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Opinion: What the death of Trayvon Martin says about being a black man in 2012

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Editor’s note: Rob Smith is a writer, lecturer and openly gay U.S. Army veteran. His work has appeared in USA Today, The Huffington Post, Metro Weekly and Slate.com. He is contributing to ” For Colored Boys …,” an anthology to be released this spring. He is also launching the   IamTrayvonMartin project on You Tube.  He can be reached at www.robsmithonline.com and twitter.com/robsmithonline.

By Rob Smith, Special to CNN

(CNN) – In some ways, I suppose it could be considered a good thing that I wasn’t racially profiled until my sophomore year of college.  For some young black men, it happens even sooner. My personal style has always leaned more towards Carlton Banks than 50 Cent, and I’ve never really been a fan of baggy jeans or fitted caps. That night however, I’d taken it upon myself to throw on a hooded sweatshirt as it started to rain. It was early evening and I found myself leaving class and walking in a parking lot behind an older white woman who was heading to her car after what was presumably a long day at work.

Lost in college-kid thoughts of midterms and summer internships, she barely registered to me until she immediately stopped in her tracks, as if I’d shouted her name. She then began to shriek in a near-hysterical tone, admonishing me for having the audacity to walk 10 feet behind her after dark. “Don’t ever do that! Ask your mother! Ask your sister! Don’t do that because it’s scary!” Initially, the episode registered as little more than bizarre to me, but as I finished my walk home, it became more apparent to me that the triple threat of my dark skin, stocky build and dark grey (fraternity!) hoodie was just too much for this woman to bear. Until that point, I’d never really thought of myself as an imposing or physically threatening guy, but to this poor lady I may as well have been the Unabomber.

Being profiled is a black male rite of passage that I was somehow inoculated from until that evening. Although I was vaguely aware of it before, I somehow made the mistake of thinking that my style of dress, “upward mobility,” or college education made me somehow exempt from the social cost of being a black male. It is not a mistake I’ve made since, nor is it one that the New York Police Department or cab drivers in this city will ever allow me to make again. Every black male from the mailroom to the boardroom and everywhere in between seems to have a story about being profiled in this way, and my experiences have been fairly innocuous compared to the horror stories I’ve heard.

None of these, however, is more horrific and shocking than that of the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin just a few weeks ago in Florida. The death, and the way the local police force handled it, is the greatest nightmare of every black American male who has, by virtue of growing older, made the transition from cute black boy to scary black man.

The latest on the Trayvon Martin case

When I leave my apartment to live my life as a black man, I do so with the full awareness that I could very easily be murdered on the street at anytime and few people would care, particularly if those involved were in law enforcement. I do so with the full awareness that in society’s eyes, my life is worth less than that of others. I’ve been on the receiving end of enough hard stares from police officers and have read enough stories about the Sean Bells and the Amadou Diallos of the world to know just how little my life is valued if I do happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve seen enough news cycles and investigative reports to know just which lives are valued the most in American society in 2012, and they are not of black men.

Trayvon Martin isn’t just the victim of a loose cannon and an inferior local police force, he’s the victim of a society that criminalizes black men based on little else than the color of their skin. He’s the victim of a society that sees his life as less valuable than that of a teen of virtually any other race. He’s the victim of a society struggling with reconciling an ugly racial history with the undeniable march of progress. He’s the victim of a society that can make big news about a video that purports to bring attention to black children being killed on another continent, but is all too silent when a black child is murdered right in our own backyard.

With his death, he has also become a symbol of the pain and frustration that comes with being a black man in a society that seems to value our existence less than that of others, and a cautionary name to be uttered from the lips of every mother or father who has the responsibility of raising a black boy in America.

I often wonder what it is like to just be. To not exist under the weight of what society expects me to be, under the weight of wary eyes, quickened steps and lowered expectations. To not have to think twice about what I’m wearing or whether I look “angry” when I simply don’t feel like smiling or whether I’m going to be stopped and frisked for the crime of existing while black after dark. Trayvon Martin’s death is a constant reminder that I may never know what that is like.  Trayvon’s death is a reminder of the ultimate cost of being a black male in 2012, though every day we all pay a price.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Rob Smith.

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