07/13/2013 12:58 pm ET Updated Sep 12, 2013

It's Not the Verdict, It's Our Values

As we await the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, I have deep reservations that it's not just the guilt or innocence of Mr. Zimmerman that will ultimately be decided but our collective guilt or innocence as nation; a nation that continues to target young black men as dangerous, criminal and violent. Indeed, my own life journey has caused me to be the victim of brutality at the hands of law enforcement and members in my own community. On the count of marginalizing young black men the verdict is already in...and we're guilty.

The persistent portrayal of Trayvon Martin and other black male youth by everyday Americans and the media as violent, dangerous and as the "other" has eroded the moral character of our nation and has left us unwilling and unable to see their humanity and care about their lives. For so many of us, black and brown youth are the perfect scapegoats for our deepest and ugliest racial hang-ups and animosities.

But Trayvon Martin is not a scapegoat. He was a real human being -- a high school student not unlike any other American teenager. He was not this dark monster that the media portrayed. He was a 17 year-old kid with a sweet tooth. One rainy night, he decided to throw on an over-sized hoody and run to buy Skittles and iced-tea. His actions were not menacing, but his mere presence in a community caused him to lose his life.

Young black men, not unlike Trayvon, have become the perfect foils for those in power to scare up votes by playing to people's fears and insecurities. They are the convenient whipping boys for an irresponsible media that lusts for stories that can be portrayed in black and white terms. It is as though by targeting them as the "problem" we are able absolve ourselves of the moral responsibility to build better communities and a better nation.

At the turn of the last century, W.E.B. Dubois asked a troubling but prophetic question of Black America as he attempted to draw the rest of America into a dialogue about race. He poignantly asked, "How does it feel to be the problem?" A century later we are still waiting for an answer. We are still waiting for a verdict.

But for those of us who have been working on the frontlines of youth violence and mass incarceration we believe to move forward in the work of keeping young people alive and free, it's not about the verdict, it's about our values! It's about valuing the lives of young men of color. It's about seeing them as integral to the health and vitality of our communities. It's about valuing their humanity and caring about their needs, their struggles and their futures.

At moments such as this, when our national attention is focused on the intersection of race and violence, my prayer is that we constructively channel our energies into solidarity around work that will demonstrate our capacity to dignify and value young black men. We must channel ourselves into work that will create safer communities through sensible gun laws. We must channel ourselves into work for sentencing reform and other measures to keep youth of color from filling up our jails and prison. We must channel ourselves into work to create more educational and employment opportunities.

As voices of moral authority, it's past time for clergy and religious leaders to move beyond simply encouraging their congregations to act, but to step down from the pulpit and lead by example to ensure all of God's children are alive and free, whether they're black, brown or white; wearing a hoodie or a business suit.

In the final analysis, it's not about the verdict, it's about our collective values. Are we, as a nation, willing to value young black life? Are we willing to amplify these values through our personal relationships, public policies, and justice systems?

Are we willing to appeal the guilty verdict?