For Young Black Men in American Cities, You’re Either Invisible or Viewed as a Threat

travyon martin rally philadelphiaOriginally published on Next City. My wife and I left the New Orleans Morial Convention Center in a limousine last Sunday, both of us hyped from her appearance that morning on the MSNBC show, Melissa Harris-Perry. My son and sister-in-law were along for the ride. At one traffic light where we stopped, just a block from the Center, three young black teenagers stood in the median, holding signs and asking for money to support their football team. My sister-in-law asked the driver to roll the window down so she could give them a few dollars. I barely looked the kids’ way, still preening from my wife’s performance.

Yesterday, I drove to a friend’s house and pulled up behind a black minivan parked not far from her front door. I didn’t recognize it as hers or her fiancé’s. Walking past the vehicle, I peered in the window and saw three black teenagers, one with dreadlocks, one rolling a blunt. I quickly looked away, hoping they wouldn’t think I was watching them, or that I was a threat. And also because I saw them as a threat.

Just 20 years ago, that was me: Black, sitting in someone’s SUV, parked outside someone’s house with my homeys, puffin’ L’s. I walked into my friend’s house greeted by a table of lawyers, real estate developers and other assorted professionals having dinner. She introduced me as a journalist. In my mind, I was no longer one of those kids parked outside. I wanted no one to mistake me for them. I stopped thinking about them.

One of the main tragic factors in the George Zimmerman trial verdict, one that existed well before Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin last year, is this failure to see young black men in our cities — and when they do register, we see them as threats. It’s a cognitive failure to which Zimmerman was especially vulnerable when he chose to follow and kill Martin, but he is not alone in experiencing it.

Photo: A Sunday protest in Philadelphia’s Love Park following the not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Travon Martin last year. Credit: Ariella Cohen

Some people have said there was nothing racial about Zimmerman’s actions that rainy night in Sanford, Fla. Martin’s own parents have said that, and I have no quarrel with them. But others make the same argument based on Zimmerman’s self-identification as “Hispanic” and his Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather. That lineage shows that Zimmerman is likely the product of an African who was captured, traded and enslaved in Peru, but it does not mean white supremacism was an unlikely reason for his actions.

History tells us that white European Americans created the profile of black men as rapacious savages to help justify their enslavement of Africans. But white folk ain’t the only people who see us this way.

Over the past year I have easily imagined Zimmerman driving around in his car like Travis Bickle, rehearsing in his head all the problems with his community and who is to blame: the “animals.” I’ve envisioned him wishing, like Bickle, that “someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

I don’t have to do too much imagining because Zimmerman admitted as much to the police as he stalked Martin, telling them, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good… It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”

Perhaps Martin was walking around, looking and noticing that the gated community where his father’s fiancé lived was remarkably different than Goldsboro, a historically black community just a few miles away. As MSNBC’s Trymaine Lee reported last week, Goldsboro has seen little economic investment like the rest of Sanford. “I don’t see how we as leaders could talk about developing Sanford to its fullest potential if you don’t address the needs in the depressed areas,” Velma Williams, Sanford’s only black commissioner, told Lee.

Despite the neglect, it was people of color in central Florida communities like Goldsboro and cities like Sanford and Osceola who turned out big last November to vote, helping President Obama win Florida and, ultimately, reelection. Afterward, Mitt Romney’s campaign aides said they lost because “voters they never even knew existed” turned out in these communities. Those invisible voters were mostly African Americans and Puerto Ricans from the depressed areas Williams referenced.

These non-existing people remind me of a talk given by New Orleans community advocate Timolynn Sams (at a 2008 Next City event), whom I heard break down the children’s show Sesame Street in ways I never saw as a child. Sesame Street was about community, Sams said, one where all the characters mattered and had a voice, no matter their status as an animal, a monster, weirdo, whatever. Oscar the Grouch was an insufferable prick who lived in a garbage can, yet he was still part of the community.

And then there was the big brown elephant Mr. Snuffleupagus, an invisible character on Sesame Street for the first 17 years of the show. The only one who saw him was Big Bird, who claimed Snuffleupagus was his imaginary friend but blamed him when things went wrong.

You can see the same characterization for so many Trayvon Martins in so many streets and communities across America. We don’t see them, until we need to pin a problem on them.

Had Martin walked the streets of Any City, Fla. 60 or 70 years ago, white citizens most certainly would have seen him. But he would have dared not see them back. The wrong return glance in those streets, in those days, could have meant his life — especially had he stared a second too long at a white woman.

Today, these streets are public spaces where, finally, black people can look white people in the eye and not get lynched for it. But it’s also now a place where I won’t stare too long at three black teenagers parked in a car, or where I’ll ignore black kids raising money for their football team.

Zimmerman shot and killed the younger, darker Martin, and he deserves whatever justice comes his way, whether from courts or elsewhere. But I’ve been having a hard time mentally arresting him for profiling Martin when I’ve done similar. I have to face myself about that, as does every person — white and black – who has encountered young black men in the streets through the lens of terror.

As William Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, “It’s also true that we live in an era where we understand security as the yield of broadening suspicions, and that at our safest almost all of us are Trayvon Martin to someone else.”

Almost all of us. Few if any young white males will ever be viewed as Martin in any community, despite Columbine, Arizona, Aurora and Sandy Hook. We must admit that, lest we be guilty of failing to see the big brown elephant in the room, claiming race is just a figment of some character’s imagination. I decry the white supremacy that imposed these terrorist profiles on black men to begin with. But there’s also a Zimmerman in me that I need to watch, because he’s up to no good.

New Orleans-based journalist Brentin Mock has worked with a number of Gulf Coast-based organizations including The Lens and Ocean Conservancy, and has reported extensively on the Gulf Coast for numerous outlets including Colorlines, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Essence, and The Root.