When I was a child I watched policemen beat a man nearly to death, and I watched my country acquit them. I was shocked that police would attack a man instead of defending him. I was shocked that someone would record the attack on video and that this video would mean nothing. I was shocked that people could watch things and not really see them. I was shocked because I was a child. I was shocked because I am white.
Twenty-one years after the Rodney King verdict, Americans have proven again that in a court of law, perception matters more than proof. Perception is rooted in power, a power bestowed upon birth, reified through experience, and verified through discrimination masked as fairness and fact.
Trayvon Martin is dead and the man who killed him walks free. Americans are afraid there will be riots, like there were after the King verdict in 1992. But we should not fear riots. We should fear a society that puts people on trial the day they are born. And after they die.
The Trayvon Martin trial was not supposed to happen. This is true in two respects. The Trayvon Martin trial only took place because public outrage prompted Florida police to arrest George Zimmerman, the man who killed him, over a month after Martin's death. The Trayvon Martin trial took place because that same public went on to try Martin in his own murder, assessing his morality like it precluded his right to live. It was never a trial of George Zimmerman. It was always a trial of Trayvon Martin, always a character assassination of the dead.
Over the past few decades, the US has turned into a country where the circumstances into which you are born increasingly determine who you can become. Social mobility has stalled as wages stagnate and the cost of living soars. Exponential increases in university tuition have erased the possibility of education as a path out of poverty. These are not revelations - these are hard limitations faced by most Americans. But when confronted with systematic social and economic discrimination, even on a massive scale, the individual is often blamed. The poor, the unemployed, the lacking are vilified for the things they lack.
One might assume that rising privation would increase public empathy toward minorities long denied a semblance of a fair shot. But instead, overt racism and racial barriers in America have increased since the recession. Denied by the Supreme Court, invalidated in the eyes of many by the election of a black president, racism erases the individual until the individual is dead, where he is then recast as the enemy.
Trayvon Martin was vilified for being "Trayvon Martin". If he were considered a fully human being, a person of inherent worth, it would be the US on trial. For its denial of opportunity, for its ceaseless condemnation of the suffering, for its demonization of the people it abandons, for its shifting gaze from the burden of proof. The Trayvon Martin case only sanctioned what was once tacit and disavowed. A young black man can be murdered on perception. A young black man becomes the criminal so that the real criminal can go free.
Americans should not fear riots. They should fear a society that ranks the death of children. They should fear a society that shrugs, carries on, and lets them go.
A friend of mine on Facebook posts updates from a website called " Black and Missing but Not Forgotten ". The site exists because the default assumption is that a black and missing child will be forgotten. It exists because the disappearance of a black child is considered less important than the disappearance of a white child. It exists because a large number of Americans has to be reminded that black children are human beings.
In June, the Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act , stating that "our country has changed", implying that discrimination against African-Americans was a thing of the past. In May, the city of Chicago shut down majority black public schools. In April, a black high school student, Kiera Wilmont, was prosecuted as an adult after her science project exploded. In February, The Onion called nine-year-old black actress Quvenzhane Wallis an extremely vulgar name. The US that proclaims racism a thing of the past abandons and vilifies black children.
Many Americans, of many races, will be outraged that George Zimmerman has gone free. They will advocate for tolerance and peace. This is a noble sentiment, but what the US needs is a cold, hard look at social structure. We need to examine and eliminate barriers to opportunity, some of which are racially biased in an overt way, but many of which are downplayed because they are considered ambiguous social issues - social issues, like decaying public schools, low-wage labor and unemployment, that affect African-Americans at disproportionate rates.
Trayvon Martin was murdered before we could see what kind of person he would become. But the truth is, he had a hard road ahead of him no matter what he did. He would have confronted an America of racial and class barriers that even the most ambitious young man cannot override without a good deal of luck.
In a US of diminished opportunities, luck is nothing to bank on. Neither is hope, or dreams, or the idea, espoused by President Obama, that for young black men, "there's no longer any room for excuses". Trayvon Martin shows that there is plenty of room for excuses. There is even more room for social and economic reform, for accountability, and for change.
Above all, there is room for responsibility. The death of Trayvon Martin is a US tragedy. He was part of a broken system we all experience, but that black Americans experience in ways white Americans cannot fathom. The children who grow up like Trayvon Martin, discriminated against and denied opportunity, are everyone's responsibility. Providing them a fairer, safer future should be a public priority.
Americans should not fear riots. They should fear apathy. They should fear acquiescence. They should not fear each other. But it is understandable, now, that they do.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior