I am an adult resident of Encinitas. Those are two elements of my identity.
My whiteness is another element of my identity, and I am reminded of it regularly. I would guess that for many coastal North County residents, Trayvon Martin’s experience with George Zimmerman and the experience of being black in America generally are abstractions, footnotes of someone else’s experience in a different America that has little to do with them.
I believe, and have thought for much of my life, that it isn’t necessary to share every aspect of another person’s identity to have a sense of their experience in the world. That is a hallmark of human intelligence and sensibility (e.g., empathy, sympathy, and compassion). I think this is true when it comes to understanding black America’s reaction to Trayvon Martin’s murder, and I also think it is true in the context of the African American experience.
These are some aspects that I think I understand about being black in America, whether it is Sanford, Fla. or Encinitas, Calif. When you grow up black in America, you assume a mantle of suspicion-by-association from the day you are born, against which you must prove yourself every day, repeatedly. Many people will assume that you are less: less intelligent, less capable, and less trustworthy. And you will have to achieve above and beyond white peers to remove the taint of suspicion that you don’t measure up.
If you are male, you will be particularly suspicious — guilty of BWB (breathing while black). As President Obama noted recently, he had the seemingly magical ability to make car doors lock and sidewalks clear just by walking down the street. I bet hailing a cab wasn’t a gimme either. He said that all of this only ended with his ascendance to the presidency. Black youth and men particularly face the burden of broad and deep societal prejudices that must make it hard at times simply to walk out the door.
Black Americans understand that white privilege is real. Many white Americans would have no idea what those two words mean. To be white in America is to be privileged from birth. Your orthodoxy as a citizen and human being are taken for granted because you are in the majority, your “people” have always held power in society, and they have had the opportunity to set the rules therein. There is no mantle of suspicion associated with a white skin. That skin is akin to a passport granting the user freedom of movement and peace of mind: freedom from fear and suspicion. My sense is that few African Americans feel either of those freedoms all the time and absolutely, while many white people assume them as natural law.
Trayvon Martin was shot on his way to his father’s fianceé’s residence where he was staying at the time, armed with an Arizona Iced Tea and a box of Skittles. He was shot to death 70 yards from the back door of that residence. He was walking home when George Zimmerman accosted him.
I know one thing about this incident: Trayvon Martin’s death was unnecessary, and speaks to the burden of blackness in America. I have a 13-year-old son. We live in a townhouse down the block from a 7-Eleven in Village Park. I know — know — that if my son goes down the block to buy a drink and snack, the police may see him, but they will not stop him; residents may note his presence but will go on about their business. Because of this, I don’t send my son out in the world every day with the fear that something he does, or says, or just the fact of his being will incite someone against him.
While I am glad that my son will grow up absent that mantle of suspicion, my gladness is tempered by my sense of the difficulties that African Americans live with every day. Each of us, by our actions, still bears responsibility to realize a more perfect union, and white Americans’ recognition of the privileges they enjoy set against the automatic challenges of blackness has to be an essential element in moving us toward that realization.
Joshua Lazerson is an Encinitas resident.