Yesterday, at Black Skeptics Los Angeles’ scholarship ceremony, my colleagues and I had the profound honor of giving scholarships to five brilliant youth of color who are first generation college students. They are 17 and 18 year- olds who have known more struggle and sacrifice than many adults have known in their entire lives. They have each battled the dominant culture’s view that they are not white, male, straight, wealthy or smart enough to be genuine college material. They have all seen their neighborhoods—South L.A. communities powered by hard working people, students, activists, educators from all walks of life—portrayed as ghetto cesspit jungles where violent savages roam, welfare queens breed, and drive-bys rule
. They have all mourned the absence of young friends and relatives who did not live to see their high school, much less college, graduation ceremonies. Looking around the room at their bright young faces, surrounded by proud family members, teachers, and mentors, the collective sense of duty and obligation everyone felt toward this next generation of intellectuals, activists and scholars was evident.
Because the ceremony occurred in the midst of national anxiety over the murder trial of George Zimmerman it was both a celebration of promise and a bittersweet paean to the burning loss and betrayal communities of color routinely experience in this racist apartheid nation. Trayvon Martin would’ve been 18 this year, a graduate of the class of 2013. He might have been college-bound, anxious, bracing against the fear of the unknown, heady with anticipation about the future. He might have been mindful of the psychological and emotional miles he’d have to travel to be freed from the prison of society’s demonizing assumptions. He might have experienced all of these feelings while grieving the untimely deaths of his own friends and being told that young black lives don’t matter.
Zimmerman’s acquittal for his cold-blooded murder is a turning point and baptism by fire in the cultural politics of colorblindness. It is a turning point for every middle class child of color who believes their class status exempts or insulates them from criminalization. It is a turning point for every suburban white child whose lifeblood is the comfort and privilege of presumed innocence. It is a turning point for every Talented Tenth parent of color who has deluded themselves about the corrupt creed of Americana justice. And it is a turning point for a collective historical amnesia in which race and racism are soft-pedaled through imperialist narratives of progress, enlightenment and transcendence.
For black people who have had faith in the criminal justice system and due process it is no longer possible to pretend that black life is worth more than that of a dog killed in broad daylight on a city street. People who kill dogs—or those who run vicious dog-fighting rings like NFL football player Michael Vick—receive longer prison sentences than do law enforcement officials (or their surrogates) who kill black people. For a predominantly white female jury that did not see the crushing loss in the murder of a young man pursued by a predator who was expressly told not to leave his vehicle by law enforcement; the life of a dog was apparently more valuable.
This is one of the indelible lessons in “democracy” and American exceptionalism that Trayvon’s class will take with them to college and hopefully spend their lives fighting to upend.