The tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin has raised important questions about vigilante justice, racism, “stand your ground” legislation, and the role of the NRA-financed gun lobbies. But one issue that has not been raised significantly is the crisis of black leadership in this country.
Black leaders rightly demanded justice after Martin, a black teenager, was shot to death in Sanford, Fla., by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer whose parents are white and Hispanic. But what if Martin’s assailant had been black? What if this incident had been just another “routine” Denzel-smoked-Rahim black-on-black homicide? How might black leadership’s response have been different?
Consider the facts: According to a US Department of Justice 2007 report, blacks, who are only 12 percent of the population, accounted for 49 percent of all homicide victims in 2005. Clearly black youth are particularly affected by this crisis: in 2007 homicide was the leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 34. As a result of the high rate of violence in black communities, black children are 20 times more likely to be present during a murder than their white counterparts. Even more astounding than the rates of violence is the race of the perpetrators: Blacks commit 93 percent of the murders of other blacks. These striking data reveal that not only is the black community under violent attack, but the onslaught is coming from within our own community.
Based on this data, one may assume that if Zimmerman were black, the killing of Trayvon Martin would not have generated the overwhelming response that it did. Few leaders would have been advocating for justice in another one of thousands of politically meaningless black deaths. Consider this terrible truth: If George Zimmerman were black, it is unlikely we would even know the name Trayvon Martin.
Martin’s death is politically meaningful because it evokes deep memories of longstanding and extreme racial injustice to which the black community and our leadership have ready ways to respond. Furthermore, this act of violence taps into a pervasive sense of enduring racial injustice, especially in the Deep South, which is irrelevant to loss of life in the inner city.
Until black leadership confronts the reality of black-on-black violence, we cannot expect others to be genuinely concerned.
One may posit that if Zimmerman were black, few outside of Trayvon Martin’s loving family would care about his death. The black religious, political, and intellectual leadership, from whom the larger public takes direction on such matters, exhibits no serious commitment to engaging the problem of violence among our young people, even where genuine solutions are available.
If Zimmerman were black, the challenge before black leadership would be how to deal with the pain, fear, humiliation, incomprehension, and sense of powerlessness that are bound up in the condition of poor black men in today’s society. And until black leadership and the black community confront these facts, we cannot expect others to be genuinely concerned or committed to addressing the horrible tragedy that overwhelms the lives of countless black males.
If there is a lesson to be learned it is that the black community and our leadership must pour as much rage, energy, and wisdom into addressing the overwhelming nihilism that black-on-black violence represents as we did in the Martin case. This lesson suggests two final questions. How many more thousands of young black males must choke to death on their own blood before our “best and brightest” intellectuals and spiritual leaders will stand to defend this class of political orphans? One hundred years from now, when the history is written of this period, how shall our descendants judge us?
Eugene F. Rivers 3d is director of the Ella J. Baker House and was co-founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition.