The past week has brought an intense time of reflection and critical self-examination for many Americans. In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, there have been emotionally-charged conversations about the way young black men are viewed in the U.S. and how valued their lives are. All the way up to President Obama we are witnessing soul-searching attempts to confront the complicated role of race in our culture. In a public address, President Obama said 35 years ago, he could have been Trayvon Martin and was routinely racially profiled before he became a senator.
Revealed throughout the Zimmerman trial, as Trayvon Martin’s character was scrutinized for signs of how threatened Zimmerman may have felt by him, was the uncomfortable truth that racism results in black men being commonly viewed as menacing simply for being human.
From clothing to intoxicants, what is normal and innocuous in another context becomes sinister when associated with black men and boys. Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie is a sign of millennial individuality and irreverence, whereas Trayvon’s hoodie is a sign of being a “wannabe gangster.” From Martha Stewart to Justin Bieber, marijuana is becoming increasingly socially acceptable. And although no one recommends marijuana use by teenagers, when was the last time someone made a case for justifiable homicide of a suburban white kid by noting trace amounts of THC found in their system, as was done in the case of Trayvon?
Being black means living a life saturated by double standards. When the skin you live in is viewed as inherently suspicious, anything you do can provoke fear and hostility. It takes a special effort to convince people of the humanity and worth of a young black man in a way that is not required for others. The day after the Zimmerman verdict, a friend and I went to see the film “Fruitvale Station,” a poignant and powerful account of the life of Oscar Grant, a young black man from Oakland, and the events leading up to his death at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer in 2009.
Trayvon and Oscar were from opposite sides of the country and in many ways lived different lives but in the aftermath of their murders, as arguments were put forth for why they could have been seen as suspicious or potentially threatening, a history of involvement with drugs was cited. Drugs remain an enduring part the collection of social and historical biases commonly summoned to put the character of young black men under a microscope. The underlying assumption seems to be it is not so much a matter what you do but who you are.
From caffeine to nicotine to aspirin to alcohol, when was the last time most of us have experienced a truly “drug free” day in our lives? By and large, we regularly consume some sort of substance that alters how we feel or offers pleasure instead of pain. This is why drug prohibition has been such a pernicious tool for perpetuating bias, corruption and bigotry. When the power is granted to selectively criminalize behavior that everyone engages in, unequal applications of law and social judgment are inevitable. This is why civil rights advocate and academic Michelle Alexander calls the drug war “The New Jim Crow.”
Frank conversations about race at the national level are long overdue. If any good is to come from the Trayvon Martin tragedy, hopefully it will include bringing this dialogue to the forefront. But we absolutely cannot talk about race without talking about the war on drugs. This failed social experiment not only leads to the disproportionate targeting, arrest, conviction and incarceration of people of color, despite equal rates of drug consumption across race, it fuels the underlying thread of judgment, stigma and marginalization that permeates how we value human life and enable acts of violence.