When I spoke to hundreds of students in central Florida last week, only one mentioned the recent murder of Trayvon Martin, a story now blazing across the global media. "You have no idea how bad it is down here," the student told me in a one-on-one conversation. "They have a license to kill you if they think you're a threat to them, and that's what happened in Sanford." He expected no justice, nor even publicity, about the case.
But thanks to the family, the black community and many in the media, the silence and immunity have been stripped from a pattern of systemic vigilante and police abuse, which is reminiscent of the very worst of the bad old times.
When I was speaking at Seminole State College on March 15, I suspect that many in the crowd were aware of the case. But it never came to my attention during 45 minutes of questions and answers. I believe the reason was a pervasive acceptance that what happens to youth of color in small towns like Sanford will never merit the attention of the federal government and national media.
Fortunately, that painful cynicism is being proven wrong -- for the moment. As the press coverage increased, as the police cover-up was revealed, as the agonized screams of the dying boy were broadcast again and again, the Justice Department moved to investigate.
My son, now turning 12, was riveted to the story on television. My son is African-American, wears hoodies, eats Skittles and now must come to understand, at a tender age, why he, too, might be targeted as a dangerous threat. The Trayvon Martin case will be a turning point and teaching moment for many of our children. I am sure it is being discussed within the Obama family, where the question is what can and should a father do?
One more mask of racism, racial profiling and hate crimes -- in this case, the right to kill if "threatened" -- is being peeled away. With enough pressure, there might even be an arrest. And an awakened public will wait and see, and learn, to see if justice is possible.