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What a Florida Teenager’s Death Tells Us About Being Black in America

Trayvon Martin was 17, visiting his father in Sanford, Florida. He was also black. George Zimmerman is 28, and had been a self-appointed neighborhood watchman in the area. He called in to the police that Martin was “suspicious,” upon which the police directed him to leave the rest to them. Zimmerman did not, feeling that Martin was “up to no good” or “on drugs or something.” Zimmerman was packing a handgun, and before long, Martin was dead from a gunshot wound in the chest. Zimmerman—who was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer in 2005, and was noted in the neighborhood for a particular animus against young black boys—claims self-defense, though all Martin had on him was a can of ice tea and a bag of Skittles. As of yet, however, Zimmerman has yet to be charged with any crime.

The repercussions of incidents like the February murder of Martin are guaranteed to linger like the fallout from a nuclear accident, sickening the people, and communities, involved for years afterward. Indeed, the tragedy of this event is twofold. One is that it resulted in the senseless death of a bright, good-natured boy. The other is that it has stoked yet again the embers of racial hurt in this country, reinforcing the main obstacle to any true healing: the ugly relationship between blacks and the police. 

The very nature of being black in the United States is now marked insidiously and essentially by the perceived reality of constantly being forced to deal with malevolent police forces. Indeed, a representative example of the black condition is what black journalist Deborah Mathis, in her syndicated column in 1997, called “Blackmotheritis”: “a nervous disorder afflicting millions of black women with adolescent or teenaged children, particularly the mothers of boys.” Mathis explains how she told her son:

Keep your hands out of your pockets. Don’t reach under your shirt. If there’s an itch, just live with it. In winter, keep your jacket open.

Mathis wasn’t kidding:

The other day, on a brief shopping foray, Joseph popped his hand beneath his shirt to rub a mosquito bite. “Joseph!” I shouted. My son’s name fell hard from my mouth as if it were a pain to say it. “Get your hand …” “Okay, Ma,” he said impatiently, then muttered something that seemed, at once, mad and sad. “I just don’t want …” I began, ruefully. “I know, Ma, I know. I’m sorry.” 

Certainly Mathis was laying it on a bit. However, at The Washington Post, Jonathan Capeheart, a black journalist more temperate and influential than Mathis, recounts similar advice given to him in the 1980s and says that he followed it; Charles Blow has recounted a kind of “Blackfatheritis” as well. 

“Oh, come on,” many of us think—including me, usually. Even outdoors, I scratch when I have an itch and do not consider myself lucky to have avoided arrest for it. But then along comes an episode like what happened to Martin. Suddenly, the narrative that the cops are anti-black, and that consequently, on a certain level being black is a battle against the cops, seems much more compelling. The feeling of resentment and persecution percolates. Gangsta rap ends up making a kind of sense, as does the title that Ishmael Reed gave his report on the black condition: Another Day at the Front. In short, a case like Trayvon Martin’s is interpreted as a metaphor for how white America feels about black people. Martin is already an icon, referred to regularly on black websites by his first name. 

The Martin case is especially unpardonable in that there are apparently no meaningfully complicating circumstances. In New York, Sean Bell, 23, was shot dead upon suspicion that he or one of his friends were armed, after a late-night nightclub argument with another group. Just last month, Ramarley Graham, 18, was accidentally killed by police after fleeing while carrying marijuana. Both of these deaths were tragedies of the highest degree. But when’s the last time you heard of somebody killed for packing Skittles? 

When I first moved to New York ten years ago, a major obstacle to opening up a black audience to non-left observations about race was the then-recent shooting death of Amadou Diallo. The 41 shots pumped into him, a number that had become so iconic that black comedians were making references to it, stood as an emblematic statement about racism in America. Whether this should have been the case is not a useful question. We might all consider how difficult it would be not to develop visceral resentments if members of our own communities suffered such fates on a regular basis.

And yet so far Zimmerman is a free man. Unless the public has been grievously misled about what happened to Trayvon Martin, it would be nothing less than sinful for Zimmerman to go unpunished. So much so that for the first time in my life, a part of me would almost understand those who might be moved to wreak civil unrest in response.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.