The reality all teens face
CHICAGO Two weeks ago when the Trayvon Martin slaying was just picking up steam on the Internet, my doorbell rang and I opened the door to two policewomen. There had been a series of petty crimes and acts of vandalism in my neighborhood and, as the officers questioned neighbors, they heard that they should investigate the two long-haired boys from down the street—mine—who are always out on their skateboards.
The two honor-roll students in question have cultivated a skater-boy look that often includes hoodies adorned with skulls or rock ‘n’ roll symbols (bought at the local Walmart), and long hair that, to their mother’s dismay, always covers their faces.
They had been with me at the time of the incident that the police came inquiring about, and so they were in the clear. But it was the perfect opportunity to warn them that, hoodie or not, simply being young, long-haired and male puts them at risk of being seen as an aggressor or a criminal by anyone who isn’t familiar with their fine characters—that’s just a fact.
“Every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together—federal, state and local—to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened,” President Obama said last week, as he sympathized with Martin’s parents.
Parents of every race and ethnicity in America should be reminding their teens that adults tend to be intimidated, annoyed or suspicious of them just because young people can be weird, sulking, overly excited or depressed—sometimes all within moments of each other. At night, any teen might as well have a target on his—or her—back as an object of unease.
But all parents should also expect that justice will be served if their child is wrestled to the ground and shot to death because of someone else’s unfounded fears.
“This is not about a black-and-white thing. This is about a right-and-wrong thing,” said Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, last week at a protest in New York City.
It is wrong that self-styled vigilantes with access to firearms pose a risk to all innocent people, not just young, minority or hoodie-wearing ones. And wrong that the aggressor in question wasn’t even arrested when the incident occurred, sending the message that someone can get away with murdering another for simply looking suspicious.
But it is also wrong to ignore that Martin’s death would have been equally senseless if he had been the same race as his attacker.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is email@example.com.