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Sunday, July 14, 2013

What Do I Tell My Son about Trayvon Martin, Revisited

Sunday morning, the morning after the Zimmerman "not guilty" verdict was handed down, I was scheduled to preach (I am not the Pastor, but I preach from time to time). I shared how the night before, at 1:30 in the morning, I walked through my neighborhood to the store and bought some Skittles and Arizona Green Tea, just what Trayvon Martin bought on February 26, 2012, the day he was murdered. I shared that I never once feared for my life as I walked; how being shot was the last thing on my mind. And I knew I was safe in this neighborhood and practically any other neighborhood, simply because I am White. Trayvon was shot because of a lethal combination of racism and easy accessibility to guns. Trayvon is dead because he is Black.

I shared with my church some statistics showing that for the same offenses between African-Americans and Whites, considerably longer sentences are handed down to Blacks than for Whites. I shared how when the victim of a murder is Black, sentences handed down are much lighter than when the victim is White.

I shared with my church that the criminal justice system is innately racist. This isn't hyperbole or a dramatic overstatement. This was not said in an emotional outburst. This is a fact and it is confirmed with the acquittal of George Zimmerman who racially profiled Trayvon and then shot him.

I then read the blog post I had written in 2012, and that is pasted below, about what I am supposed to tell my son Isaiah, who is a person of color, and now must be on guard as he walks in our neighborhood, even when he just walks to get candy. Sadly, I can post this here again, over a year later, and it is still relevant because when it comes to young black men, we still live in a nation where there is no justice.

When I first heard about the murder of Trayvon Martin and the seeming cover-up by the Sanford, Florida police of the alleged killer, I got angry. Lots of people got angry. It actually did not connect for me though until I saw and heard the grief expressed by his parents and by other parents in the African-American community. I heard numerous stories of African-American parents who have been telling their sons for years to take extra precaution when they are walking alone – to not put their hands in their pockets so no one thinks they have a gun, to answer all questions with extra respect, to never run away from someone with a badge, to always tell someone where they are going and to not walk in strange neighborhoods if they can help it, to always be sure of your surroundings and to avoid affluent neighborhoods or places where few black people live. It all sounds so exhausting.

As I heard all of the stories from parents with African-American sons I started becoming fearful for my son. I am white, but my youngest son, who is adopted, is considered Black. He is actually biracial. His birth mom is Anglo and his birth dad was actually born in the Caribbean. Isaiah is a beautiful caramel color and in the summer, because he loves to swim almost every day, his skin takes on a beautiful chocolate-caramel color.

Isaiah is the best kid in the world, he really is. People love him. He is a natural at almost anything he tries. He is amazing. He is a natural athlete, a natural leader in his class, and smart as a whip. His best feature though is that he loves so thoroughly and trusts so naturally. Isaiah is my joy. No matter where I am or what I am doing, when I think of him I cannot help but smile. If I am travelling and I think of him for long enough I cry because I miss him. I love to wrestle with him – even though he is ten, he is strong! – and I can feel my body physically missing him when I am away for longer than a few days.

So, as the murder of Trayvon has opened up and revealed the inherent racism that still runs so strong in our society, and as I hear of the constant vigilance that African-American males have to live under, even just to do something as simple as walk to a neighborhood store and buy some candy and something to drink, I realized that, as a father of a son who is perceived to be African-American, I don’t know what to tell Isaiah. I don’t know what to tell Isaiah because I am white and I can walk to the store, with a hoody on (which I often wear), buy all the candy I want, and walk in my neighborhood, or practically any neighborhood I want to walk in, and I never think about possibly being shot. It is a thought that never crosses my mind and I know it is because I am white and I live in a society that values white people.

But it will cross Isaiah’s mind. It has to if he wants to stay alive in our society where racism is still very much alive and where guns are so accessible, almost as easy as buying candy. It kills me to come to this realization and I am not sure I know what to tell him. I am a father and my job is to love my son unconditionally and to prepare him to be a man who loves and cares for others, to commit himself to the work of God’s Kingdom in this world. And though I thought I was able to prepare both of my sons for this reality, Trayvon’s murder has made me realize that I am woefully unprepared. And it scares me.

The fact that African-American males live under constant threat is not a new phenomenon to me. I have lived in numerous places that are predominantly populated by people of color, mostly in urban contexts. I have seen the police in places like Lexington, KY or Waco, TX approach black men differently than they do white men. I know that this practice, in some places, is actually taught. I was a Wesley Foundation Director at a small junior college in West Texas and one of my students, who was pursuing an associate’s degree in law enforcement, one day told me that his professor taught that in a traffic stop, they are to approach the vehicle much differently if the occupants are white females than if the occupants are black men. I was outraged that this was being taught, and so I wrote a letter to the professor, to the President of the school and I even contacted the local news media and I got zero responses from anyone. Systemic racism is not surprising to me. It is a historical fact and it still happens every day, no matter how much denial people, including the supposed “liberal” media, are steeped in.

But it is so different to see and acknowledge racism, to be outraged by it, as a white male with no deep attachment to it, than it is to see it and feel it as a father of an African-American young boy. It is nothing less than frightening to think about my beautiful son growing up in this culture where guns and racism are so rampant and create a lethal combination.

So, what do I tell Isaiah? I must tell him that though there are people who are committed to stamping out racism, though there are people who love him for the beautiful child of God that he is, though he has unbelievable gifts to share with the world, though all of this is absolutely true, our society is still sick with violence and racist hatred. And the violence and hatred is fueled not only by an innate sinfulness in all of us, it is fueled by larger and more sinister forces than individual sin. If only it were individual sin. That would be so much easier because then our approach could be limited to a message of individualistic salvation.

But no, societal violence and racist hatred is entrenched in the systems and structures which run and support our society. There are those who are blind to systematic violence and racism – who see it solely as individual sin – and there are those who financially benefit from the violence and racism that permeates our society. In fact, those that benefit systematically from violence and racism actually need those who refuse to see structural sin – who only see it individually – in order for their profits to continue to increase.

So, what do I tell Isaiah? I must explain to my ten year old that the organization responsible for writing the Stand Your Ground bill for Florida, a bill that gives a license to people to shoot and kill anyone who they perceive to mean them harm, is the National Rifle Association. And the NRA profits from the fact that the state has seen the number of justifiable homicides triple since its passage in 2005. You see, when people feel fearful, they buy guns for protection. When they are allowed to use those guns to shoot people they perceive as dangerous (and those are often people of color), then fear is ratcheted up even higher so that more people feel the need the buy more guns. On and on it goes. Because of the massive amount of money the NRA pours into elections, and the massive lobbying they do of state legislatures like Florida’s, lawmakers have been happy to throw reason and public safety out the window so that their cash cow, the mighty and powerful NRA, can give them an “A” rating and they can get reelected. This is how the game is played and the NRA plays it well.

What do I tell Isaiah? I must tell my son that the world is dangerous for all people, but even more so for him. Simply because he is black. The forces that benefit from violence and racism seem more powerful right now than the forces of love. I know theologically that love wins in the end. But right now that feels too theoretical. Love did not win out for Trayvon. Violence and racism won. So, in the face of such evil and yes, forces like these (and no, I am not calling individual people evil) are in fact evil because they are working to destroy that which God so deeply and passionately loves. Profiting from racism and violence is evil and like all evil, it must be stopped, though it promises to not go quietly.

So, what should I tell Isaiah, my beautiful boy, my son, my joy? I must continue to protect him, I must warn and advise him. But I must also invite him to join with me in fighting against violence and hatred and to love people (which he does so amazingly and unconditionally). I must invite him to join with me and so many others in shining the light on groups like the National Rifle Association who benefit from the violence and racist hatred and resulting fear that is so present in our society and only creates a “need” for more gun sales. I must invite Isaiah to shine the light on groups like the NRA, especially when so many weak-kneed political “leaders” are cowed into silent submission. I must give Isaiah the opportunities to love those who are harmed or killed by the overabundance of guns in our society and those who are continually marginalized and hurt by racism. And I must invite Isaiah to join me and, hopefully, a growing movement in the Church to shine the light on injustice and the collusion of politics, fear, and profits which characterizes the work of the NRA and the politicians in their hip pockets.

I think I know what I must tell Isaiah. I must tell him that I love him, that God loves him unconditionally and together, along with so many others within the Church and outside of it, we can change the world through love and light. Maybe it won’t be such a bad conversation after all.


  1. This is powerful and well written, Bill. Thanks for sharing it. I just talked with Darrell Whiteman about the good work you are doing in DC. Keep it up!

  2. Thanks Tamela!! Thanks for reading and if you see Dr. Whiteman again, please say hello!! I miss you!

  3. Bill,
    Upon what do you base your opinion that George Zimmerman " racially profiled Trayvon and then shot him."? You state that " This is a fact and it is confirmed with the acquittal of George Zimmerman who racially profiled Trayvon and then shot him".There is no proof that Zimmerman, who is a man of at least partial color, "racially profiled Trayvon and then shot him". Zimmerman was found not guilty by a jury of his peers as prescribed by law. No racial profiling was proven by any factual evidence.

  4. Hi Anonymous, thanks for reading the blog. The defense attorney stipulated that Zimmerman followed Trayvon because of a burglary by an African American weeks before the event. So, his own lawyer made the case that he followed Trayvon for racial reasons - that is the essence of racial profiling. Plus, his own comments were racially tinged. Thanks

  5. So how did that conversation go? I'm sure it was part of a larger conversation you have weaved in and out of with him his whole life. What is the sense you are getting from him - not only being in a white family, but also being the son of a very passionate advocate and person of influence?

  6. Hey Nik, sorry I am just responding, I was on vacation. It was hard but good. Isaiah is so good. He gets it. he doesn't like it, he doesn't understand why people are so mean. It makes him sad, but he understood why I had to tell him to be careful in our neighborhood, since it is predominantly white. He has started noticing racial disparities since then - he made a couple of comments on vacation. We talk about it and we talk about how we need to change the world and how God wants the world to reflect God's kingdom of love and justice. I just know, from being a youth pastor, campus minister and a father of a white youth, that these are conversations that white parents of white youth do not have to have. Thanks for asking!