What, exactly, made 17-year-old Trayvon Martin "suspicious" in the eyes of the man who shot him to death?
The question makes me think back to the time before my mom passed away, when she was hospitalized in a highly respected hospital here in Baltimore. On one Sunday, after church, I went to visit her. Security at this hospital was in full action that day. Each visitor, apparently, had to sign in to declare what person and room they intended to visit.
I was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, black socks and black dress shoes. I had the Sunday church bulletin in my hand so that Mom could read it in her room. She delighted in keeping abreast of church business. I looked like a minister, or perhaps a funeral director, and my posture and bearing conveyed a businesslike demeanor. Also: I am black.
There was another person going through security at the same time. He was dressed in a plaid shirt, tan khakis and running shoes, and he was carrying a backpack. He was white — unmistakably so.
We were both "examined" by the same security officer. I was detained and required to identify mom's room number, show personal identification, and sign the register of visitors. The white gentleman beside me was waved through — no ID check, no room designation, no signature required, and no secondary review and examination of his backpack. I caught up with him later and found out that he was not a member of the hospital staff, just a guest like me, visiting a sick relative on my mom's floor.
So: A well-dressed black man coming from church on a Sunday afternoon was, it would seem, more threatening and suspicious-looking than a casually dressed white man — with a backpack — when it came to the security of this particular hospital. What is wrong with this picture? I think you know the answer
"He was suspicious looking." "He seemed threatening." These are the codes assigned to African-American males, whether young or old, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, successful or not so successful. I thought that the enlightened, "post-racial" era would have dispensed with these views, but that is clearly not the case.
They have even been applied to the president of the United States. Remember his controversial tarmac meeting with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer? She said that she "felt threatened" by President Barack Obama, even as the Secret Service and multiple cameras recorded her finger-wagging at him. Her simple allegation was sufficient justification for her aggressive and disrespectful action — with little, if any, repercussions against her. It harks back to a time when black men could be prosecuted for even daring to look at a white woman.
I know — I am too sensitive. I look at everything through the prism of race. I take things out of context. I don't know all the facts. I am a racist. I have heard these comments before, and I have tried to sort through and address these thoughts as honestly as I can.
Someone wrote that every living African-American male should look at the Trayvon Martin case and say "there, but for the grace of God, go I." It certainly resonated with me, as I recounted that one incident in the hospital four years ago. And while I am old enough to have been Trayvon's grandfather, the "threatening" and "suspicious-looking" phrases do apply here and are chillingly reminiscent of what I thought to be a bygone time in our history. It appears that males of African descent who reside in these United States will forever be saddled with these monikers.
Then again, maybe it is no wonder that Trayvon was singled out for further (and tragic) scrutiny and action. After all, he had a can of iced tea and bag of Skittles — items that were clearly dangerous. Much like my church bulletin.
James C. Morant, a retired federal employee, lives in Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.