Trayvon Martin is a number. His family and others rightfully make the case that he was a real person, and that his death has left a serious mark on a real family and community.
That’s true, but it’s time we recognize that he is also, sadly, a statistic. A statistic we too often ignore, which dooms us to repeat the cycle.
What’s missing from the current narrative is that the combination of Trayvon’s age, race and gender make him the most common type of American crime victim, especially murder. One reason we ignore the growing body of evidence that black youth are victims is because we fail first to even see their humanity.
Media portrayals, fear-based crime hysteria and the justice system itself reinforce over and over again the concept of young men of color as something to be suspicious and scared of, (criminals), instead of youth we should be scared for. They, in fact, are most vulnerable to fall victim to traumatizing crimes.
In 2010, there were 11,078 gun-related homicides in the U.S. – more than 30 people shot and killed every day. Three out of four of them were people of color, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of all homicide deaths (47 percent) were black males.
Numbers in California tell a similar story. My organization, Californians for Safety and Justice, works with and on behalf of survivors of crime. In April, we conducted the first-ever survey of California victims. The findings matched national data that shows African Americans experience murder more than other demographics and that they, along with Latinos, were more likely than whites to have been a victim of multiple crimes.
Racial disparities continue with crime survivor experiences after a traumatic crime, which can be a taxing journey of grief and expenses (funerals, medical care, etc.). Even though California law provides services and help to crime victims in California, African-Americans in our survey were both the most interested and least aware of these opportunities, underscoring how blacks aren’t reached out to as stakeholders and, most importantly, aren’t receiving help to heal from traumatic experiences.
But improving how we support victims after a crime is only a partial measure. Our justice system does not just encounter racial bias once a case begins; our laws and law enforcement play a role in how our society – and juries – behave toward men of color.
Until we take a hard look at how to systemically meet the needs of victims, particular black and brown males, we’ll continue to only focus on them as potential threats to incapacitate, not as common victims of crimes themselves who need our help. In other words, we need to see young people of color as human beings who need our support if we’re to replace criminal-centric perceptions with a victims-centric and empowerment lens.
There are some examples of how to shift this paradigm. Some neighborhood watch leaders have responded to crime and burglaries by providing support and programs for vulnerable youth, as opposed to following them with fear and a gun. Communities that invest in afterschool programs have reduced crime and victimization rates.
And some school systems are reforming expulsion policies as they learn that kids who are acting out often do so because of trauma they have experienced at home or on the streets. By addressing their behavior with supportive interventions, not punishments that separate them from their peers, they can keep troubled youth on the right path and reduce school safety.
Changes will need to take place in our schools, our community organizations and in our justice systems. Instead of automatically fearing for our safety when we see young men of color, we should worry for their safety – and work to make sure they can make it home and through life safely.
Such change is personal to me. Not because I’m an advocate for crime victims but because I’m a black father with three young boys. They are as earnest and innocent as they are bright and talented.
I would do anything for my sons – and try to – but as they become teenagers and young men, I need to know they can walk in our neighborhood, on their school grounds, into a courtroom, and anywhere else in public without being in danger because of their race. I need to know that, statistically, they will be successful young men, not murder victims.
Ed’s Note: Robert Rooks is Organizing Director for Californians for Safety and Justice, which includes a statewide network of crime victims. He lives in Sacramento with his wife and three sons.