The Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case has engulfed the country in a conversation about race and justice, once again. It is tragic that a black teen lost his life in a situation so ordinary that it defines mundane: walking, snacking on candy, and talking to a friend on the phone.
How many other teens in this country were doing the exact same things that night, but didn't end up dead from a close-range gunshot?
Even more tragic is that America in 2013 is far more divided on the basis of race and skin color than many of us want to believe. Many white Americans simply don’t understand what it feels like to be a person of color in the US today. They assume that their experience of the most routine situations — waiting for a taxi, inquiring about an apartment for rent, or shopping for clothes — is the same for everyone.
It’s not surprising that many Americans are confused by Zimmerman’s acquittal, and they’re conflicted about whether justice was served. Why wouldn't they be, considering that we so often live separate and unequal lives? Many of our urban school districts and neighborhoods are neatly segregated. The cradle-to-prison pipeline is not an obscure rap lyric; it’s a reality for many young black males and their families. And some politicians continue to resort to stereotypes of welfare moms and drug-dealing thugs to bait voters.
If we learn anything from the Martin-Zimmerman case, it’s that somewhere in the American psyche, young black males are not ordinary. Often they exist in the spectrum of faceless, menacing, hoodie-wearing boogeymen: subconscious tags for fear, suspicion, and violence.