Commentary: Why Are Black Men Always on Trial?

Too often, innocent Black men are still considered suspects.

Posted: 05/31/2013 12:38 PM EDT
Keith Boykin

When the Trayvon Martin case finally gets started in the next two weeks, George Zimmerman's defense team will be barred from mentioning Trayvon’s marijuana use, past fights or high school suspension. A judge in Florida wisely denied those defense requests that would have effectively put Martin on trial instead of Zimmerman.

"Trayvon Martin did not get out of the car to chase anybody," said Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer. "Trayvon Martin did not shoot and kill anybody. Trayvon Martin is not on trial," he told reporters.

Because Zimmerman had no knowledge of Martin's background when he shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old in Sanford, Florida, last year, none of the information his defense team wants to introduce about Martin is relevant to the murder trial. All that Zimmerman knew at the time is that Martin was a young Black male in his neighborhood. But as Black men know too well, that's all it takes for society to see us as suspicious.

We saw that again this week when police in another part of Florida arrested a 14-year-old Black kid with a puppy at Miami's Haulover Beach. A police officer put Tremaine McMillian in a chokehold and slammed him to the ground to restrain the child (who looks like he weighs all of 120 pounds) because they said he gave them "dehumanizing stares."

“Of course we have to neutralize the threat,” Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta calmly told reporters. Police freely disclosed that the young McMillian had been arrested once before, although the officer at the beach had no knowledge of this prior arrest at the time of the incident, and it's not even clear that McMillian was ever convicted of anything.

Does a prior arrest prove criminal intent or evidence of wrongdoing? If so, then perhaps Florida police should have been more suspicious of Zimmerman, who, unlike Trayvon, had been previously arrested for resisting a police officer with violence and separately accused of domestic violence. But Zimmerman wasn't a young Black man. We're treated differently by society.

Of course, it's not just Florida. This week, police arrested Arlington County, Virginia, sheriff's deputy Craig Patterson and charged him with murdering 22-year-old Julian Dawkins, a young Black man who worked as a driver for PBS NewsHour. The details are still emerging, but once again another African-American man has fallen victim to violence from law enforcement.

It happens up north, too. In Philadelphia, Blacks make up just 44 percent of the population but more than 72 percent of the people stopped by police. And in New York City, the number of police stops has risen from 100,000 in 2002 to nearly 700,000 in 2011, most of them minorities.

Some argue that police stops are an inevitable indignity that Black men should just ignore. That's easy to say for people who haven't been profiled. But a few years ago, I too was stopped by a police officer in a Harlem subway station and accused of illegally jumping the turnstiles.

The officer gruffly demanded to see my subway card and insisted that he had personally watched me sneak onto the subway platform, which I clearly had not done. After protesting for a moment, I provided my card to him. He had it swiped to see when it was last used, and just as I told him, the card showed I had used it to enter the subway station moments earlier. The officer apologized only after an elderly bystander recognized me from television and told him I was a TV commentator and former White House aide.

But what about the Black men who don't have friends in high places?

Trayvon Martin and Tremaine McMillian may not have been perfect in their lives, but it probably wouldn't matter to some police officers if they had been. As we learned from the cases of Skip Gates and Amadou Diallo, racial suspicion transcends age, educational status or criminal background. Whether you're a 58-year-old Harvard professor walking into your home in Cambridge or a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea walking into your apartment in the Bronx, you're still a suspect in the eyes of society.

That's a problem not just for Black men, but for all Americans.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

 

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