Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, my heart sank as I watched my son laugh and play with his cousins and little sister. At the tender age of 6, he is busy tinkering with Legos and throwing his baseball, too young to comprehend what happened in the Trayvon Martin case. And yet, I had to consider the possibility that one day this veil of innocence will be lifted and that he, too, may be treated with suspicion just for being a young black man.
If he were old enough to understand, how would I explain why 17-year-old Martin was killed? How would I begin to tell him that the mere color of his skin could be threatening to those who still hold prejudicial beliefs and could result in his harassment or death?
As Attorney General Eric Holder said recently, his father had talks with him years ago about how to behave if he were ever stopped or confronted in a way he deemed unwarranted. He had hoped he wouldn’t have to discuss it with his teenage son.
Now, African-American parents across the nation are once again faced with the fact that 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement and five years after we elected our first African-American president, a man was allowed to kill an unarmed teenager who happened to fit the “wrong profile.” Some have even taken the step of warning their kids not to wear “hoodies” in public.
Perhaps, by the time my son reaches his 17th birthday, he will not have to confront the same prejudices that led to Martin’s death. Maybe, our nation will have made serious progress with regard to race. I want to believe that can happen and that the next generation will be better off.
In the event that we continue to take one step backward for every one forward, I want my son to be armed with some words of wisdom:
Happy Birthday and congratulations! You are almost a legal adult, and I am proud of the young man that you have become.
Your father and I believe you have a bright future, and we know that you will continue to work hard to achieve your goals. We admire your tenacity, courage and loving attitude. We did our best to raise you to be strong in character and treat others as you would want to be treated.
By now, you have lived long enough to know that not everyone shares your beliefs. Unfortunately, some people in our society cling to racial stereotypes that, if taken to the extreme, can result in serious pain and even bodily harm.
In 2012, a teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida while walking home from a convenience store. A jury decided to acquit the man who killed him, a man who confronted him because he was convinced Martin was doing something wrong.
Because of these biases, you may have to be careful in your dress and manner of speech. There are those who may be fearful of you because of who you are and what you look like. When confronted by strange people who may not have good intentions, you may have to walk away quickly and notify police. When dealing with police, follow instructions and remain calm. Do not assume that everyone will greet you with warmth and kindness.
This information isn’t meant to frighten you, but to give you pause as you go out into a world that may not always see you as you know yourself to be. We pray that your life will be happy, and that you will not have to deal with these issues. But it’s important for you to know the truth and be prepared.
With much love,
Julie Lynem is a Tribune writer and assigning editor.