Trayvon and Brandon: Why does society care about one black death but not thousands of others?

The George Zimmerman verdict continues to reverberate across the nation, and the nation is coming to terms with the purported notion that we live in post-racial society.

I didn't know Trayvon Martin. But nearly a month after the Florida teen was killed, in February 2012, someone I did know, a young 23-year-old black man named Brandon Simms, was murdered in McCulloh Homes in Baltimore's Upton community. In all probability, other young black men killed him.


Brandon had reportedly been involved in the drug trade in his past, but he had turned his life around and was working and earning money legitimately. In October 2011, he approached me to work on my project, "You're the Quarterback: Gameplan for Life." At the time, we didn't have any money, so we couldn't hire him. Only four months later, Brandon's life was cut short by shots to his head and chest.

As I wrestle with a mixture of grief, anger and determination in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, I am left to wonder: Do we care about victims of homicide other than Trayvon Martin's? Trayvon's death eventually gripped the nation, while Brandon's death slipped quietly under the radar. In a recent CNN article, Tom Foreman poses an important question: What is it that made Trayvon Martin's murder a national cause and worthy of national media coverage?

This is a pivotal question because thousands of African-Americans die every year due to homicide. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over 13,000 people were murdered in 2009. Out of that number, over 48 percent were persons of African descent, even though the latest U.S. Census shows that African Americans are 13 percent of the total population.

This homicide epidemic especially affects the lives of young African-American males. Out of the thousands of black males who are murdered each year, only a few if any will ever make the national news. Chances are, the murder of Trayvon Martin made the national news because interracial violence is often sensationalized, while most of the murders of African-American males go underreported nationally because intra-racial violence has become normalized.

White-on-black violence can make a national imprint with the death of one black male, but the nation is only moved to notice black-on-black violence when it occurs at epidemic levels. Take away the death of Trayvon Martin (or possibly Troy Davis), and there would likely not be a national conversation about the homicidal violence that confronts black men. Why?

I argue that Americans are comfortable tolerating a certain level of black deaths — and not simply when it comes to homicides. Vernellia Randall presents evidence in her book, "Dying While Black," that black people in the U.S. have a higher overall mortality rate from a wide range of diseases when compared to their white counterparts. Black folks suffer 80,000 to 100,000 excess deaths per year (when compared to rates of whites). This means that every year we lose an average of 90,000 extra people of African descent in America due to a higher rate of mortality. Over a 10-year period, we are losing nearly 1 million black people prematurely which is more than American lives lost in the Civil War, World War I and the Vietnam War combined.

We know that this nation tolerates epidemic black homicides and excess black deaths because policymakers have not addressed the race-specific social conditions that drive excess black deaths and create the epidemic outbreaks of black homicides. This nation does not want to come to grips with the fact that much illegal drug and gang activity is taking place in historically segregated and disinvested communities that continue to be wracked by the forces of government-led residential displacement and corporate-sponsored land dispossession.

On top of that toxic brew, the nation has added the devastating combination of failing urban schools, the war on drugs, and redevelopment that favors corporate developers at the expense of poor people. Altogether, you have the perfect social and economic recipe for young black men to inflict death on other young black men due to their participation the deadly drug trade and its associated violence. We got a vivid sense of how this all happens — how the "game" works — in "The Wire."

If we did come to terms with all of these factors that breed so much violence and destruction, we would be just as outraged and distraught over the murder of Brandon Simms as we were over the killing of Trayvon Martin. I often wonder if Brandon would still be alive if more economic opportunities (not just income-earning but wealth-generating and sustaining) were available to him before engaging in the futile drug trade.

Brandon's death hit me like a sledgehammer and still haunts me. Yes, young black men sorely need jobs and health insurance (the foci of my program), but I also realize that Brandon needed more than that. He needed us to care that he had real opportunities — that even his murderers had real opportunities — so that none of them had to think about resorting to the drug trade in the first place.

Brandon needed us to be outraged that American apartheid and our racialized reality produces communities like Upton and then neglects the people living in disinvested, drug-infested environments. Brandon needed us to see that his death was a product of similar but less obvious toxic social forces colliding, just like when Trayvon was killed a month earlier. Once we understand the full apparatus of American apartheid and its Grim Reaper-esque ability to generate excess black deaths and epidemic black homicides, then we can save both the Trayvons and the Brandons.

Lawrence Brown is an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellow and a Campaign for Black Male Achievement Fellow. His email is