In the days leading up to the end of the Michael Dunn "loud music" case — in which a white Florida man shot and killed a 17-year-old black teen after getting into an argument over the boy's so-called "thug" music — I was overwhelmed with feelings of restlessness, worry, frustration and fear.
They were the same feelings I had at the end of the George Zimmerman trial. The same ones I have when I think about the day when my sons will be old enough to drive or walk to the store by themselves. I worry so much about what could happen to them simply because they are black and male. I feel like my husband and I are in the midst of this never-ending war, the same war that my parents and my grandparents fought. It is the same war that black people have been fighting in this country since American slavery was first legalized. This war is simply to keep our boys safe in a society that devalues them, suspects them, fears them and often dismisses them. It is a war that I now fear I am losing.
When my sons were first born, we held them in our arms and promised them that we would love and protect them. When they learned how to crawl, we ran around the house moving things out of their way. When they learned how to toddle, we walked behind them, always ready to catch them right before they fell. When they started school, we used to check in with their teachers every day to make sure that they were comfortable and safe and happy. We taught them how to say please and thank you, how to raise their hands in school before they spoke and how to wait their turn. We taught them to be respectful and polite. We spent hours reading to and with them, taking them to the library, to the museums and to see Shakespeare in the Park. We saved our money, moved into a safe neighborhood and sacrificed so that they could attend the best schools, take piano and play sports. We took them to church and made sure that they learned their scriptures and prayed before they ate their food. We really believed that we were doing everything that we could do to keep them safe, to beat the odds and to win this war. There was a moment when Barack Obama was first elected president that I thought that the war had finally ended and that we had won. We celebrated because we believed that the work that had been done to create a fair and just society. We believed that America was finally colorblind and post racial. We have come to realize that we were wrong.
We are still living in a country where our sons will be judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. I believe that it does not matter how much education they have or how polite they are or how much money we make or that they can play the piano and fence and swim. In this country, no matter were they are or what they are doing, they will still be seen as threats and thugs and criminals. They will be seen as disposable.
My heart broke last year, when the Zimmerman verdict was read and I wondered aloud if it was open season on black boys. My husband and I had our race talk with our sons and talked to them about what it means to be perceived as a criminal even if you are just walking down the street. We told them what to do when they were approached by the cops or were followed in a store. At the same time, I quietly asked myself, over and over again, how many more weaponless black boys were going to die as a result of white men standing their ground. My sons followed the Dunn case very closely, asking questions about the defense and about the law. They argued with each other and with me because they believe that this is a human rights issue and that no person has the right to shoot into a car full of people. We sat and listened to the outcome and tried to understand how the jury failed to reach a verdict on the murder charge against Dunn, convicting him only of three counts of second-degree attempted murder. My youngest wanted to know if we would ever live in a society where boys like Jordan Davis, Dunn's victim; Trayvon Martin; or Emmett Till would ever have justice. My teenager wanted to know that in addition to not being able to wear a hoodie or stand on a corner or ride on the subway, does this mean that he can never sit in a car with his friends and play music. Although I am helping them to understand that these issues are much more complicated than that, in so many ways I do recognize that they are not. We live in a society where black boys are not able to walk free and where they are devalued and are without personhood. We are living in a society where the war continues.
Kaye Wise Whitehead is assistant professor of Communication at Loyola University Maryland. She can be reached on Twitter @kayewhitehead or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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