It’s been a week since a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Since then there have been countless articles, columns, debates, press conferences, marches and rallies all across the country. I’ve noticed that occasionally the conversation shifts from speculation about the trial to the topic of urban gang violence—which is typically Black-on-Black or Brown-on-Brown violence. And as the conversation begins shifting, there always seems to be someone who says, “Yes, but that’s not what happened to Trayvon Martin. Urban gang violence is a different conversation.”
The next time I hear someone say that what happened to Trayvon Martin is a different conversation than the one about urban violence, I’m going to scream. What happened to Trayvon Martin and the problem of Black-on-Black and Brown-on-Brown urban violence absolutely belong in the same conversation. And if we don’t understand why they belong in the same conversation, then both kinds of violence will continue to play out across America for years to come.
In short, both kinds of violence have something to do with America’s failure to care about the plight of her Black and Brown youth—especially boys, though certainly girls too. Despite the heroic efforts of parents, teachers, pastors, churches, activists, social workers and countless others, Black and Brown youth (especially urban youth) receive a chilling message from the larger society. The message is this: You don’t matter. Not every Black and Brown youth internalizes this message. Thankfully, many don’t. But far too many still do.
Where do they get this message? They get it from the misrepresentation and stereotyping of People of Color in the media. They get it from failing urban schools. They get it from stories about the ‘pipeline’ to prison that incarcerates young Black and Brown men in numbers way out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. They get it in high urban unemployment rates. They get it when they see no options to earn a decent living beyond dealing drugs. They get it on street corners in impoverished neighborhoods where access to healthy food and green space are limited, but pollution-generating facilities are abundant. They get it in stories of family members who died prematurely from preventable diseases because they lacked access to quality, affordable health care.
They get this message when Black and Brown youth are wounded or die in urban gun violence and the surrounding, wealthier, largely White suburban communities don’t even seem to notice, let alone care.
And they get this message when they learn that a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, FL followed a Black teenager and then killed him even after a 911 operator said not to follow. Maybe Mr. Zimmerman really was acting in self-defense at the moment he pulled the trigger. But the fact that the police let him walk away based on his story that he was defending himself, and the fact that the Florida justice system has now let him walk away again with no sanction whatsoever, sends a stark message to the nation’s Black and Brown youth: Your lives don’t matter. That’s why what happened to Trayvon Martin and what happens to too many Black and Brown urban youth belong in the same conversation. The message from the larger society is the same.
What happens as this message of not mattering is repeated to Black and Brown youth over and over again? In his 1993 book, Race Matters, Cornel West called it nihilism, which he defined as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” As some Black and Brown youth descend into nihilism, is it any surprise they are so willing to maim and kill each other over drug turf, girlfriends, shoes and misinterpreted looks? If I don’t matter, then certainly this punk who I think just dissed me doesn’t matter either! Pow! Life over. What happens as this message of not mattering is repeated to Black and Brown youth over and over again? The cycle of violence continues.
What will break the cycle? America must start caring about her Black and Brown youth. I’ve heard it said our country is one of the most religious nations on the planet. It strikes me that American faith communities have the resources—spiritual, financial, human, and heart—to break this cycle of violence, or in the very least to lead the way and demand that the nation follow. I’m certainly not the first to suggest it, and I’m mindful that there are already some incredible ministries to Black and Brown youth in our nation’s cities. But as a nation we aren’t doing nearly enough. It’s long past time for American faith communities to launch a social, economic and political revolution in support of Black and Brown youth.
What could such a revolution look like? Imagine organized faith communities advocating for policy-makers, politicians, school officials, judges and corporate stakeholders to prioritize the well-being of Black and Brown urban youth in all their decisions that impact cities. Imagine organized faith communities calling for policies to end the race-based educational achievement gap, to end the mass incarceration of People of Color, to end race-based disparities in health care. Imagine organized faith communities demanding that law enforcement officials finally halt the flow of illegal guns into cities. Imagine organized faith communities lobbying for the repeal of“stand your ground” laws because they lead to greater violence and vigilantism and risk perpetuating more violence against Black and Brown youth. Imagine organized faith communities helping to rid racial bias from the criminal justice system. Imagine organized faith communities working with school systems to provide high quality tutoring and mentoring programs, early childhood education and other day care programs, healthy food initiatives, summer camps and on and on.
At the heart of such a revolution, imagine organized faith communities of all racial and cultural identities—urban, suburban and rural, wealthy and poor—recognizing that the command to love our neighbors as ourselves extends to America’s Black and Brown youth. Imagine not wavering from that basic idea! Imagine a faith-based revolution with love at its center that offers and sustains a radically new message to America’s Black and Brown youth: You matter.