July 21, 2013 Updated: July 21, 2013 at 7:15 am
The death of Trayvon Martin has disheartened many black Americans. Some who do not understand this perspective suggest pundits injected race into George Zimmerman's arrest and trial. But it is Zimmerman who had race on the mind during that fateful day in Black History Month, 2012. He told the police dispatcher: "These a**holes they always get away." During his trial, we learned that the "a**holes" were black men he saw in his neighborhood during the months before he met Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman claims to have feared what Martin would do. This fear motivated him to follow Martin and leave his vehicle despite police instructions. He confronted the person he described as a black teenager while carrying a concealed, semi-automatic handgun with a bullet in the chamber. We may never know why Zimmerman felt obligated to follow Martin. But too often, fear leads to profiling, attacking, and even killing an unarmed black man.
Shane Daniels was a victim of this fear in May 1996. He stood in his hometown on Long Island, N.Y., next to his own car talking to a white woman. A white man objected to this interracial dialogue and attacked him, beating him into a coma with an iron bar. An off-duty, white police officer brandished his gun to keep bystanders from intervening. Daniels was unarmed.
Sean Bell was a victim of this fear in November 2006. As he left a nightclub after his bachelor party, a black, undercover police officer concluded that Bell was going to perform a drive-by shooting. The officer called for backup, confronted Bell, and thought he saw a gun. A group of black and white officers fired over 50 bullets into Bell's car, killing him and seriously wounding two passengers. Bell and his companions were unarmed.
A jury found the two white men who assaulted Daniels guilty at their trial. But this did not ease the pain they caused. A jury found Bell's killers not guilty at their trial. But this did not magnify their offenses. These deaths do not devastate black Americans because of what juries found about their killers. We are devastated because these black men met their fate based on the color of their skin and not the content of their character.
I experienced similar treatment at Harvard 25 years ago. I recall a meeting with a mixed group of 40 black students and faculty; half were men. Someone asked "How many have been stopped by the Harvard or Cambridge police?" Every single black man raised his hand - including a professor and an administrator. When the police stopped me, I was a junior, wearing Harvard gear, walking from my car to a Harvard dorm. The officer said I looked suspicious. I shudder to think where that could have led. And I have graver concerns about the fate of my black son and my two black grandsons. Can they walk through my neighborhood without facing imminent death?
The Rev./Dr. Tim Gramling holds a doctorate in law and policy from Northeastern University. He lives in Colorado Springs.