There once was a twelve-year-old-boy excited about his trip alone to the local grocery store. Worried, his father sat him down. “When you go down the street, people may call you names and push you around. Try to cross the street before they can even approach you. Don’t look them in the eye and be sure to stay far away from any policeman,” the father said. “I plead with you to listen to me so no harm will come to you.” The year was 1933. The country: Poland. The boy? My father.
I thought of this 80-year-old story while considering what happened to Trayvon Martin, a young man just a few years older than my father. The manner of his death and the failure of the system to protect him surely has caused a great deal of pain to his family most of all, but also to our nation.
What does it say for the safety of young black men in America? Is it really the case in low-income, middle class, or even well to do neighborhoods, that parents must instruct their children not to wear a hoodie, not to walk on the street at night, not to draw the attention of the police, not to approach groups of kids – or, if they do, it could be at their own peril, risking physical harm, even death?
Notwithstanding our first African-American president, we do not live in a society where all people are treated the same regardless of the color of their skin.
Coming from a country whose people are on the brink of mourning the passing of one of the greatest leaders of all time, I find this particularly difficult to accept. Nelson Mandela, whose very essence and identity were devoted to creating a nonracial society, was as committed to protection of the white minority as to fair and equal treatment for every person in South Africa. A country infamous for its legal segregation and oppression of its people has long begun the hard work of racial reconciliation and renewal. It is time for us to do the same.
America once was moving forward, but in some ways it has stood still. Author Christopher Hitchens threatened to put “human” on the U.S. Senate press credential that asked him for his race. “Surely the essential and unarguable core of Martin Luther King’s campaign,” he wrote, “was the insistence that pigmentation was a false measure of mankind… and an inheritance from a time of great ignorance and stupidity and cruelty.”
What is it we can do now to create mutual respect, a society where character and deeds matter, not color? What can each and every one of us do to examine and change our own prejudices -- and know that they lie within us and have nothing to do with the measure of the person we judge?
I asked a young African-American colleague in my office: What advice would you give Americans to avoid tragedies such as these? Her advice was to wait a beat. Walk in their shoes and see how it feels, if you are threatened or upset. Count to ten. And ask yourself if validating your fear, your prejudice, is worth a life destroyed?
Much can come from our gathering together in our offices, homes, and communities and having a discussion about race, what drives our actions, and what we might do differently. We must and can do better, including working to ensure our organizational policies and practices promote a culture of mutual respect and support. Listen to young people like my colleague, who are farther down the road on tolerance. They make it sound possible to achieve our founders’ dream: “a more perfect union.”