Trayvon, Race and American Democracy

The irony of our history is that the further we move from discussing race, the more racism festers.

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Protesting the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Trayvon Martin's senseless death and his killer George Zimmerman's recent acquittal have roused the nation from its perpetual slumber regarding race matters, inspiring nonviolent protests that have run the gamut from old-fashioned street demonstrations to more technologically innovative dissent through social media.

It has been an impressive show of unity, the marches of last year and, more recently, the impromptu displays of grief and outrage on the streets of many American cities. But although rallies are important, we can best honor Trayvon's memory by organizing a sustained and national conversation about race and democracy in the 21st century -- one that leads to substantive public-policy transformation.

It's a conversation that needs to take place in America's civic spaces, libraries, churches, schools and community centers, and one that needs the involvement of citizens from all segments of society. Elected officials and political leaders need to actively participate in this dialogue rather than hide behind the safety of written statements or silence.

Why is this so important? Because debates about the racial symbols lurking behind this tragedy only scratch the surface of a larger conversation about race and democracy in American society. Despite racism's crucial role in forging the republic, we remain reluctant to convene a critical and intellectually informed dialogue about race matters. The paucity of a historically based dialogue on national race relations allowed for a stunning development throughout the Zimmerman trial, one wherein the deceased victim was turned into a criminal.

Indeed, by scarcely mentioning race but utilizing photos in court that showed Trayvon as a budding "predator," the defense tapped long-standing negative stereotypes about black men that date back to antebellum America, what the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad calls the "condemnation of blackness" and law professor Michelle Alexander has referred to as the "New Jim Crow." Trayvon's transformation from a racially profiled victim into a "predator," capable of instilling traumatic fear into his assailant, is not surprising considering this nation's long history of cultural racism that dehumanizes black men and women as criminals. The failure to discuss this history proved to be a second death for Trayvon.

I know this because as a black teenager coming of age in New York City during the 1980s, I was a potential Trayvon Martin or Michael Griffith, the young black man chased by a gang of whites in 1986 for the crime of tresspassing in the predominantly white Howard Beach neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. New York's volatile racial climate in the 1980s inspired Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and fueled the creative and political energies of the militant rap group Public Enemy. 

But the racial controversies of my adolescence were situated against a larger historical narrative wherein race has shaped the contours of American society. The heroic period of the civil rights movement, between 1954's Brown Supreme Court desegregation decision and 1965's landmark Voting Rights Act, helped to fundamentally transform American democracy, marking the demise of legal segregation and laying the groundwork for black social, political and economic access in the post-civil rights era.

While Martin Luther King Jr. remains the national hero of this narrative, memorialized in a holiday and through a monument in the nation's capital, Emmett Till's ghost continues to haunt our collective racial past. A 14-year-old black teenager visiting family in Money, Miss., in 1955, Emmett was lynched by a group of whites for defying racial conventions and allegedly speaking out of turn to a white woman. His disfigured body appeared on the cover of Jet magazine soon after and became a searing example of white supremacy's impact in postwar America. 

Trayvon's death, just like Emmett's, can be traced back to skin color, although prosecutors purposely avoided race throughout the Zimmerman trial. The irony of our national history is that the further we move from discussing race matters, the more institutional racism festers, like a cancerous tumor, on the American body politic and our national conscience. More than one year ago, President Obama, in one eloquent stroke, humanized this tragedy through the simple acknowledgment that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon." 

In 1963 while languishing in a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of the civil rights movement transporting America back to "those great wells of democracy" that were dug deep by the nation's founding fathers. But the architects of American democracy peacefully co-existed alongside chattel slavery and institutional racism, a circumstance that many continue to ignore and deny and over which King's soaring rhetoric at times glossed.