At center of teen's killing: racism

| Thursday, March 22, 2012

My "little" brother is a police officer in Maryland who is 6 feet tall. We're a bit more than two years apart in age, so when we were young we played together -- and, of course, got in trouble together.

These days, he often wears baggy clothes, topped with one of those Gilligan-type hats. He has been known to hug his sisters enthusiastically off the floor upon seeing them. (Who needs chiropractors?) He's also a great father to a son about 10 weeks older than mine, and a fine uncle. The first time he met my son, he calmed him by resting the baby's head in the crook of his arm, and sure enough, he was asleep in less than a minute.

Like my brother, Trayvon Martin meant something to his family. He has parents, a young brother and extended family that love him. To another man, the 17-year-old wasn't even human. He was suspicious, and that apparently was based on nothing more than his skin color . George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch captain, shot and killed Trayvon in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., last month. He lumped Trayvon in with those who "always get away" in a 911 call that night.

You could blame Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. Although "law" is probably too strong a term for something that basically allows someone to start a fight -- and finish it. It's that "law" that might keep Zimmerman out of prison. The fact that Zimmerman hasn't yet been arrested suggests that some Florida law enforcement officials agree with the idea that a black man walking down your street is a reason to defend yourself.

After days of protests to call attention to Trayvon's fatal shooting, the federal government announced it is looking at the incident as a possible hate crime and Florida is convening a grand jury to look into the circumstances.

Pennsylvania has no "Stand Your Ground" law. But in 2006, the Trib reported that Allegheny County had the highest number of legal concealed-weapon permits in Pennsylvania -- just in case you think what happened in Florida could never happen here.

But at the heart of this crime (arrest or no) is racism.

Mostly, my approach to racism has been this: If you have a problem with me being black, it's your problem, not mine. It turns out I've been wrong. It is my problem, and the problem of my brother, and my father and my son and my uncles.

It's not the buffoonery of the Ku Klux Klan that's the most dangerous form of racism. It's the quiet kind that tells a man with a gun that a black male walking down the street in a hoodie is a threat to him. You can turn out against a KKK rally to show distaste, but what can be done about a man who views an unarmed black teen talking on his cell phone as suspicious?

Nothing, that's what. There will be more protests in the coming weeks, and Zimmerman might even end up going to prison one day. But you can't change a heart.

I love my brother. Yet if he had been walking down that Sanford street under the same circumstances, he would have been shot down like the animal he isn't.

And there's nothing I can do to help or protect the black men in my life, except to write a column about Trayvon Martin and hope it makes at least one person realize there is a human under that hoodie.

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