[OPINION] Is That Trayvon Martin Sitting Next To You?

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By Elizabeth Williams-Riley

Since the Trayvon Martin case has become a national and global focus, I have not entered a single boardroom where the circumstances of his death have not significantly impacted someone’s life beyond the town of Sanford, Fla. After Trayvon’s fatal shooting by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012, the airwaves were filled with breaking news coverage and the streets flooded with protesters and parents who lost their own Black children in similar situations.

The case sparked a racial disparities dialogue. ABC News reporters shared their experiences with racial profiling and their attempts to dismantle oppression. Anderson Cooper followed a survey that revealed the ugly truth of how race factors into our judgment of good or bad through photographs, even without any interaction. The research found that 70 percent of the children survey takers responded negatively to the people of color in the photos.

After that tragic day, images of Trayvon and Zimmerman were everywhere. Reports revealing the inequities people of color experience within the justice system began to dominate mainstream media. And a public awareness took hold of the vast number of incidents throughout our nation in which racial profiling has led to the senseless deaths of innocent, young Black citizens, especially Black males.

  • In March 2012, a 19-year-old Black man was allegedly shot to death by police in Pasadena, CA
  • In Sept 2011, a 29-year-old Black mother in St. Louis, MO, allegedly died due to gross negligence while in police custody after being arrested for refusing to leave an emergency room
  • In August 1955, a 14-year-old Black boy in Money, MI, was murdered after reportedly flirting with a white woman

Trayvon Martin would have turned 18 years old this month, Black History month. What this heavy loss has taught us is that we simply cannot afford to be episodic in our efforts to address the legacy of race and race relations in America. Is it any coincident that Black individuals from all walks of life in various states and cities across the country share the same experiences–of women clutching their purses or of people locking their doors when they pass by? In my opinion, this chronicle of reality is all too common and widespread to be mere coincident.

Trayvon Martin works at our offices. He attends our schools. He visits our community centers. He bows his head at our place of worship. He shops at the local bodega, and yes, he walks along our streets throughout the state of New Jersey.

I have heard a mother’s concern for the life of her son and seen the heartbreak of the compelling need to tell her son (or daughter) that there are people in this world that don’t like them. It was a conversation she never wanted to have, but felt there were no other options.

Zimmerman pulled the trigger of the gun, but prejudice was his motivation. The cycle of prejudice uninterrupted ultimately led to the death of Trayvon. Let’s not be naïve; if prejudice exists in an individual, it exists in groups, within institutions, and throughout an entire society. Zimmerman never practiced “purity of motive.” Trayvon was never given a chance to be his authentic self in the eyes of Zimmerman. He was a stereotype that Zimmerman bought into and that he was convinced was nothing but the truth.

My heart goes out to the family of Trayvon Martin as they pursue their efforts to make sure the world knows and understands the value of their son’s life even in his death. My heart goes out to the family of George Zimmerman as they struggle to understand how their son’s vision of young Black men wearing hoodies tragically ended the life of another human being. Today, I can hardly pass a person of any race, gender, nationality, body type, sexual orientation, religion, age, and/or ability status wearing a hoodie and not think of Trayvon Martin.

Since 1995, I decided to dedicate my career to taking a proactive approach to addressing the “unfinished business” of America with human relations and diversity matters. I encounter the intersections of cultural differences on a daily bias as I work with schools, community organizations, faith groups, and corporations. As the President and CEO of the American Conference on Diversity, I will continue to make sure that we work with our Board of Trustees and community partners to provide quality programs and services that work with youth and adults to break the cycle of prejudice.

The work of the American Conference on Diversity is to empower our participants to take individual and collective responsibility to become agents of change that prevent bias and prejudice from limiting access and/or denying anyone space at the table to fully partake in the rich cultural wealth of our society locally, nationally, and globally. New Jersey is ranked among the most diverse states in the country and also among the most with active hate groups.

The American Conference on Diversity programs engage individuals in some of the most thought-provoking educational experiences in their lives. The willingness to confront our personal bias is in our readiness to value and respect human dignity. It is our goal to increase awareness of the harmful impact of racism and all forms of discrimination and the power among us to change. We all have a role in understanding how prejudice is infused throughout society–and we also have the shared responsibility to end this vicious cycle.

The messages George Zimmerman received about young Black men who are perceived to be like Trayvon Martin wasn’t a message he asked for and it certainly wasn’t the message Trayvon’s parents passed on to their son. Each day we get more than 15,000 messages from some form of communication and this is not limited to emails and texting. So the next time you sit in front of your computer, pick up your phone, watch a movie, go shopping, take a stroll through town, engage in eye contact with another person, or sit on your couch watching your favorite television show, consider the messages you receive about yourself and those who are different from you. Take note of who you don’t see or the voices you don’t hear. Remember that silence speaks very loudly. Don’t fill the voids in your life about others, their culture, religion, etc. with stereotypes.

Elizabeth Williams-Riley is the President and CEO of the American Conference on Diversity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to valuing diversity, educating leaders, and promoting respect in schools, organizations, workplaces, and communities since 1948. For more on the American Conference on Diversity, visit www.americanconferenceondiversity.org.

Editor’s Note: Charges against George Zimmerman are still pending, with his trial scheduled to begin in June. He is presumed innocent until proven guilty.


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