By Phillip Jackson
Trayvon Martin is more valuable to America as a dead young Black man than he ever was alive. As a dead symbol, the president can claim him as a son he never had; but as a living Black man, the American criminal justice system claims one out of three young Black men born after 2001.
As a dead symbol, Republican presidential candidates can claim that Trayvon deserves his right to live as an American; but many living young Black men, like Trayvon, are stripped of their rights every day because of harsh, racially targeted and overly punitive laws created by and pushed by Republicans.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, reminds us that more Black men are in prison today than there were Blacks enslaved in America in 1850. She suggests that we have not really ended Jim Crow, but have just given it another name: the criminal justice system. We can also call it the education system or the economic system, because they all equate to a new system of racial control of Black Americans just like Jim Crow.
America knows how to use the symbol of a dead young Black man to achieve its objectives. When symbols are used correctly sweatshirt companies profit, candy companies profit and ice tea companies profit. For-profit prisons flourish and America cleanses its conscience, while the deplorable plight of young Black men in America remains the same.
America has given up on young Black men, like Trayvon Martin. As a dead symbol, Trayvon might spark a national conversation on race, but as a living young Black man, Trayvon probably couldn’t get a job at a fast-food restaurant.
No place in America is this stark contradiction of symbol versus reality for young Black men more evident than in Chicago, Illinois. While hundreds of people in Chicago protested the death of Trayvon Martin, few people protested the violent murders of more than 100 mostly young Black males in Chicago in the past year, mostly at the hands of other young Black males.
Chicago media, foundations and elected officials have ignored the blood of Black children running in Chicago streets, while they congratulate those who speak in symbolic terms about race in America.
The truth is that America is comfortable with young Black men as symbols, being where they are in society, being like they are — hoodie and all, violence and all.
Chicago is ground zero for the destruction of young Black men in America. In Chicago, only three out of 100 Black high school freshmen will graduate from college by age 25 (Consortium for School Research at the University of Chicago). Only 44 percent of Black males in Chicago graduate from high school (Schott Foundation for Public Education). Last summer, approximately 90 percent of Chicago’s young Black males 16 to 19 years old were unemployed (Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University). Black boys are arrested in Chicago at two to six times the rates of other populations (Project Nia).
Young Black men who submit résumés with Black-sounding or Africanized names, like Trayvon or Barack — even with college degrees and the exact same academic credentials as persons ”perceived to be White males” — are one-half as likely to be called back for a job interview (University of Chicago Study). Chicago has no plan or good intentions to address this silent, devastating catastrophe.
As dire as this crisis is, there are solutions, but they are not in symbols or soul-searching; they are comprehensive and substantial efforts and actions to ameliorate this stain on America’s reputation for fairness and equality.
Government, foundations, civic, faith and community organizations must:
• Help rebuild Black families with fathers as an essential, prominent and functional component of the family structure.
• Provide mentors, positive role models and viable paths for young Black men.
• Ensure that all young Black men are supported to value education and to experience a globally competitive education.
• Teach young Black men about how to succeed in entrepreneurship, small business, cooperative economics and in the work world.
• Encourage young Black men to be spiritually sound and to be of good character.
• Establish rigorous efforts in the largest 300 cities in America that address the issues of education, family, imprisonment and employment for young Black men.
• Establish a national commission to manage a comprehensive, coordinated campaign for Black male achievement, similar to the one created by Open Society Foundations.
The death of Trayvon Martin is a symbol of the plight of young Black men in America. As a symbol, his senseless murder is something to which most Americans can relate. But the realities of Black men’s lives in Chicago and across America are the realities to which most Americans do not want to relate.
The truth is that America is comfortable with young Black men as symbols, being where they are in society, being like they are — hoodie and all, violence and all. Addressing symbols are quite useful and practical when a society lacks the courage and integrity to deal with its disturbing realities.
America loves Black men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and even Trayvon Martin after they are dead. It is the strong, vocal, positive Black men that they have trouble with while they are alive.
If America continues on its present course, the symbols for Black men in America might change, but the realities will remain the same or become worse. And America will be lesser for it.
Phillip Jackson is founder and executive director of The Black Star Project.