When I was growing up, I was horrified when TV westerns showed horse thieves being hung or shot. Clearly, stealing a horse is not cool and requires punishment. But by death? My response: Thank God we lived in a more moral society than the old days when such barbarity was acceptable.
As I grew older, I was disgusted to learn just how violent our own state was toward nonwhites who simply wanted the right to vote and attend the same schools as people who look like me. It was sobering to learn that, when I was a child, grown white men in my hometown hunted down black people like they were animals and killed them with no trial, suspicious that they had committed a crime. Over the years, I've forced my mind open to the fact that young black men have been the most hunted and terrorized group of people in American society—often due to what a white man thought they might do.
The story of Emmett Till, who was tortured and murdered by a group of white men a few miles up the road in Money, Miss., when he was 14, is the ultimate symbol of this truth. The men brutally murdered this boy because they believed that his supposedly flirting with a white woman put her life in danger. They were raised to believe that.
What is most stunning about Till's execution is not that evil men did something bad. Sadly, that happens. No, the most awful part is that the society around them thought it was an appropriate way to deal with their inherited fears. The jury believed that—as did most white Mississippians. The men were so confident they were justified that they later admitted the crime to Look magazine, after an all-white jury acquitted them despite strong evidence of their guilt.
The tragedy in that case, and so many others like them, was the complicity of a so-called moral and Christian society. We live in a state where many white people have believed myths about African Americans since slavery. It made twisted sense: It's hard to justify owning other human beings for free labor if you believe that they are the same as you are. So it seemed necessary to spin yarns about the enslaved while destroying their self-esteem and family structure.
One of the prevalent lies persisting today is that black men are more violent than whites. The irony, of course, is that the violence that persists today among young blacks is a direct result of them being the most hunted and demonized Americans in our history.
I have a book on my office shelf, "Race and Reason," by Carlton Putnam, that whites widely distributed in our state and beyond in the 1960s. The book is filled with "scientific" myths designed to prove that black people are less intelligent and more violent than whites. Written by a Yankee academic, no less, folks used it to justify the kinds of practices that have helped create today's continuing problems that young black males face. Whether it's growing up in poverty, as sons of single mothers and fathers imprisoned as a result of the drug war (usually for longer terms and for lesser crimes than whites), or because they are constantly considered guilty until proved innocent, the prejudice that is so ingrained in our state's and nation's consciousness is still haunting America and hurting us all.
And those lies are causing America to again do really stupid and inhumane things.
As a young adult, I at least felt good that we were moving the right direction, if not quickly enough. Jim Crow had been overthrown, allowing many of us to go to school with kids of different races and economic status—a vital part of any good education (which is sorely missing in many good schools, including in the Ivy League).
Somehow that forward progress has been thwarted. When I heard that George Zimmerman had killed an unarmed black boy because he feared what that boy might do, I immediately thought of Emmett Till. I prayed that the societal response would, nearly 50 years later, be different, proving us an evolved nation.
I am white, and I want to see fellow white people be different than they were in my childhood. I want them to stop assuming the worst about nonwhites. I want them to learn and use history, even uncomfortable parts, to help make our world and lives better and safer today. And perhaps most of all, I want them to want justice for all, not just white people.
Alas, we're not there, yet. Zimmerman is not the most sympathetic character, and Trayvon Martin was a pretty decent kid, certainly as decent as the children of many prominent white people I know. Regardless of the outcome of that trial, white Americans had the chance to show that we're different now, and not prone to easy assumptions about children of color.
Unjust trials happen. Rapists and murderers go free (sometimes due to bad cops) and people with money buy their kids out of trouble, as less privileged kids go to prison. Neither trials nor laws are always just.
No, the test that so many white people have again failed is that of basic humanity and morality. No matter how you look at it, what happened to Trayvon was wrong. We whites need to act like we get that. We need to participate in changing our society so that a paranoid or angry man cannot shoot and kill a young black man just because he is afraid the kid might do something wrong.
The tough part is questioning why so many whites are still trapped by historic myths. Too many still believe that black males are likely to be dangerous or commit violent acts. They buy that it is OK to make those assumptions, to profile them before they do something wrong and even kill them to make sure that they don't. That is what happened to young Emmett in 1955.
In so doing, we guarantee that many young African Americans will continue to feel hunted, hopeless and devalued. As so many of us obsess about crime, the irony is that these attitudes are exactly what makes it worse. Either you get that black crime has historic roots or you accept Putnam's argument, which is the definition of racist.
Crazies will always be there, and we will always have to deal with them. But when trigger-happy men shoot kids of color under cover of Stand Your Ground or Castle Doctrine laws, and mainstream whites rush forward to defend them, we have a more severe problem. And when politicians pass laws to make it easier for a man in Jackson to walk outside and kill a teenager allegedly trying to steal his car, without even a police investigation, we might as well be hanging horse thieves in front of City Hall.
Take a cue from John Grisham's "A Time to Kill." Imagine if the kid killed in the man's car had been from a "good" white family. Maybe on a dare from his private-school friends, he tried to steal a car. I promise that the reaction from whites would involve outrage and statements that it was a "waste" of a talented life. It would have been investigated. The man who shot him might even go to jail, at least for one night.
Until we live in a society where white people assume that the life of any child- (of any color) is valuable, we will not live in a just or colorblind society. Until we all start treating our young people like they matter, they will not believe that they do. And that is dangerous, and tragic, for every one of us.