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“Blackmotheritis,” and The Case of Trayvon Martin


Emmett Till

Emmett Till was killed for supposedly flirting with a white woman while on vacation with his family in the south.

This blog is about race, color, terror and crime but not in the way you think.

First the salacious:

By now everyone knows about the case of Trayvon Martin. Well, they know that there is no criminal case concerning the death of Trayvon Martin and that has everyone outraged.

About four weeks ago, I read about Travyon Martin not in the media but because I belong to a group called Change.org. It’s an online petition nonprofit that allows individual citizens to galvanize support for their pet causes. Sometimes the causes are incredibly selfish – like trying to get off the day before Thanksgiving if you work as a retailer at Target – but most of them are cases that spark outrage such as the mother who was arrested and jailed for trying to get her child into a better neighborhood school.

And it was through a Change.org petition that I heard about Travyon Martin. Now the killing of a black, unarmed teen-ager by a armed vigilante with a history of violence should have been front page news. And me being a news junkie should have heard about it through the news media. But I didn’t. I heard about it through an online social network where people who feel they can’t be heard in the press take their cause straight to the people.

Since Travyon’s mother Sybrina Fulton and his father Tracy Martin started their petition, “Prosecutor the Killer of Our Son…” in February more than 500,000 people have signed that petition. Losing your child is a parent’s worst nightmare. But Tracy and Sybrina had an extra burden that many well-meaning but clueless people have no idea about.

It is a burden that every parent with a black teen-age son has had to add to the long list of anxieties they have about the safety of their children. It is a unique burden that if you’re not black or minority or live under the threat from the people who are sworn to protect you, well, you know nothing about it.

So please, don’t try to say you understand.

Columnist Deborah Mathis called this anxiety condition “Blackmotheritis,” in her 1997 piece on her son’s ascension to puberty. Conservative columnist John McWhorter revived the term in his 2012 piece on Trayvon.

The fear is common among minority mothers, especially African-American mothers. Millions share the same symptoms and the unfortunate reality that, as of yet, there is no cure.

Simply put “Blackmotheritis,” is the prevailing fear that makes black mothers break out into panic when their teen-age sons miss their curfews by minutes, decide to go to the mall, walk out their front doors. While white mothers blithely yell for their sons not to be too late for supper as they go out the house, the black mother watches her son’s fast footsteps with a thin smile on her face, steadying her waving hand, praying, pleading, asking the universe for her son to come home in tact without a bullet in his back.

Blackmotheritis stems from the fear that being black could one day mean you end up arrested, jailed, assaulted or murdered not from any fault of your own, but because of the crime pathology theory that dates all the way back to Thomas Jefferson.

This pathology, perpetuated by the media, law enforcement, public school systems, racists, and yes, the behavior of a few, and the mindset of millions, that allows people to see an alternative reality when they see black males. It is this pathology that allowed Trayvon’s killer to see the unarmed teen as a threat, even when he only had a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in his hand.

No matter where the mother lives – be it Beverly Hills, south side of Chicago, million-dollar mansions or run down shacks, the black mother has the same fear for her black teen-age son. She fears someone will look at him and see something he is not – suspicious, a criminal, up to no good.

In the past,mothers only worried about law enforcement officers or armed gang members profiling their son, but as the Trayvon case tells us apparently  black teen-agers can be gunned down on general principle these days, by any armed man fed up with black teens walking around free.

Like all incurable diseases “Blackmotheritis,” is caused by a mixture of abjection of personal responsibility, external uncontrollable factors and nature mysteries. Blacks are disproportionally jailed for crimes. This leads many – including media, law enforcement, judges, and even criminal themselves – to make the incorrect leap that blacks have a propensity for criminal activities.

Any social researcher will tell that’s false assumptions. But hey, how often do the American people pay attention to academic research? This false truth of the criminal black pathology – reinforced by the media, Hollywood, pundits, politicos, and racist philosophies – allows citizens to justify their harsh and cruel treatment of blacks.

And it is this prevailing criminal black pathology theory that has mothers of black sons tossing and turning at night.

I was once a facilitator of Community Conversations on Race. It was a civic experiment where people with differing views came together to discuss, debate and hopefully heal over food, laughter and a no-judgement atmosphere.

My group consisted of a conservative businessman, a mixed-race couple, a hippie restaurant owner, myself and a teacher. One day, the subject of racial profiling came up. The woman, from the mixed raced couple explained how her twin sons had just gotten their driver’s licenses and the first lesson she taught them was how to drive around law enforcement.

“I explained to them not to talk back to the police. How they should always have their hands in view, how they shouldn’t reach inside their pockets or make any sudden movements.”

The woman was Persian but she knew that if they police stopped her son they would be seen as black.

I remember trying to hold in my anger when a very liberal member of the group tried to chastise the mother, saying she was teaching her sons racism. The women went on accusing the mother of “reinforcing stereotypes,” and basically teaching her sons to be close-minded. As a facilitator it was my job to keep quiet but I just couldn’t let this one go.

“Until you know what it feels like to have the possibility that one of your children will not come home one night for no other reason than that they are black,” I gently said, “I would caution against judging a woman who lives with that reality.”

That shut her up and rightly so.

Many of my well-meaning white friends try to explain to me how they are color-blind and that they don’t see color. They question when I talk about the racial overtones of everyday news items and think, perhaps, I’m way too sensitive about race.

But the Trayvon case illustrates why race does matter in America, even if we pretend that it does not. You can hear it in the Sanford’s dispatcher’s questions to Trayvon’s shooter. The first thing he asks about is race. You can hear it in George Zimmerman’s responses. He doesn’t describe Trayvon’s height, weight, stature only his ethnicity then later his “hoodie.” And though people will try to tip toe around it.. when Zimmerman says “Those a**holes always get away with it…” we know he doesn’t mean those kids from the Jersey Shore.

Race is all over this case and you don’t need race pimps like Jesse or Al to see it. It seems so out of place in a nation with a black president, that a black teen-ager can be spotted, followed, assaulted and then killed and no one goes to jail. But sadly it’s not surprising.

Still, when Zimmerman’s father says tearfully his son isn’t a racist, that he has “black friends,” I do believe him. I believe that he doesn’t THINK he’s racist but in the end, like so many of us, he has fallen prey to the disease that says see a black male think “up to no good.” It is an insidious belief that has permeated our society and it’s going to take more than blacks and whites standing on the National Mall singing “We Shall Overcome,” to get rid of it.

Each time a mug shot is published that shows a black teen it convicts all black teens – nevermind that mug shots are taken when you are arrested not when you are proven to be a criminal. Each news story that shows black males in prison, as criminals, on the wrong end of the law reinforces the pathology. Though I believe in law and order I also believe in fair and balanced and black teen-age males have gotten the short-end of the stick when it comes to image.

Sometimes their bad reputations are self-induced – read Chris Brown – other times they are forced upon them – as the case of the 14-year-old whose teacher told him to read a poem “blacker,” when he read using  perfect English in her class. As Paul Mooney says, images matter, and each time we see an image of a black teen-age boy in the wrong it cements in simple minds that all black teen-agers are that way.

This connection that people make between black teen-age males and danger is the assumption that gives black mothers everywhere anxiety-induced insomnia whenever their teen-age son is late for dinner.

We spend so much time focused on skin color that its absurd to think that it doesn’t shadow almost everything we are exposed to from the media to the justice system, race is front and center.

“I’m trying to protect him,” the Persian mother said in our circle. “I’m trying to make sure he comes home at night.”

I hear you sister. And I’m sure Trayvon’s mother would say the same.

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