I never had to have "the talk" with my son. At least, not the talk that black parents so often have with their teenage children -- the one about how to act when you get stopped for being suspicious. The one about how to not to walk, or dress, or shop, in a way that increases the odds that someone will prejudge you as a threat, mainly because of your dark skin.
We are white, suburban, and largely removed from the day to day experience that makes the talk a survival imperative. Growing up, my father certainly never sat me down to school me in how "I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted," as Attorney General Holder recently recounted his father did for him, and he felt he had to do for his own teenage son.
Perhaps, for some of us, this difference in experience makes it easier to put the death of Trayvon Martin behind us. Of course, America is, as President Obama rightly said, a nation of laws, and "in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they [the jury] rendered a verdict. And once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works." But the finality of a verdict does not mean nothing is wrong. It is even more incumbent upon those of us blessed enough not to need to have "the talk" to point out that there are still issues of race to address.
We cannot know what was in Mr. Zimmerman's mind and heart, but we do know what he said to police on tape that night when he called 911. "Hey we've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy," he told the dispatcher. "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about." Later, after the unknown teenager had turned to run away, Zimmerman continued, "These (expletive) they always get away."
Assumptions can be steeped in racial bias, whether at the conscious level or not. Would that neighborhood watchman have assumed, if it had been my son and his white friends (who've been known to walk around residential neighborhoods, looking about, sometimes even in the rain), that they were "up to no good"? And when a jury is presented with conflicting testimony and asked to determine facts beyond a "reasonable" doubt, might it be possible for the same sort of assumptions to seep into the deliberations?
Something in our system -- even if unintentional -- is producing an overall outcome that is far from just.* Young black males are now incarcerated at six times the rate of the population at large. In fact, as the Pew Charitable Trust recently reported, an astounding 37 percent of young black men without a high school diploma or GED are behind bars (compared with just 12 percent of the same white cohort.) The evidence also shows that, even when they commit the same crime, young black men are far more likely to end up in jail, or get a longer sentence, than young white men.
Assumptions made about whether a particular young black man is "up to no good" are informed (or misinformed) not only by the personal biases of the observer, but also by the larger institutional biases that have disproportionately weighed down whole generations of young black men with criminal records.
I've gotten to know a large number of young men who look and dress like Trayvon Martin through over 20 years of working with community-based organizations. Almost to man they tell of being singled out, stopped and frisked, followed in a store, pulled over while driving within the speed limit. In many cases, their first "criminal" activity resulted from being confronted by the police when they weren't doing anything wrong, but reacted rashly to being wrongfully stopped. And one criminal charge can start a self-fulfilling downward spiral.
What many of us don't realize is that in spite of such experiences, the great majority of these young men retain their humanity and potential for leadership and growth. I have met many young men who have completely turned their lives around, despite having once been considered lost causes -- out of school, out of work, previously incarcerated, and poor. When given the opportunity, they've gone back and completed high school, and moved on to higher education or work.
More importantly, many emerge as leaders in their communities, holding public office, leading their churches, repairing the lives of others. Here are the stories of just a few. Yet how often do we see the faces of these young black men on TV and in the media? So long as we passively accept the face in the local crime story flashed on the screen as the representative of a generation, we will not make progress.
Maybe it is time many of us have a different kind of "talk" with our teens -- and with our friends and neighbors. We need to initiate talks about our assumptions, and what we will do to overcome them. We need to push out of our comfort zones, challenge friends and colleagues not to reinforce negative assumptions, and go seek out some of the amazing young people of color who are the real face of their generation.
*And far from economically sustainable. As the Pew report noted, "state correctional costs quadrupled over the past two decades and now top $50 billion a year, consuming 1 in every 15 general fund dollars."