The Value of a Black Life

Trayvon Martin

A teenager headed home is approached by a stranger, who initiates a confrontation that leads to the teen’s death. That the person who provoked the confrontation was not held accountable for the death of the teen would seem incomprehensible, until you know that the teenager is black and his assailant is white (and Hispanic).

The disregard for Trayvon Martin’s life by his killer George Zimmerman, the police who had to be forced by a social media campaign to arrest him, and ultimately the jury who failed to hold Zimmerman accountable for his actions in a Florida court this past July is both alarming and tragic, especially in 2013, with a black family in the White House. To paraphrase Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert B. Taney in the landmark Dred Scott decision more than 155 years ago: Martin, as a young black male, had no rights that Zimmerman was bound to respect. No right to the pursuit of happiness. No right to liberty. And finally, tragically, no right to life. In effect, the verdict of the Zimmerman trial deemed Martin’s life to be of no value, and no more worthy of protection under the law today than Scott’s was in 1857. So much for a “post-racial” America.

Many Americans, and African Americans in particular, are rightfully outraged over the not guilty verdict of the Zimmerman trial, which is just the latest indication that black lives are disposable and valueless. However, as unjust as the verdict is, the action and activism it has sparked is in stark contrast to our own tolerance and complacence in response to the deaths of thousands of other Trayvon Martins, also victims of senseless gun violence. The difference: the perpetrators are too often also young black males. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 7,000 black Americans are murdered every year—91% of them by other African Americans. This harsh reality raises the question: How can we as African Americans expect others to value and protect our lives if we won’t value and protect them ourselves?

We know that if the confrontation between Martin and Zimmerman had resulted in the white person’s death, Martin would be in jail, despite the fact that he was “standing his ground.” But here’s an inconvenient truth: If both of them had been black, the incident would have been deemed unworthy of the attention of the public, including that of most African Americans. Would Martin’s killing be less unjust (or somehow, more deserved) had Zimmerman been African American?

The No. 1 cause of death of black males between the ages of 15 and 34 is homicide, with the vast majority of those lives taken by other black men. As objectionable as it is for a black teen to be killed by a white man on neighborhood watch patrol, our black sons are far more likely to be killed by one of their peers. This should spark similar outrage, and an even greater determination to defend and protect black lives from violence, regardless of whom the perpetrators might be. The staunch defense and protection of black lives from violence must be unconditional. This means we must cultivate an appreciation of the value of life in our children and demonstrate it in our own words and deeds. We must vocally stand against the taking of life in our homes, churches, schools, and communities, and provide and promote nonviolent means of conflict resolution.

Just as we are aggressively organizing against “stand your ground” laws, we must be equally determined to declare war on a culture that deems the death of a black person at the hands of another black person hardly worthy of comment, much less protest. And yes, that will mean holding ourselves, and one another, accountable.

We must fight for justice for Trayvon Martin. But let that fight not be reduced to a single case and unjust verdict, but expanded in defense of the sanctity of all black life. We must demand that all Americans, from our public education system, to our politicians and legislators, to our justice system, value the lives of black people, regardless of their background, neighborhood, or economic status. Let’s begin with unconditionally valuing them ourselves.

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