By†Laura W. Murphy, ACLU Washington
Over the past month, Iíve listened to the public conversation unfolding around Trayvon Martinís death. Across the nation Ė from race relations experts at the best universities to average Americans at the dinner table Ė everyone is debating: What role did race play in the 17-year-oldís shooting and the policeís subsequent actions?
It seems that answer depends on in whose shoes you are standing. Recently, a†USA Today/Gallup Poll showed a racial divide between blacks and whites in how they view the shooting of this young black man, dressed in a hoodie, who dared to walk at night through his upper-income housing development in Sanford, Florida. According to the poll, majority of white Americans feel that race made no difference in the case.
From where Iím standing, thatís naÔve and wishful thinking. In my profession, Iíve seen first-hand how much work we still have ahead to achieve racial justice in our country. In fact, on April 17, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) held a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on racial profiling in America in an effort to explore what can be done to combat the use of racial stereotyping in law enforcement.
More than academic, it’s personal
But for me, this conversation about Trayvon and racial profiling extends beyond an academic and political discussion. Itís real, everyday life for a mother of a young black man. Long before Trayvon was killed, I felt a special sensitivity to how society treats people who look like my 22-year-old, caramel-skin son. Thatís why I could not raise my son to be colorblind. To do so would put his life in peril.
When my son was just 9 years old, the ACLU issued a report,†Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our Nationís Highways. The report chronicled the harassment Black motorists and pedestrians face on our streets and highways and was filled with gut-wrenching stories of police stops gone awry involving Black drivers and white police officers. I could no longer ignore that one day, this could happen to my son. When the time came, unlike the parents of his white classmates, I consciously delayed his getting a driverís license. I stalled and dissembled because I was fearful. Instead of getting his license at 16, he got it at 18.
Always on alert
Knowing what I know, Iíve done my best to protect my son by teaching him to anticipate prejudice and understand that for some, his skin color is an invitation to scorn and mistreatment. As a precaution, heís learned to modulate his voice and swagger so he does not come across as threatening. He also speaks three languages: cultured English (making it clear he is educated), conversational Spanish and the language of his hip-hop generation.
Still, he has faced harassment. He has been stopped by the police while driving in a predominantly white, upper-middle class neighborhood. He has been followed around by security personnel in local, upscale stores like Bloomingdaleís and Neiman Marcus. And heís been treated like a potential criminal by a neighbor who recently ran inside and locked his door when my son smiled and waved while walking down the street wearing a hoodie.
Photo from the ACLU
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