There is no perfect thing to say in the wake of a tragedy, particularly one that involves the loss of a young person. Entire etiquette guides are devoted to telling us what not to say when someone is grieving, with "I know how you feel" being at the top of the list. And yet there is something oddly comforting about such clichés, causing many of us cling to them like a life raft during tragedy, especially when our own grief, shock, and anger has rendered us incapable of forming the words that those most affected by the loss really need to hear.
Besides offering the family of Trayvon Martin my sincerest condolences, and letting them know that like much of America they remain in my prayers, I am going to ignore the etiquette guides for a moment to say something else: Regardless of what happens to the case involving their son, his death was not in vain and will ultimately save countless other lives.
Months ago I wrote a piece titled, "Is Racism Worse in the Obama Era?" In it I discussed the psychological impact of subtle racism, a subject covered in the book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? In the piece I also briefly touched upon my own experiences with subtle racism. (As I, and plenty of friends have learned, what walking down the street in a hoodie is to black men, walking into the wrong store with the wrong skin color is to black women.) The reaction to the piece was fascinating, with some weighing in with their own experiences. Others, however, were livid that in the age of a black president "people like me" would still find something to complain about and my complaint is about discrimination that you can't even see or touch, let alone prove.
The fundamental question raised by the column was whether or not subtle racism is actually far worse, and more dangerous, for that very reason. As I noted, in my parents' generation (they both grew up in the segregated South) a store simply hung a sign that said "No Coloreds" allowed. Today a store wouldn't dream of doing that and yet most black people I know, and most black celebrities have a story (often more than one) about being blatantly denied service at a store due to race. In the case of Oprah Winfrey on two separate occasions at two different stores the stores in question locked the doors and claimed to be closed when she attempted to enter. In the case of Condoleezza Rice, a sales clerk questioned whether she could actually afford the jewelry she was eyeing. To those who have never endured such experiences, they may sound like minor indignities. But the Trayvon Martin case illustrates how easily subtle racism -- which usually involves racial profiling -- can escalate from indignity to death.
One installment of CNN's "Black in America," hosted by Soledad O'Brien, actually noted that many black parents are so conscientious of such profiling that those with teenage boys often provide them with a prepared speech for interacting with police officers to avoid them becoming another Robbie Tolan, the unarmed Houston teen shot by an officer who mistakenly believed Tolan had stolen the car he was driving. (He hadn't.) O'Brien noted that this unofficial profiling speech is so pervasive within the black community it cuts across class lines. From working class black Americans to A-list celebrities, many of them consider the profiling talk just as important, if not more so, than the birds and bees talk.
Trayvon Martin is a powerful reminder of why. Only who knew that we would come to a point where the profiling "talk" would have to be revised by parents to not only include police officers, but any man who may see you as a so-called threat because of the color of your skin. (On that note, some critics have blamed Martin's attire for his death. See my reply and others, here and here.)
Which brings me back to the legacy of Trayvon Martin. Much like Emmett Till's racially charged murder in 1955 at the age of fourteen forced our country to finally confront the brutality of Jim Crow as more than just a "Southern problem" but a national shame, my hope is that Trayvon's death will spark long overdue outrage and ultimately, a movement against, the subtle racism known as profiling that has risen in Jim Crow's wake.
The fact that so many people of diverse political persuasions have condemned his killing gives me hope. I pray that this, and the lives he may ultimately help save, give his family peace.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more