I could have been Trayvon Martin

Updated
By Val Nicholas
A woman yells slogans with demonstrators supporting Trayvon Martin while marching to Times Square from New York's Union Square on July 14, 2013.
A woman yells slogans with demonstrators supporting Trayvon Martin while marching to Times Square from New York's Union Square on July 14, 2013.
Adrees Latif/Reuters

The Don Imus controversy a while back brought racial discrimination into the national conversation. But for many African-Americans like me it dug up a lot of deep, suppressed memories of hateful things that have been said and done to us over the years. Things we thought we had moved past but came screaming back like a freight train into our lives again.

For me, it was the George Zimmerman trial that sparked my memory. As a vice president in a national news division, I watched the trial through an objective lens my eyes have long been trained to look through. However at the end of the trial, those long suppressed memories made an unwelcomed hello.

I grew up in a military family and we always lived in middle class neighborhoods. I was an honor student in high school as well as a student athlete running track. I even had an after-school job to earn spending money. That said, twice as a teen, I ended up looking down the barrel of police guns for no other reason that I happened to be a black teenager. I had completely forgotten about these incidents but the Zimmerman verdict opened that door again.

The first time, I was merely waiting for a bus to go to my job. Suddenly two California Highway Patrol vehicles jumped over the concrete middle island and they came screaming to a halt on either side of me kicking up a huge cloud of dust.

My first instinct was to run away but before I could figure out how to handle this, an officer from each car jumped out with handguns pointed at me, screaming for me to put my hands up and get down on the ground.

I started to ask what was going on, but they were having none of it and forcibly pushed me down into the dirt making my work clothes a filthy mess. They then asked me if I was the name of someone they were looking for. I told them no and they demanded ID. I did not have a driver’s license yet but fortunately I did have a picture ID from work. If I had not had that ID, I would have surely ended up in jail. After they realized they had the wrong guy, they got back in their cars and drove off. No apology, no checking if I was OK, no nothing.

It was the first time I came to realize that being black was not just a magnet for racist speech and actions directed at me but also could also cost me my life had I responded to a normal human being’s natural fight or flight instinct.

The second time was while I was in a convenience store, and a voice from behind me told me not to move a muscle. I glanced back and saw a shotgun pointed at the back of my head. I thought I was being robbed and I had an envelope in my coat pocket with money I had just cashed from my paycheck. I was thinking about trying to get it out and hide it in the snack display in front of me.

Had I done that, I would have died on the spot.

It was a police officer with the shotgun trained on me. It turned out the store clerk had accidentally stepped on the emergency robbery switch which sent a silent alarm to the police. This would have been perfectly understandable if not for the fact that the cop singled me out as the potential robber. All the other patrons in the shop happened to be white.

When there is talk about how race does not play a factor in these kinds of cases, it is generally not people of color saying that. The death of Trayvon Martin, and the return of these memories, had me wondering how normal it is for black teens to have a gun pointed at them.

What people who did not grow up black in America do not realize is that this kind of treatment never, ever stops. To this day, twice a day when I take the bus from New Jersey to 30 Rock, the seat next to me will always be the last one taken and whoever sits there will try to sit as far over as possible to the point that they are practically sitting in the aisle.

Last winter, while I was shoveling my driveway, a man who lived in the neighborhood pulled over and asked me how much I would charge to shovel his until he realized it was me. He is quite liberal and voted for Obama. But was totally unaware of the racism that lives somewhere within him.

The idea that race plays no role in decisions that people make every day is ludicrous. I often find that my starting point when meeting white people is that they are going to be racist unless they prove otherwise. This is the result of a lifetime of racism directed at me and has now become an unwelcome tic in my world view that I admit I would love to see go away.

But it won’t go away until we all face up to fact there is a bit of a racist monster lurking in all of us. And it will continue to fester until we choose to face it head on, discuss it openly and find some common ground. It can begin for each of us with the tiny courtesies that we can extend to one another every day if we so choose.

Perhaps this could be the positive that comes out of the Zimmerman case for all of us regardless of race. As history has shown us time and again, big things have small beginnings.

I could have been Trayvon Martin

Updated