We can be sure about one thing as we try to understand the Trayvon Martin case: There will be other Trayvon Martins. Maybe tomorrow or next week or next month, other young black men will die under ambiguous circumstances at the hands of law enforcement — or, in Martin's case, law enforcement's surrogate: an overzealous neighborhood-watch volunteer. Unless we want this tragic history to keep repeating itself, we have to change the fundamental relationship of people of color to the police.
What's really unusual about the Trayvon Martin shooting is not that it happened but the degree of public attention that it has received, with national news coverage, a Million Hoodie March in New York and the entire Miami Heat basketball team posing in hoodies to show solidarity with the victim and his family. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating. President Obama, normally cautious on matters of race, said that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon." And CNN's Soledad O'Brien hosted an hourlong town hall discussion on CNN about the case and its implications on March 30.
Most incidents involving the death of young black men at the hands of the police, even if well covered, don't get the widespread sympathy that the Trayvon case has triggered. Just this past February, a NYPD officer shot and killed Ramarley Graham in his bathroom; the 20-year-old had run home, apparently to dump his stash of marijuana. In October 2010 there was the case of Danroy Henry Jr., a 20-year-old Pace University football player shot by a policeman while trying to drive away from a disturbance.
On March 23 one New York City police officer was fired and three others resigned in the wake of the shooting death of Sean Bell, killed the day before his wedding day in 2006 in a hail of 50 bullets. Of course we remember Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant shot 41 times on his doorstep in 1999 because NYPD officers mistook his wallet for a gun. (See The Root photo gallery Beyond Trayvon: Black and Unarmed.)
But we'll stop seeing more Trayvons only when we stop pretending that such confrontations are just about crime. Instead they reflect the lingering role that the police have played since the founding of this nation: enforcing the racial status quo. This began with slavery — capturing and returning runaway slaves — and continued through Jim Crow and on to our time.
We saw its most brutal form in the civil rights protests of the 1960s, but that important role is hardly ever discussed explicitly anymore. And because we don't talk about it, it's harder to change. Police behavior has failed to evolve fast enough to accommodate the changing role of African Americans in our society. So police still stop and question interracial couples, black professionals driving nice new cars, black teens in a "good neighborhood" or a guy wearing the wrong clothes.
We see racial control at its most extreme in stop-and-frisk policies that put entire communities under suspicion, as has happened in New York City, where police stopped and searched 684,330 people last year, 87 percent of them black or Latino. Imagine the uproar if nearly every young white male living on Park Avenue in Manhattan or Grosse Point in Michigan or Buckhead in Atlanta routinely found himself spread-eagled over a parked Bentley, Lexus or Mercedes in full public view of other upscale residents.
Police officials argue that such policies have helped reduce crime and that the racial skew has to do with the neighborhood where they focus their efforts, but there is little evidence (pdf) that massive harassment ends up in less crime. What these policies do is enter vast numbers of young men into the criminal-justice system.
They also increase the likelihood of confrontation: In one three-year period, 23 percent of the stops made by the NYPD involved the use of physical force. Of the nearly 700,000 stops in New York City last year, police recovered 800 handguns, a rate of 0.1 percent. Searching those Bentley, Lexus and Mercedes luxury vehicles might well result in a higher yield in illegal weapons.
But too many black leaders remain reluctant to admit that there has been progress, out of an old fear that this progress will stop. The recession has hit the black middle class especially hard, but it's important for African Americans to courageously say "Yes, we have moved forward" and give all Americans hope.
And then there's the "but." It's obvious that our racial advance has not been uniform and universal. There are still dark corners of our society where minorities have not made much progress, certain industries where they are less welcome and some individuals who refuse to concede that progress can co-exist with resistance to progress. Police departments, even when led by minorities, have been especially reluctant to change deeply grounded cultures of intimidation and racial dominance.
The most poignant aspect of the Trayvon Martin case has been the testimony of black mothers about the special fear they hold for their sons. We've heard a lot in the last few weeks about "the speech": the warning by parents to young black men to be submissive to police, not to talk back or make sudden moves. For some white Americans, this has been their first glimpse at the lower-caste status of young African-American men — no matter what their economic condition — where a glance or the wrong word can lead to humiliation, physical intimidation, arrest and, sometimes, death.
This is the moment to change tactics, for African Americans and Latinos to stop accepting the inferior caste status that prevails. Instead of acquiescing to racial controls, why not challenge them directly and systematically?
March in neighborhoods we're not supposed to be in; train young people to refuse politely but firmly to be searched; demand that police show cause for stop-and-frisk. Organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League should set up teams of monitors to videotape and publish accounts of these confrontations, recruit banks of volunteer lawyers to clog the courts with cases and file class-action civil suits that directly challenge the caste status to which we have acquiesced for too long.
That should be the real legacy of Trayvon.
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's senior editor-at-large.