Trayvon Martin, Silent. We Must Speak.

By Tamara Copeland
President
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

By now, you have heard about the 17 year old, African-American boy who was killed tragically on February 26th by a neighborhood watch captain. According to reports, Trayvon was on his way to his dad’s home in a gated community after going to a nearby convenience store. George Zimmerman, the watch captain, saw him and perceived him as a threat to the neighborhood.  He said he thought Trayvon was going for a gun. Trayvon only had Skittles and an iced tea in his hand.

As the mother of an African-American male teenager, this event has sickened me. For days, I put it out of my mind. I couldn’t think about it or talk about it.  I know what it’s like to have to talk to your teenage son about walking-while-black, driving-while-black, shopping-while-black … simply what it means to be a black male in America. Today, I decided that I had to talk about it. Today, I decided that I had to use my voice to talk about something that too many of us don’t want to talk about or don’t know how to talk about: race and racism.

Last week, Jim Johnson, a noted demographer spoke about what he calls “disruptive demographics” at a Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers’ event.  He talked about the growing number of interracial marriages and increases in immigrants of color in our country. He spoke of multiple ways in which the U.S. is “browning” and suggested that visual racial cues may become less pervasive  … over  time.  This African-American academician also spoke poignantly about being a well-dressed, polite, Ph.D. from a renowned university who was recently stopped while speeding and asked how he could afford the BMW he was driving.

Not two months ago, an African-American, female colleague and her white male companion were confronted as an “N word” and an “N-word lover” as they left a nonprofit organization in nearby northern Virginia.  Some would say, well that’s just an ignorant person yelling a hateful word. Was George Zimmerman hateful or ignorant or did his fear of someone who didn’t look like him lead to the death of this 17 year old?  We don’t know yet.

What we do know is that while we have legislated racial equality in this country, issues of race and racism still plague us, often hidden, rarely discussed. Racial equity and social justice still elude us. We must change those policies, for example, that enable more toxic waste sites in places where low income people, often people of color, live. We must determine why the education achievement gap has remained the same for decades and fix it.  We have to work at changing how we perceive each other, how we understand people who are different from us.  This will be hard work – work in which all Americans must play a part.

As nonprofit leaders, we must go deeper than discussions about diversity in staff leadership and in board composition, topics with which we have developed some comfort, to conversations about the impact of race and racism.  We must understand that today people are discriminated against based on race, assumptions are made based on race, and treatment is unequal – today in our region, not 60 years ago in another part of the country.

As leaders, we must start what might be difficult conversations in order to uncover truths that can lead to powerful change. I look forward to starting this discussion here on the Daily, and I hope you will share your thoughts by commenting below.

Racism is a reality that permeates and weakens our society. It affects every person in our region, in our country.  We want to think it is behind us. It isn’t. Each of us can, and must, help to put race on the table.  Let that be Trayvon Martin’s legacy.

Comments

  1. For every parent, worry is a faithful companion. You are never not anxious about a child’s welfare. But (speaking as a white woman), the fear of an African-American parent must be overwhelming, and sadly all too justified. I don’t know what has happened to America, but we have becomes an ugly, toxic place. I cry for my country and mourn for this family. What a tragedy.

    • Tamara Copeland says:

      Susan, thank you for your comment. It is so important that responses to situations like this come from all communities, not just the African-American community. I hope you will share your view with your friends and family. We all have such power. We just have to use our voices.

  2. Brava! Well said.

    Beyond, but related to, the question of race, the story also begs some other questions: Exactly what is the purpose of (that particular) Neighborhood Watch? Also: Why can anyone volunteering on Neighborhood Watch carry a weapon, let alone a concealed weapon, rather than being trained to call “911″ first and leave the firearms to the professionals? Not that police don’t make mistakes, too, but … a concealed weapon?

    • Tamara Copeland says:

      This case raises so many important questions that we must discuss. How do others feel about the concealed gun issues?

  3. Preconceived notions are certainly not behind us. As an early 40′s white male whose wardrobe has been described as “uptight preppy”, I am always amazed by how people perceive me when all they have is a visual cue. Nine times out of ten the assumption is that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. And, I’m convinced that people treat me better because of that preconception.

    In reality, I grew up in a small town in rural Minnesota to a family that qualified for every public assistance program available, but my family was too proud to register for any of them but reduced price school lunches. I’m first generation college and would have continued to work on a hog farm but my parents pushed me to something different than that reality.

    Fast forward the tape through a lot of college financial assistance, entry-level jobs in nonprofit human services and years of working my way into higher levels of responsibility. Today, I’m heading an organization providing support to the homeless and near-homeless struggling in our community. People assume I am doing this because of some sense of calling. Maybe. But certainly I am doing this because I have been the low-income kid just trying to make it all work. I remember it, whether or not a visual scan of me today shows it.

    I don’t know what the answer is. But, just as I consider myself lucky for repeatedly being given opportunities based on a quick look at me, I know that others have undue obstacles because of a similar quick look.

    As a society, we need to have this conversation.

    • Tamara Copeland says:

      Shannon, you make a really important point. Before any one has time to learn the content of our character, they make an assessment based on how we look. Part of that is our race, but definitely part of it is how we dress. A hoodie vs a preppie look places the wearer in a certain category. It’s time to get past how we look to know who we are. Thanks for your post.

  4. I firmly believe Zimmerman was looking to murder Trayvon that day. He knows enough about the law to know what to say to try to justify a killing. He stalked and chased down this child solely because of the color of Trayvon’s skin. He tried to state that Trayvon was “suspicious” or “on drugs”, he claimed Trayvon was reaching into his waistband and approaching Zimmerman. I believe all of that are complete and total lies. He wanted to kill Trayvon, a darling, innocent child because he wanted to make sure this “one” didn’t get away, as his references to race and racial slur during the call to police, attest. Imagine being a kid and seeing some strange man stalking you, following you in a car? What would you do if that man exited his car and approached you aggressively? Poor Trayvon was likely scared to death. And his worst fears came true because indeed, Zimmerman was a killer. Finally, Zimmerman is not in jail solely because of the color of Trayvon’s skin as well. That police department is known for its racism. The most disgusting comment I have heard in relation to this case was from the police officials defending Zimmerman by saying that they are sure he wishes he did things different and so does Trayvon. What? What did he do wrong? Walked to get candy and ran from a scary stranger approaching him on a dark street as we teach all our children to do? What was he supposed to do? Allow a strange man with a gun to detain him and do God knows what? I am appalled. Anyone who believes racism is dead in this country should take a good look at this case and realize their ignorance.

    • Sharon Davis says:

      This is a tragedy that will never make sense atleast not to most of us. As a mother of a black male who is now an adult, I understand Tamara’s concerns regarding her son. During my son’s youth I worried when he was late coming in from a weekend night out with friends, when he got his license and drove without me in the car and almost anytime he participated in an event of his peers at games, dances, etc. Why? The stigma that continues to “brand” our youth today isn’t new but it remains frightening. If they wear a hoodie because it’s raining they are subject to suspicion. If they are in a neighborhood where they are not known they are subject to suspicion. If they drive a car that appears to cost beyond their assumed means, they are subject to suspicion and the list goes on. So, what do we do? In my home I had to teach my son and daughter that not all people are treated equally and while it’s a hurtful truth….it is a truth. As Americans we must stand up for each other and see beyond differences and demand the humanity that we expect for ourselves to be the Right of everyone. To accept anything less is the same as supporting the wrong doers. Trayvon Martin is but one example of the numerous inequities that happen in communities on a daily basis. It’s just that every now and then something so monstrous happens that even the most complacent person takes a stand to say…enough is enough. What can we do? This is a burning question that’s been asked for a very long time. For sure, it must begin in the home and supported by teachers and grounded in our minds and spirits that all people have the right to be respected and their differences accepted. In short, we need to find ways to develop a societal conscience that has no tolerance for atrocities against one another. This is by no means a “genius” idea but it all goes full circle and we all play a part in forming the circle of security, acceptance and understanding.

      • Tamara Copeland says:

        Sharon, Thanks for your response. While I know that the TV coverage has led to conversations in homes across America, I wonder how, and if, schools are using this tragedy as a teachable moment. How might we encourage the conversation of race and racism in schools across our region?

    • christian clansky says:

      Anna, I think you and Tamara both poignantly touch on an emotion central to this conversation: fear. You are absolutely right that Trayvon must have been terrified of Zimmerman’s pursuit; I think any teenager would have been. It seems to me that Zimmerman was also fearful, although irrationally so. His call to the police suggested that prior experiences, whatever they might have been, informed his actions.

      In both the pursuit of justice and the conversations surrounding this case, I think it is important that we strive to find clear answers. Perhaps Zimmerman was an intentional killer, but we can’t know that with any certainty. He might also have acted only out of an ignorant, misguided, and overly-zealous sense of civic responsibility.

      I’m encouraged that the FBI and Justice Department are investigating the case. Hopefully they will uncover a fuller picture that reveals how this could have happened and how it can be prevented from happening again.

  5. I appreciate this post, Tamara, and the conversation it has started. Racism is still very much alive and well and remains one of the “isms” that are an ugly part of this country’s history. There are so many assumptions one makes solely based on someone’s race. As a young white teen of privilege living in NY’s suburbs, I was lucky enough to work in East Harlem for several summers for a performing arts summer program serving “at risk” young people that my sister had started. We were a very diverse staff of talented and idealist young counselors. I was one of two white girls. The bonds with many of those counselors have lasted my lifetime, but I still remember the stares I got being with African American young men in East Harlem and I could only begin to imagine what it might be like to be African American in what as then a majority white world.

    Those days in East Harlem transformed my life in many ways I couldn’t anticipate then. I often wonder what I would have been like had I remained in my white suburban town and never had that life experience.

    It’s painful to think we’ve not move the needle as significantly on race as we should. And idealistic as it may seem, I still believe it’s that one-to-one exposure to worlds outside of our own are part of the answer.

  6. Tamara Copeland says:

    Amy, Thanks for your post. Your last comment seems the most powerful to me: the need for one-to-one exposure. A few years ago, a white friend, Jim Myers, wrote a book entitled AFRAID OF THE DARK. It was a very well received exploration of why some whites are uneasy around blacks and vice versa. The basic premise was that we are all afraid of the dark, that which we don’t know and often “the dark” is simply someone of a darker complexion.

  7. Glen O'Gilvie says:

    My hat goes off to you for this post, and for your leadership to start this specific conversation in our sector. I am disgusted by what happened to this young gentleman. Like most, I continue to think and talk about it for hours each day. However, my conversations are almost exclusive to close friends and family. Thanks to your post I can now share more publicly my belief that the media coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder is the good that comes from such a tragic situation. What we now need as a society is continuous action to resolve these issues after the lights go down and after the last camera is turned off.

    I believe that we are all equal partners in this work and accountable for the examples we set and model. I hope that we will all do something….

    • Tamara Copeland says:

      Glen, Thanks for your post. Your voice is such an important one. You have the ability to reach so many leaders across northern Virginia, suburban Maryland and the District. I hope you’ll encourage those leaders to raise the issues of race and racism wherever they can. Let’s bring this issue out into the public debate. And, no question, the media is critical. Anderson Cooper made a commitment after Hurricane Katrina to follow it continuously until there was a recognition of all that had happened in New Orleans. How do we get that type of coverage for Trayvon Martin?

  8. Kathy Kretman says:

    Tamara,
    The issues of race and racism are too often ignored or avoided, when, as you so eloquently point out, they need to be part of our conversations, especially for those of us who say we are committed to social change. We need to have these conversations–honest conversations–at home, in church and schools, and definitely in the workplace if we are ever to see real change in perceptions and behaviors. I spent my early adulthood working on civil rights cases across the country for the Justice Department. From New Orleans to San Francisco, our teams would fight discrimination day and night, months on end. But, rarely did we discuss racism closer to home–how it impacted our own lives, and those of our colleagues and friends. That hasn’t change much. It’s not an easy conversation, but it one that needs to happen.

  9. Tamara Copeland says:

    Kathy, Thanks for your post. What a powerful platform you have with the certificate program at Georgetown. How can you utilize that to have your leaders talk about the issues of race and racism? Let’s talk about how we foster genuine discussions within the nonprofit sector.

  10. Kathy Kretman says:

    Tamara,
    For starters, I am sharing your post with our Certificate program participants and alums for discussion–also with my colleagues and students at Georgetown. Your post provides an opportunity to raise the issues in a variety of ways, and I would like to work with you and others to make this happen.

  11. Tamara Copeland says:

    That’s great, Kathy. I look forward to working with you.

  12. Margaret O'Bryon says:

    Tamara, thank you for your blog post and for generating this really important conversation which I hope will become deeper and broader within our community.
    I wanted to share something that has sharpened my consciousness around race and racism. Camara Jones from the CDC wrote a powerful essay called Undoing Racism: the Gardner’s Tale. It is an allegory for discussing and developing a better understanding of three forms of racism: institutionalized/structural, personally mediated, and internalized. While her “domain” is public health the allegory and its messages are universal. Several years ago, she participated in one of CHF’s speakouts and I thought that of all of our speakers she and her story provoked and generated the most open and thoughtful dialogue – only the beginning of the conversation for sure. I wanted to share the video and PDF links to the Gardener’s tale. http://vimeo.com/11939747 and/or http://www.cahealthadvocates.org/_pdf/news/2007/Levels-Of-Racism.pdf. Could the Gardener’s Tale be one way for us to further generate a conversation in our community about racism?

  13. Tamara Copeland says:

    Margaret, Thanks for your comments and for sharing Camara Jones’ message and powerful allegory. Let’s talk more about how the allegory might be a starter for a conversation in philanthropy on race and racism. We can’t let this moment pass without using it for the good that must come from this tragedy.

  14. Janice Bowie says:

    Tamara,

    Thank you for taking the time to raise awareness of this issue. Unfortunately, most of your bloggers, like me, are in agreement with your stance; thus, preaching to the choir. This isn’t to make light of your expression of concern and it does take steps from all to change our communities and those steps begin with us.

    The reality of race and racism is pervasive — this is just one that we’ve heard about in the media. Most fly under the radar screen. I pray that justice will be served and that those like us who are sickened by it will make our actions count in the voting booth, with service to our communities, and in the ways we live among each other.

  15. Tamara Copeland says:

    Janice, Thanks for your comment. By posting my thoughtst, I hoped to sensitize some that this reality still exists. Sometimes the “choir” forgets how real this situation continues to be. Trayvon’s death is an extreme and just as you comment, most fly under the radar. I’m glad you raised the value of voting for candidates who recognize this reality and who will see all of the issues, hidden and overt, in laws like “stand your ground”.

  16. We live in a region where a disproportionate number of black males are impacted by violence. And there’re are many cities/communities like ours (follow the work of Mayors Michael Nutter and Mitch Landrieu with Cities United). We must address the fact that Trayvon’s are dying, being imprisioned, receiving poor education, and being neglected/abused right here–and across the country. Our region won’t realize its full greatness until it becomes accountable to all its residents. Myriad issues–including the “isms”– play a role in the challenges our region has struggled with for years. Why is violence considered an abomination in one neighborhood, but expected in another? That must end.

    The data shared by Dr. Johnson underscored the challenges we have before us–as well as the opportunities. We must work together to make the opportunity more than a dream. Deaths like Trayvon’s aren’t rare–and that’s the worst tragedy of all.

    • Tamara Copeland says:

      Thanks for your comment. This tragedy has surfaced so many issues and so many resources, like Cities United, that are working to address them. The issues are entrenched and multiple. It’s so hard to get our arms around them, but try we must. I’m glad that you’re committed to being a part of the solution.

  17. Selena Singleton says:

    For Immediate Release: March 19, 2012
    Communications Director: Stephanie L. Young o: 202.226.5312 c: 202.731.2621

    The Congressional Black Caucus Calls for Department of Justice Investigation Into the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin

    Washington, DC – Chairman Emanuel Cleaver II, released the following statement regarding the shooting death of Trayvon Martin calling for the Justice Department to investigate:
    “On February 26, 2012 Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, 17 year-old African American boy, was shot and killed while walking home from a local 7-Eleven. He only had $22, skittles and a can of iced tea in his possession. Trayvon, who had no criminal record, was described by his teacher as an ‘A and B student who majored in cheerfulness’. The gunman, self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, admits to killing Trayvon, but claims he was acting in self-defense. Three weeks after Martin’s death, Zimmerman was never arrested and remains free. I am outraged by the way in which this case has been handled by the Sanford Police Department in Florida. Those who are meant to protect us and our children have blatantly turned their backs on fairness and justice. Despite the heroic efforts of Congresswoman Brown to help bring justice to this family and surrounding community, the Sanford Police Department has shown blatant disregard for justice.
    “We urge the Department of Justice to immediately and thoroughly investigate the shooting death of Trayvon Martin as a hate crime. This case compromises the integrity of our legal system and sets a horrific precedent of vigilante justice. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus stand together in the name of justice for Trayvon. As a nation we cannot, should not, and will not ignore, Trayvon’s brutal murder and the inconceivable fact that his killer remains free.
    “Contrary to the flippant way this case has been handled, his life had meaning and purpose. Trayvon had a family, friends and a future all taken away because of the color of his skin. We will not stop until justice for Trayvon is served because a life is a terrible thing to take.”
    - Chairman Emanuel Cleaver, II

    See also:

    United States Congress
    CBC | CHC |CAPAC|CPC

    For Immediate Release: March 20, 2012
    Communications Directors:
    CBC – Stephanie L. Young: Stephanie.Young@mail.house.gov
    CHC – Lesley Lopez: Lesley.Lopez@mail.house.gov
    CAPAC – Dan Lindner: Dan.Lindner@mail.house.gov
    CPC – Adam Sarvana: Adam.Sarvana@mail.house.gov

    Caucus Chairs Urge DOJ to Investigate the Murder of Trayvon Martin as Hate Crime, Acknowledge the Opening of Investigation

    Washington, DC: The Chairs of the Congressional Black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific American and Progressive Caucus released the following statements acknowledging the Department of Justice’s investigation into the shooting death of unarmed 17 year old Trayvon Martin and urging them to pursue the matter as a federal hate crime:

    Chairman Emanuel Cleaver, II – THE CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS

    “I am encouraged by the initial actions taken by Attorney General Eric Holder to ensure that the FBI opens an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the senseless shooting death of unarmed, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. The handling of this case compromises the integrity of our legal system and sets a horrific precedent of vigilante justice. In far too many instances, those who are meant to protect us and our children have blatantly turned their backs on fairness and justice. Despite the heroic efforts of Congresswoman Corrine Brown to help bring justice to this family and surrounding community, the Sanford Police Department has shown a blatant disregard for justice.

    “I am urging the Department of Justice to investigate Trayvon’s death as a hate crime due to the fact that his only crime seems to be the color of his skin. The Congressional Black Caucus stands with our colleagues to continue the fight for parity on the local, state, and federal levels.”

    Chairman Charlie Gonzalez – THE CONGRESSIONAL HISPANIC CAUCUS

    “I am relieved that Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice are investigating the killing of Trayvon Martin and taking the first step in seeking justice. Though knowing their son’s death will be investigated can only provide a small relief next to the enormous grief of losing a child, the Department of Justice is sending a message to the Martin family and to communities of color that our children’s lives have value and deserve equal protection under the law.
    “It is vital, for the preservation of our basic notions of civil rights and trust in the legal system, that we take a closer look at what transpired that night and the Sanford Police Department’s actions. It is essential for the Martin family, the residents of Sanford, for communities of color and for the countless number of Americans across the country who have been outraged by this tragedy. “
    Chairwoman Judy Chu – THE CONGRESSIONAL ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN CAUCUS

    “Trayvon Martin was an unarmed victim killed in a senseless act of violence. A thorough investigation is the only way we’ll ever know exactly what led George Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon. Letting questions go unanswered sets a dangerous precedent for vigilante behavior and people acting irresponsibly on misguided and heavily prejudiced suspicions. We have seen similar cases of violence in communities around the nation and must confront these examples whenever and wherever they occur. I am glad to hear the Justice Department has made the right decision to investigate Trayvon’s murder. Americans of all backgrounds deserve equal protection under the law, and I join my Congressional colleagues in emphasizing how important this investigation is.”

    Co -Chairman Rep Raúl M. Grijalva – THE CONGRESSIONAL PROGRESSIVE CACUCS

    “Equal justice is one of the building blocks of this country, no matter where you came from or who you are. This young man deserved better, and his family deserves more than an apology and a promise to do better next time. Our nation was founded on the principle of justice for all, not justice for some or justice some of the time. This case challenges our commitment to that principle, and I share the hope of millions of Americans around the country that we’re going to meet that challenge.”

    ###

    ###

  18. Denise G. Johnson says:

    Thank you for your purpose to encourge others to talk about race. It seems to make us so uncomfortable. Yes, conversations around race are difficult, and we seek to understand by asking why?

    What I know is that the “HOODIE” is a basic piece of atheletic wear that is embraced by many urban residents who just seek to choose the clothing for many different reasons. My son wears a “HOODIE,” he is African American and plays sports. He is Trayvon. Many African American urban dwellers are well aware how others outside of our communities and neighborhoods perceive the “HOODIE”. Those others, associate the “HOODIE” with crime and criminals. However, we know it is a simple piece of clothing that has been made fashionable, but has always been atheletic gear.

    For many African Americans, including myself, we say and I say, we are just humans who work to live and express the human experience naturally, just like others. My community began having an open dialogue about the “HOODIE”, working with Community Art Makers, last year. The artist, created a scupltural rendition, of how our community embrace the hoodie and gives special intention to who wears the garment, our sons. The rendition has attitude of love, of lost, of hope, and beauty, why, we know that the “others” seem to not see anything of value in the body that the “HOODIE” keeps warm.

    • Tamara Copeland says:

      Denise, Thanks for your post. What the hoodie represents has definitely become a part of the dialogue.

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