I cried when I heard about the George Zimmerman verdict because I knew that it would tear the country apart around racial lines. I also knew that as a middle class black person that I was going to be called upon for my perspective by my white colleagues, friends and family. I live in two worlds quite comfortably most times. I am living the American Dream in the post-racial United States.
I am happily married to a white man who loves and respects me and his family loves me and has supported our relationship from the beginning. I have a diverse set of friends, a home, nice car, three graduate degrees and I frequently travel outside of the U.S. I am a well respected tax lawyer that has been supported and mentored by many people who do not look like me. In fact some of my strongest support has come from the white community. Many of my best friends are white. I am not angry or a race baiter. I am not a stereotype. I am an incredibly lucky person who grew up homeless but with hard work, luck and mentoring was able to achieve my dream of being a lawyer. Most white people that I have come in contact with over my life have been nothing but kind and supportive of me and if not a help to me, they never tried to hinder me. I have stories that I could share about times that I felt discriminated against but the truth is I never felt that I was held back in any substantial way by racism. Being born poor was more of a hindrance than being black. My feelings have been hurt on occasion because I believed that I was treated unfairly but nine times out of 10, it doesn't matter if someone is racist or prejudiced against me because they don't impact my life. I have a great life.
The thing about the Trayvon Martin case is that it makes me not think about the nine times out of 10 where someone may have had preconceived notions about who I am and it doesn't matter. It makes me think about that 10th time where it could matter so much that I, or someone I love, might not survive the encounter. This is the quandary for the black middle class person. We feel like we have done all of the things that we are supposed to do to be successful, accepted and respected. We are liked by the people who know us. We are thought of as good people and great neighbors but what about the person who doesn't know us. The person we have not been able to show that we are "just like them". The problem with racism or prejudice is not how you judge the diverse people you know, but how you react to the ones you don't. When I looked at Trayvon Martin I could put myself in his shoes and when I started having conversations with some of my white friends all they could see was George Zimmerman's fear. Because they couldn't see Trayvon Martin the same way they could see their own teenage child. I was struck by the fact that we saw things so differently. It didn't change how I felt about them because of our strong relationships, but I realized that they just didn't understand. I felt that they secretly thought that their child would never be in that situation but for all of my success, that is not something that I could be confident about. Not for myself or the black children I know.
This is where black anger is coming from. There is an unspoken code for many middle class or affluent African-Americans that we don't speak about race with people outside of our race because it always tends to end badly for both sides. In addition when I look at my life, what do I have to complain about. Most people would be happy to be in my shoes whether they be black, white or other. But in this instance we are angry because it feels like our children aren't safe regardless of our circumstances. We have done the right things and our children still aren't safe. We know that the statistics say that they are more likely to end up in jail or dead than in college, but that isn't about the black middle class. We live in safe neighborhoods, our kids go to private schools, sleep away camp and take trips abroad so they can be well-rounded. We did our part and we were supposed to get an equal chance, including a safe surrounding for our children. For generations blacks of all income levels have told their sons about how to behave with the police, but now it feels like any stranger could kill them and not face the expected legal consequences. Your child's character will be assassinated and the perpetrator will walk free.
This country has made great strides in race relations. My generation is a great example of that but we have not gotten to where we need to be. The point for many of us is that we don't believe that anyone would have found George Zimmerman's story credible if Trayvon Martin had been white. America would not believe that a middle class white teenager would sucker punch him and then reach for his gun. America would have seen a minor being killed by an adult as he was walking down the street and trying to defend himself against a strange man who was stalking him. The truth is that when middle class blacks saw that Trayvon had two parents who cared about him and carried themselves with such grace and dignity, we saw ourselves. When we saw pictures of Trayvon with his family, or on a ski trip, or on a horse, he felt more like us. Who could he have grown up to be? A doctor? A lawyer? A senator or president? Even if you believe George Zimmerman, this is nothing short of a tragedy for everyone involved. The outrage however is due to the fact that Trayvon didn't seem like all the other black boys who get killed in this country every day. He felt like our own children that have opportunities and unlimited potential. Unlike the thug and gangster he was portrayed to be by too many.
As a lawyer I accept the process and the outcome and, given the limitations of the current self defense law in Florida and many other areas, the decision that was reached may have made sense, but it didn't feel like justice. When millions of African-Americans are telling you about their experiences or their fears for their children this is something that can't be so easily dismissed. Until this case, I never fully realized that the life I live and the circumstances of a case like Trayvon Martin could both be true at the same time. Yes, we have almost unlimited opportunities, but if we or our children aren't safe than it doesn't feel like success and its just not good enough.