By Lydia Johnson
Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black boy, was killed because of fear. Because one man thought he was suspicious and acted on his fears instead of questioning them, a child is dead.
I wondered how this incident could lead to even more fear in the lives of young black men who have seen Martin’s face splashed across the news. I wondered if this story caused them to question their worth and safety as young black men in society, and if they feared more for their lives now than ever.
I talked to some black male students at Butler University to get their take on the situation.
Each of them knew about Martin. A young boy in Florida. Wearing a hoodie in the rain. Carrying a bag of Skittles and iced tea. Shot by a neighborhood watchman, who remains free. None of the men I interviewed were surprised that Martin was killed.
We live in a society where people who look like them are automatically suspicious. And the senseless killing of black men is nothing new to them, either.
“It’s sad, and it’s terrifying because it can honestly happen to any of us,” said SGA President Al Carroll, a junior who lives just 20 minutes away from the suburb of Sanford, Fla., where Martin was killed. “Am I surprised? Not so much. Being an African-American male, things happen like this all the time,” said Todd Deloney, a junior from Hammond.
He’s talking about being racially profiled.
He had it happen as an eighth-grader when he went to Walgreen’s to buy a greeting card and a clerk accused him of trying to steal.
At some point, they’ve all experienced something similar.
Hollis Fullilove, a sophomore, has witnessed the fear of others in his home in East Chicago, and on Butler’s campus.
“Being a young black male at a predominately white school, people think I’m a thug, and I might try to hurt them,” Fullilove said. “I walk on campus, and girls grab their purses and go the other way at night.”
These fears are unfounded and unwarranted. But they happen.
“If you are willing to judge someone off of the way that they look, then you’re not willing to learn anything about them to begin with,” Fullilove said.
A lot of young black men don’t have the chance to make a first impression before they are judged. It’s unfair that people don’t bother to get to know them, but make assumptions based on what they see from the outside. And it doesn’t matter what neighborhood or city they grew up in.
Carroll’s mother owns her own business and his father is a former NASA executive in Florida. He lives on a golf course, and his father bought a golf cart for the family’s use.
“I’ve been pulled over on my golf cart with people asking me many a time, ‘Who does this belong to?’” Carroll said. “I’ve had plenty of those situations, being in the suburbs, a young black kid in a golf cart, when many of the white kids didn’t have golf carts to be riding around in. Some people did think that looked suspicious.”
Carroll has been questioned in malls, movie theaters and events he’s attended with his parents. To him, how he dresses and what he says don’t matter much.
“I don’t think dress has anything to do with it,” he said. “I don’t think the way I dress has as much to do with it as I’m black. And I can’t take this off.”
If anything, the Martin case has made these men more aware of the prejudices and fears that people have. But that increased awareness doesn’t mean changing their lives for others’ sake.
Senior Chris Parker said, “I think it makes me reevaluate, and really think about people’s perceptions of me as I walk around on a daily basis. I don’t really think it’s going to change anything because I don’t want to live my life based on other people’s perceptions.”
Fear is a strange thing. It can be passed down and passed on through people. It can be shared in a whisper or loudly expressed. Fear can make the unknown into frightening possibilities that wait around every corner. But the good thing about fears—like myths—is that they can be dispelled.
“If you really want to sit down and get a chance to know me, you say ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ and you’ll talk to me,” Fullilove said. “You’ll know within five minutes of talking to me that I’m not here to cause any trouble with anybody.”
It’s that simple.