COLUMN: ‘I am Trayvon Martin’
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.” — Barack Obama
I am Trayvon Martin.
Distill it to its marrow, and that is what African-Americans have been telling other Americans since February 2012 when the unarmed teenager was stalked and killed by George Zimmerman, who, for no good reason, thought him suspicious. And it is essentially what President Obama said in an impromptu appearance in the White House press room last week.
We African-Americans see ourselves, our sons and grandsons, in this dead boy. And we hear no whisper of “there but for the grace of God,” but, rather, a nightmare scream of what could yet be, in a nation that would afterward slander them till it seemed they deserved what they got and more.
In pointedly including himself among our number, in testifying that even the most powerful man in the world once saw women clutch their purses when he got on an elevator, Obama committed an act of moral courage. It was all the more remarkable because it carried no political upside.
Not that everyone understood. “Trayvon Martin could have been me,” said the president, after which Sean Hannity, a grand wizard of the extreme right, professed confusion, wondering if by this, Obama meant he “smoked pot and he did a little blow.”
And so it goes.
That coarse attempt at wit pretty much emblematizes the behavior of many so-called conservatives since Zimmerman’s acquittal. They have redoubled their efforts to fashion a fairly ordinary teenager into some general purpose thug who somehow needed shooting, and his killer into some righteous street avenger who stalked him from justifiable fear because, “we all know” young black men are criminal.
“Young black men.” Not Trayvon Benjamin Martin, 17, son of Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. Because the first casualty of racism is individuality, the right to be your singular self.
This is what was stolen from Trayvon even before his life. It is stolen anew every time some pundit bloviates upon the perceived criminality of young black men to justify his killing. That perception is rooted more in stereotype and fear than actual fact, but put that aside and ask yourself this:
What man or woman among us would be willing to let the rest of us judge them based not upon who they are and what they have done, but solely upon our perceptions of people like them? There is, for instance, a perception that methamphetamine use is concentrated among white people in red states — in other words, Sean Hannity’s audience. May we treat all white people in red states accordingly? Will they go for that deal? Of course not.
Yet we daily crucify young black men upon that cross and pretend to moral righteousness in the doing. Trayvon is not the first victim. He’s not even the latest.
But he is the one whose death has made us cry, “Enough!”
There comes a time when people get tired. So said Martin Luther King in his first speech as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. From that fatigue grew a movement that reshaped America.
One hopes people are that tired again — and that it spurs a new movement to challenge not just laws, but attitudes so corroded and stained some of us cannot even muster compassion for the death of a blameless boy.
This is wrong. It is unworthy of decent people. And so, it cannot stand.
The thing the rest of the country may not fully appreciate is how deeply that loss of individuality cuts for African-Americans, how closely it binds us. So yes, of course Barack Obama is Trayvon Martin. And let there be no mistake:
I am Trayvon, too.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at lpittsmiamiherald.com.