When we were kids, we all feared the boogeyman. He'd be waiting under the bed to grab us as soon as we fell asleep. He'd be hiding in the closet, counting down the seconds until our parents turned off the light and left us defenseless. Our parents would roll their eyes and tell us that we were being silly. They knew the boogeyman simply personified the typical childhood fear of the dark.
Now that I'm a parent myself, I know that the boogeyman doesn't live under the bed and doesn't hide in the closet -- but I also know that he is real. For a black parent, the boogeyman lives on the other end of the phone. Our greatest fear is that he'll make that phone ring and tell us that something has happened to our son. I can't imagine the nightmare that Trayvon Martin's parents are going through. What happened to Trayvon is the most recent example in a very long list of incidents. It doesn't have to be a crazy racist or police brutality. If anything, it's more likely to be a bullet meant for someone else.
I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. As a kid myself, I witnessed children gunned down. Me and my friends quickly learned the rules to minimize danger. But the danger wasn't ever gone. As an adult, I taught my son Kyle how to read and how to catch a ball. I tried to teach him the rules about what it means to be a young black man in America. He rolled his eyes at me. After all, Obama's president now! Kyle doesn't roll his eyes anymore. Not after he walked into a Beverly Hills jewelry store dressed like a rapper -- not long after the jewelry store had been robbed. When the security guard pulled a gun on Kyle, it spoke clearer than anything I could have said.
I knew something like that was inevitable, since I'm not the only person who believes in the boogeyman. For many Americans, their boogeyman is the urban black male. Most of us know someone who stole, say, a candy bar as a kid. When white parents find out, they march their son to the store. He is forced to return the candy and makes a full apology, bursting into tears. The storekeeper and the parent exchange winks, knowing the child has learned his lesson. But black parents don't have that option. The black child who takes a candy bar is perceived as being a thug in training. "It's candy bars today," they'll say, "but it'll be muggings tomorrow."
The image of the black male as a savage predator has been with this nation since the beginning. It's what kept us in chains, lest we run free and ravage the oh-so-innocent daughters of the South. It's what led to drug criminalization, since narcotics allegedly released our true bestial nature. People are pleading to "let justice run its course" in the Trayvon Martin case -- when the legal system wasn't even interested in investigating.
What I found most telling about the Trayvon Martin case was how all the media pointed out his many academic achievements, as if he needs to wear a shirt that says "Don't shoot; I'm one of the good ones!" The impetus is to point out that Trayvon wasn't the "typical" black youth. When many Americans hear that a young black man has been shot, their assumption is, "Well, he must have done something to deserve it."
When a black man is shot to death in this country it's regarded as normal. Black men are the most likely of any racial group to be murder victims -- and I don't mean per capita. More black people are murder victims in this country than any other group, even though we are only about 13 percent of the population. But just because an event is common, that doesn't make it normal. Common practices change all the time. On a basic level, everyone used to sneeze into their hands. Now, people know to sneeze into their elbows to stop spreading disease through routine contact. Just because something happens a certain way doesn't mean it has to remain that way.
The dehumanization of the young black male is not a liberal issue and it's not a conservative issue. It's a human rights issue. Human rights are the basis of any civilized nation, from capitalist America to socialist Sweden. It's the first thing Thomas Jefferson mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, so important that it came before the "declaration" itself! If we can't respect human life in this country, how can we claim to be an example to the world? It seems to me that Ronald Reagan's "shining city upon a hill" has become a gated community, where certain "undesirable elements" are not welcome -- and are not important.
Our parents sat us down and explained that the boogeyman doesn't really live in the closet. They had a conversation. But until our nation gets mature enough to have a similar discussion, we'll always be looking over our shoulders -- and children like Trayvon Martin will end up paying the price.