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The George Zimmerman Trial Reminded Me of Who I Am in America

I tried to hide from the George Zimmerman verdict because it forced me to recognize how far we have to go. It's terrible to think when I have a son, I will have to give him the same talk I was given as a young man to ensure that he doesn’t get himself...

by Wilbert L. Cooper
Jul 19 2013, 11:00am

It’s easier to hide from the specter of Trayvon Martin than it is to face his dead body sprawled awkwardly on the concrete. I was trying to escape it desperately last Saturday night, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty. I was at a fashion brand’s swanky event in a nightclub in Manhattan surrounded by obligatory white kids who like rap and probably have trust funds, boozing myself into a stupor. The next morning, when outraged people took to the streets all over the country, I went to a screening of Sophia Coppola’s Bling Ring and caught up on some reading at a coffee shop. I tried to ignore the news. I didn’t want to bear to think about it because it all hit way too close to home.

Usually, instances of black folks dying doesn’t fuck me up that much. The music I listen to every day is full of references to black men shooting or getting shot at. Like Tupac said, “Niggas been dying for years…” Not a day goes by that I don’t catch a story of a young black man who has met a violent end. Sometimes it’s through gang or drug violence, other times it’s by the hand of the cops, still other times a senile neighbor shoots a 13-year-old kid for no reason. Black death is so constant and relentless all over the country that news of new tragedy has started to lose its resonance for me.

The suddenness, violence, and pointlessness of deaths like Trayvon’s is hard for me to imagine, much less understand. Sometimes it feels like it’s happening on a different planet. I didn’t grow up in the ghetto. I’ve spent much of my life in the suburbs. I’ve lived around rich white folks, I went to school with them, I slept with their daughters, I took drugs with them, and I came of age with them. When you’re a black person who’s been in the company of white people as much as I have, sometimes you find yourself saying, What’s the difference? Aren’t we all the same?

But any time I’ve ever gotten too impressed with the progress of the arc of the moral universe toward justice, I’ve been smacked back to reality. It always comes when I least expect it—getting pulled over for no reason or followed around by a counterman in a stank-ass bodega that didn’t even have the fucking wave cap I was looking for. In those moments, I remember, as much as I’d like to forget, that we are not the same. We are not treated equally in the eyes of the law and we don’t face the same obstacles.

I remember—I’ll probably remember this for the rest of my life—a night shortly after I had got a job at VICE and earned my master’s degree at New York University in the same week. Naturally, I was feeling like Super New Improved Black Man, a sophisticated globetrotter who could go anywhere and do anything and be respected by his peers based strictly on him being a handsome and talented motherfucker.

At the time, I was living in Williamsburg around a bunch of “creative young people,” which is code for rich white kids. I had a great group of friends, most of whom were Caucasian. They weren’t hung up on race, or gender, or anything. I was living what I fooled myself into thinking was a “post-racial” Obama-type existence.

To celebrate all the dope shit happening in my life at the time, I decided to go out with a bunch of these homies. I rocked the best, newest, and most expensive shit I had—a Thom Browne down vest and button-down shirt, some Patrik Ervell jeans, a pair of pearly white Common Projects Achilles, my brand new VICE ring, and a Movado watch given to me by my mom as a graduation gift. I felt like I was the freshest brother on the planet, ready to go have some fancy cocktails with all of my new upwardly-mobile fashion and media pals. We were going to take the world on together as young people and change shit.

As me and my group moved from one bar to the next in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, we passed a couple of drunk Polish dudes and one of them called my friend a faggot. The guys started to approach us in a heated manner, and I stepped up and tried to tell everybody to chill the fuck out and go their separate ways. The Polish guy looked at me, cut me off, and said, “Nigger!” He cocked his fist back and punched me in the face, breaking my glasses and thoroughly killing my vibe.

I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned, not even so much that we got into a fight, but because I was still, STILL, a “nigger.” Really? A master’s from NYU, a full-time job in the media, and clothes by some of the finest designers in the game and I’m still a nigger?

It’s a harsh reality to stomach, when you realize that no matter how high you climb, no matter how much you achieve, to some people that’s all you will ever be. I can only imagine how Obama must feel as the fucking president when he’s treated with so much disdain and disrespect for the color of his skin by the some of the very people he’s sworn to lead and protect.

This realization—that I am different from others because people treat me with disdain or look down on me—demands work from me. I can’t just think about myself when I walk into a conference room full of whites. And if I have a son, it means I have to sit him down and give him the same talk I was given as a young man to ensure that he doesn’t get himself killed by forgetting that he’s a black man and that people and police will perceive him as a threat even if he’s just carrying some Skittles and an iced tea.

I tried to hide from the George Zimmerman verdict and Trayvon’s death because like the night I got punched in the face, it made me recognize how far we have to go. It fills me with disappointment, longing, and rage to think that a man followed a black teenager home, shot and killed him, wasn’t arrested—the police didn’t even inform Trayvon’s parents he was dead—and now is walking free. Because seeing the image of Trayvon in his hoodie with his rolled-up jeans and sneakers, I know I’m no different than him. I can’t help but see myself in Trayvon every time I look at that infamous picture of him spread out on the ground, with his mouth gaping open. I can’t get it out of my head.

And in that instance, I realize I’m no different than any of my brothers and sisters who’ve died, from Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago to Kimani Grey in Brooklyn. We are all one and we are all a part of the same struggle. The most successful black person among us is no better than those caught the dregs of gun violence on the streets of Chicago. There is no such thing as a post-racial America, at least not yet. And my generation, both the young blacks and the whites who get it, have a lot of work to do. Every black death is an injustice and too much blood has already been spilled. Being a nigger in the eyes of the system is something I can no longer ignore, because it’s liable to get me killed.


More stuff from Wilbert:

My Dad Told Me a Black Man Would Never Be President

Trayvon Martin's Shooter Is Free Because of the Stand Your Ground Law

The Underachievers Talk About Stop-and-Frisk and Kimani Gray

Black Man in a Dress

Vice Blog