told him sorry for the mistake; he "fit the description." Whether it's "fit the description" or "suspicious," it is an awful anxiety-ridden feeling, to constantly have to prove one's innocence at the end of a gun barrel, just because of your race.

Then there's The Talk. At some point most black parents have to have it and it's not about sex. Typically held with black sons, it's a lesson in how to react when stopped by the police. Experience has rendered us survivalists. Parents want their sons to survive an encounter with the police. We know one word too many, one wrong look or move, your innocent baby could be in a body bag with no one charged for his death. So we teach them to survive. It is one of the costs of being black in America.

This case was extraordinary. No mother and no father could have prepared their son for this situation. There was no badge and uniform on the other end of the gun. We'd seen these situations before by mobs of citizens or explicit hate was involved. Now parents must grapple with a new script for The Talk. Do I tell him to run? Do I tell him to confront? Do I tell him to respond to the interrogation of a stranger, after I've told him don't talk to strangers? The new script opens up more troubling acknowledgement that it can happen anywhere, anytime, and by anyone. Parents must counterbalance this with ensuring their children feel safe and special.

All of this happening when our courts, governments, and media hail America's progress and assure us that we're living in a post-racial America. The lived experience of too many Americans does not comport with this colorblind narrative.

In the end, the verdict has been handed down and the case is over, but the work is not. So many Americans were vested in this case because they were hopeful. We hoped that just this once we would acknowledge racial profiling and its tragic consequences. Just this once, the criminal justice system would convict someone for the slaying of an unarmed young black male. Just this once we could have an honest conversation about race and its continuing impact on our society. Just this once we could go home, hug our children and tell them, "You are safe." Just this once, our humanity could be recognized and our lives valued. Unfortunately, this wasn't our moment so we fight on.

Yes, we have come a long way on race and in a relatively short time. But just because the wound is healing doesn't mean it's time to stop taking the antibiotic to kill the infection. Our laws no longer make it legal to discriminate. Explicit racial hate crimes have declined. But we are not yet cured. Today, the manifestation of bias is different. Our perceptions of people of various races are often hidden in our subconscious formed by images we see in the media and short, uninformed contact we have with one another. We extrapolate from there. The greatest danger comes in the actions we take based upon these perceptions. The results can be anything from low expectations of students of color, to suspensions of students, to perceptions of criminality that result in increased contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, to the tragic death of an innocent person.

We hoped that just this once, America would show signs of healing. We cannot lose another innocent child so maybe, just maybe, this time we have not only a teachable moment but also a solutions moment.