This weekend, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The jury had the option of convicting him with second-degree murder or with the lesser charge of manslaughter, and they chose neither. Killing Trayvon would have been wrong even if he had been the surly future criminal the right-wing media depicted. But he wasn’t a dangerous person. He was a seventeen year old boy fetching skittles from a corner store.
I’ve heard parents say that once their children were born, they couldn’t stand to watch the local news, where every dead or missing child reminded them of the fragility of their own child’s life. I’m not a parent, but I think I’m beginning to understand how they feel. My brother looks a lot like Trayvon.
I have five siblings who joined my family through international adoption. My (white) parents did make some small nods to my siblings’ heritages, but they never had “The Talk.” Most of my siblings are light skinned, and are assumed to be Asian or Latino. Although my siblings have all experienced personal and institutional racism, they are, generally, I’m sure in part because of their size (we’re a short family), not assumed to be dangerous. My brother William* is another story.
When I was seventeen, my stepmother (the mother of my siblings) kicked me out of the house. I left for college a few months later, and my stepmother effectively kept me from communicating with any of my siblings for nearly six years. The first time I saw my siblings in five years was when my father died. It would be another two years before my brother William ran away from my stepmother’s abusive home and reached out to me.
When I “met” him again, it had been six years since I’d spent any time with him. He has grown from a goofy, skinny fourteen year old into a huge, gangly young man. I am so proud of him. He has found a new home with some family friends, and he’s taken on considerable responsibility in that household. He’s kind, he’s creative, he’s surprisingly good (for a barely-out-of-teenagerhood boy) at keeping in touch with me, and he’s working hard on figuring out what he wants out of life. He’s become a wonderful man, despite the considerable obstacles of having to learn an entirely new culture at age nine, growing up in an abusive home, the temporary loss of his sister (me), and then the death of his beloved father.
I’m learning, though, as our relationship grows, that my stepmother seriously failed William, not just by hitting and yelling at him, but by not preparing him for the world he lives in. He only recently learned how to drive. He was never taught to handle stress in a healthy way. I’m helping him with these things. But I can’t help him with one of the most important lessons he needs to learn to be successful and safe in America.
My brother is tall, dark-skinned, and rarely smiles. He wears hoodies, and, until he got his driver’s license, walked everywhere, including home from the movies at night. Once, after a late movie, William was walking the three miles home with his best friend Trey, a Black man. He told me that they were pulled over by a cop as they walked, who demanded to know what they were doing. They told the cop that they didn’t have a ride home from the movies, so they were walking. There is no public transportation in that area of the country. They had no money for a taxi. The cop questioned them aggressively, and finally let them go with a warning never to be out past curfew (ten o clock) again. He did not offer them a ride home.
This was not the first run-in William has had with the police. He called me panicking, once, because he’d snuck out of the house with his girlfriend to make out in a nearby park, and the police had picked them up. They’d let her, a fifteen year old White girl, go home, but had held him, a sixteen year old dark-skinned boy, for hours, until my angry older brother came to pick him up. Her parents filed a restraining order against him. A few years later, when I found sexy pictures of his new girlfriend on his phone, I frantically made him delete them. I knew that his above-average chances of being frisked, and the age of the girl in the pictures (sixteen) could land him in serious hot water if the police officers decided to charge him with possession of child pornography.
William is treated differently because of the way he looks. He does not have the luxury of being grumpy with police officers. He will not get the benefit of the doubt if he jostles a white woman on a bus and she presses charges. He has to play by different rules. Unfair rules. I don’t know these rules. I can’t help him learn them.
I would be horrified and angry about Trayvon’s death and the miscarriage of justice that followed even if I didn’t have a dark-skinned brother. But this hits me especially close to the heart because in a country where skin color informs perception of innocence, I can’t protect my brother. My brother is at greater risk for arrest and brutality because of his skin color, and I can do nothing.
I’m not revealing anything new when I say this country has a race problem. Any decent American should be doing whatever they can to fight individual and institutionalized racism because it’s the right thing to do. But if you can’t bring yourself to connect with the abstract goal of ending discrimination against a faceless mass of people, fight racism for Trayvon, who baked cookies for his cousins. Fight it for Donovan Jackson, a sixteen year old with a learning disability who was beaten senseless by police officers. Fight it for the eighty people on this (extremely incomplete) list of Americans who suffered from police brutality and this depressing list of young unarmed black people shot by cops.
Fight it for William, my little brother, who cries when I cry, who writes poetry about our dead father, who loves football and macadamia nut cookies, so I don’t lose him to a senseless, racist act of violence.
How to Take Action
- Sign this petition to have Trayvon’s case prosecuted as a hate crime. When I signed, I included this note: “An armed man shot an unarmed teenager. The idea that black teenagers are dangerous, even when unarmed, is racially charged. This was a hate crime. It deserves prosecution as such.”
- Encourage President Obama to adopt a national plan of action for racial justice.
- Keep informed. Subscribe to ARC Toolbox and other publications.
- Pay attention to local bills with racist undertones. Many local governments try to pass legislation that looks harmless until you examine it closely. A great example is voting laws. See this Brennan Center article for more information on discriminatory laws that have been passed this year or are in the works.
- Attend anti-racist workshops, like “What White People Can Do About Racism” workshop offered by the Center for the Study of White American Culture, workshops offered by Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, or workshops and trainings offered by other organizations in your area.
- Agitate for your workplace or organization to get in touch with groups like Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training and follow their advice for best practices.
- Give to organizations advocating for an end to racial discrimination such as Project RACE, Colorlines, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.