Tonight a Florida man’s acquittal for hunting and killing a black teenager who was armed with only a bag of candy serves as a Rorschach test for the American public. For conservatives, it’s a triumph of permissive gun laws and a victory over the liberal media, which had been unfairly rooting for the dead kid all along. For liberals, it's a tragic and glaring example of the gaps that plague our criminal justice system. For people of color, it’s a vivid reminder that we must always be deferential to white people, or face the very real chance of getting killed.
When I was junior in college in Virginia, my then-girlfriend and I decided one night to meet up for a quick snack while studying for midterms. We bought some sandwiches at a 24-hour deli and, rather than waste time going to either of our homes, which were in opposite directions, we decided to eat in her car in a parking lot near a fancy hotel off-campus. We were listening to music and laughing about something when I saw a security guard’s headlights in the rear view mirror, and I stopped laughing as I watched him—a white man in his mid-40s—walk up to my girlfriend’s door and ask her to step out of the car. “Uh, OK,” she said, clearly as confused as I was about what we’d done to warrant his attention.
He walked her away from her car toward his, but they were close enough that I could hear their conversation. He asked her her name, a slight southern lilt lengthening his vowels. She told him. Then he said, “Are you OK? “
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Are you safe right now?” he asked again.
My girlfriend was white. I am not.
I leapt out of the car and screamed, “What the hell did you just ask her?” I wanted to see if he had the resolve to say it again, to me this time.
The security guard turned to face me. “It’s standard procedure, sir,” he said. “I was going to ask you if you were alright, too.”
“I think you’re lying,” I said.
“You can think what you’d like,” he said, a smile creeping up his face. “We can also call the police right now and sort this all out, because y’all aren’t supposed to be here and this is private property.”
I wanted to hit him in his fucking face. I wanted to take his flashlight from his belt and smash his teeth out, giving him a real reason to call the cops, a reason besides the crime of eating a sandwich in a parking lot.
But I was a 20-year-old brown kid in Virginia. It was late. I was with a white girl. I felt embarrassed, and the thought of being surrounded by more inquisitive white men with pepper spray and tasers and handcuffs and guns only made my face hotter. And so I apologized. “I’m sorry,” I said. “We didn’t know this was private property.”
“Well, now you know,” he said.
My girlfriend drove me home, where I stewed for hours and promised myself I’d report the guard in the morning. When I woke, however, I realized I didn’t have the guard’s name, nor did I even know what to report—it’s not against any rules to ask a white woman if the black man in the car with her is attacking her. It’s not against any rules to humiliate someone in a darkened parking lot in front of the person they love. It may, however, be against the rules to eat food in the parking lot in the first place. I never reported it. I think about it to this day.
It is a complicated thing to be young, black, and male in America. Not only are you well aware that many people are afraid of you—you can see them clutching their purses or stiffening in their subway seats when you sit across from them—you must also remain conscious of the fact that people expect you to be apologetic for their fear. It’s your job to be remorseful about the fact that your very nature makes them uncomfortable, like a pilot having to apologize to a fearful flyer for being in the sky.
If you’re a black man and you don’t remain vigilant of and obsequious to white people’s panic in your presence—if you, say, punch a man who accosts you during dinner with your girlfriend and screams “Nigger!” in your face, or if you, say, punch a man who is following you without cause in the dark with a handgun at his side—then you must be prepared to be arrested, be beaten, be shot through the heart and lung and die on the way home to watch a basketball game with your family. And after you are dead, other blacks should be prepared for people to say you are a vicious thug who deserved it. You smoked weed, for instance, and got in some fights at school (like I did)—obviously you had it coming. You were a ticking time bomb, and sooner or later someone was going to have to put you down.
To stay alive and out of jail, brown and black kids learn to cope. They learn to say, “Sorry, sir,” for having sandwiches in the wrong parking lot. They learn, as LeVar Burton has, to remove their hats and sunglasses and put their hands up when police pull them over. They learn to tolerate the indignity of strange, drunken men approaching them and calling them and their loved ones a bunch of niggers. They learn that even if you’re willing to punch a harasser and face the consequences, there’s always a chance a police officer will come to arrest you, put you face down on the ground, and then shoot you execution style. Maybe the cop who shoots you will only get two years in jail, because it was all a big misunderstanding. You see, he meant to be shooting you in the back with his taser.
Trayvon Martin is dead—and so many young men like him are dead or in prison—because in America it was his responsibility to take it. It was his responsibility to let a stranger with a gun follow him at night in his own neighborhood and suspect him of wrongdoing. It was his responsibility to apologize for being a black kid who scared people. It was not George Zimmerman’s responsibility to let a boy get home to his family.