Igniting A Cultural Conversation On Race: Putting The Trayvon Martin Tragedy In Context Relating To The Dehumanization of Young Black Males in America


Last Saturday night I was out at a bar enjoying a momentary respite from my family reunion weekend when the news of the Zimmerman verdict came on the overhead TV. At the moment I remember thinking: “I’m really shocked – but then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be”. And I remember a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I washed it down with the rest of my beer and headed back to my family’s chaotic get-together, which couldn’t have been more disengaged with the state of the world or current events.

Tuesday afternoon I had been home for a day and was back in my car headed out to the airport on a business trip. I was listening to a broadcast of “Tell me More” With Michelle Martin on NPR on the topic of Explaining The Zimmerman Verdict To Our Kids.  It struck me that this was a perspective that was fairly niche.  That many non-African American families were likely not having  conversations about with their children.  And that pit in my stomach started turning into tears while I was driving down the highway.

It occurred to me that most white parents don’t have to talk to their teenage boys about how NOT to act when they are in a neighborhood they don’t live in, or if they are approached by a police officer.  White parents don’t worry that their children will be racially profiled or that adult strangers might see their child and automatically assume they are up to no good and need to be feared.  It also deeply hurt me to hear the parents of young black males (all of them middle to upper middle class parents, some in legal professions) say that when they did talk to their kids about the verdict, none of them seem surprised.  They weren’t surprised because, even as teenagers who have yet to get out in to “the real world” they know the realities of race in our country and had braced themselves for what many in America are calling an unfair verdict.

If we take legalities and politics aside for a minute and talk about the context of this tragedy – that being a young black boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt who was killed by an adult Hispanic male that presumed this young black boy must have been a criminal and thus mistakenly pursued him in a confrontation that escalated, ending in this young male’s death – we have to ask ourselves about how the situation might have been different in another context.  Namely – what if we switch out the word  “black” with “white” or even “hispanic”.  Would the context have lead to the same tragedy?  The answer – having heard a lot about the conversations setting the tone for the defense – about this man having been predisposed to fear / make presumptions a black stranger walking in his neighborhood – leads me to say “no”.

Some of the undertones of the “ambient culture” of racism in our country are articulated in this Daily Beast Article by Joshua Dubois, President Obama’s former director of White House Faith Initiatives.  In it he discusses commentary from a number of black social, political and spiritual leaders on how the conversations about this court case in particular are very different depending on who is having the conversation.  The fact is that Black Americans are coming from an entirely different context than, well, everyone else.  And why?  Because Black Americans are also parents and families and communities of young black males.  They know them and love them and see their personalities, ambitions and promise.

But there is something about the context of the rest of American culture that has allowed us to somehow dehumanize black males – seeing them not as young humans with hopes and dreams that are still growing and  finding their place in the world,  but as faceless, nameless figures that represent something to be wary of and feared.   I started really pondering this context while listening to another braodcast of the same NPR program yesterday, this time about Getting Real on Race After The Zimmerman Verdict.  This program featured a panel of Black spiritual leaders, including Dubois and one of the topics was about how a combination of reality-induced stereotypes, media and fear have put young African American Males in this contextual frame.

Yet again my stomach started to knot up and my eyes were filled with tears.

As a social scientist I understand the sociocultural reality from an objective perspective.  As a human being, I loathe it.

But what I loved about the dialogue I was hearing on this program was the idea that the only way we can fix it is by having conversations with one another about it.  And it’s not just about a “National Conversation” mandated by politics and media – but the conversations we have with one another.  Namely, at our dinner tables, in our golf foursomes, on our commutes or in our cubicles.  It’s about White, Black and every rainbow of Americans sitting with one another and understanding how we came to our perspectives on race.  It’s about Black and White citizens hearing one another out.  It’s about forgiving ignorance and promoting education.  It’s about generating empathy and finding common ground from which to build a shared context on race – so we see every young man as equally human and deserving of a benefit of the doubt if they are not actively engaging in criminal behavior.

It comes down to eliminating fear by confronting it head on and delving deep into the context that created it.   Humans are social creatures and our rules about the world are formed based on what we are taught by one another.  Let’s unlearn the old conversations and start some new ones.  Context is everything and we have the power to change it.  For the sake of all Humans.


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