My mother used to share an old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” As a child, this was yet one more adult mystery that only time could explain.
When I heard that Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman had been proclaimed not guilty by an all-white jury in Florida, I immediately thought of my decreased mother. I could hear my mother saying, almost singing “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
My mother played a very active role in my development as an activist. She told me who Emmitt Till was and why he was murdered. She explained to me the reason four little girls were murdered in the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. She spent hours talking about why Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. She made my brother and me read an adult-level book about the Scottsboro Boys when we were 10 years old.
You see, she was afraid — even in Philadelphia — that my brother and I would not make it to adulthood, simply because we were black males. She knew that the world we lived in was full of unforeseen dangers for black males. She also knew that the world did not value the lives of my brother and me in the same way that it valued the lives of my white male classmates. She never said so explicitly but she didn’t have to. She didn’t teach fear, rather counseled caution.
Today, in the absence of my mother, I speak to my young adult, college-educated nephews who now have their own scars trying to make it to full adulthood – being stopped and frisked, being called the “N” word while playing football at the University of Tennessee, being followed around in a department store, having white women clutch their purses closer to them in the elevator. And it’s not just young black male adults – I have been followed around in stores and there have been white women who have held their purses closer to them during elevator rides in the condo building I have resided for six years. All of this serves as a reminder to me on how black males, regardless of age, appearance and education are viewed by many in the majority culture. All of us are taught on conscious and subconscious levels that black males are potential criminals and are always up to no good.
That’s why Trayvon Martin was killed and it is why George Zimmerman was acquitted. America accepts that all black males are potential criminals – eliminate them or put them in jail and all our nation’s ills will be solved.
This racist and discriminatory ideology remains one of our country’s most daunting challenges.
The sad thing is that many people think that racism was eliminated when President Obama was elected. President Obama’s election did not signify the end of racism in a new post-racial America, but rather one small step toward acknowledging centuries of institutional racism in our culture. In the meantime, as I said in a recent Facebook posting, I needed time to reflect on my next steps to finding ways of dealing with racism as an American, a black gay man and as a person who wants to see his six-year-old great nephew grow up to be able to walk down the street wearing a hoodie, with a bottle of iced tea and candy without being shot just because he is a black male.
I am still exploring those options and searching for answers. Today, my resolve to be the hope my parents saw in me as a child, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges for black boys is still a challenge I am up to. My strength, however weakened by the recent legislative and court decisions affecting African Americans, Latinos and other people of color as well as LGBT citizens, seniors and low-income people – is undoubtedly bolstered by the growing voices of agreement that a change is indeed needed in our society. While I struggle to accept these adversarial decisions, I continue to lend my voice, my experience and that of the Center for Black Equity to the chorus of voices fighting for understanding, acceptance and equality for all.
I believe like my mother believed that every life is worth fighting for and “a change is gonna come.”