When I was a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1970s, my two white parents told their two adopted black children that the first and only two words we should ever utter if stopped by Chicago Police were “yes sir.’’ This was not out of some insidious desire to raise black men who ”knew their place.” Instead, it was a defense mechanism - a precautionary measure to the very real danger that the slightest bit of expressed indignation, even if perfectly legitimate, could result in being physically assaulted or worse, if you encountered the wrong police officer. I remembered that advice all too viscerally last week as I read the articles and commentaries about the homicide of Trayvon Martin, the 17 year-old African-American kid shot dead while carrying a bag of candy and an iced tea by a white neighborhood watch captain. I tried to figure out why I seemed incapable of doing what I’d successfully done so many times before, step far enough back from an unpleasantness to ensure my role is that of observer, not participant. Then it hit me: I’ve been a participant in this story my whole life.
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