Profiles in Outrage

Trayvon Martin got everyone’s attention. But what about the cycle of violence in our own city?

Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Fla.

Jett Higham, 18, in Richmond, Va.

Two black teens shot to death while out getting candy.

Trayvon was killed early last year in a gated community by a Latino-American neighborhood watchman, who allegedly profiled the hoodie-wearing teenager because he was black.

Jett was shot to death earlier this month, allegedly by three young black males because he didn’t give up his $4 in candy money readily enough. He was just three blocks from his Jackson Ward home — not five minutes from the family dinner table.

Richmond police called it a robbery gone wrong while announcing three arrests in the case.

“They say it was a robbery gone awry,” said his older sister, Cosima Higham, crying in her family’s living room with her mother and father. “It didn’t feel like it went awry. They took their son. They took my brother. It feels like a very successful robbery to me.”

Trayvon and Jett. Both innocents. Both stone dead.

One has been a national news story for more than a year, the cause of countless protests. Trayvon’s story reached a public crescendo Saturday night with news that a Florida jury had found his killer, George Zimmerman, not guilty of murder or manslaughter. President Barack Obama weighed in, asking Americans “to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son,” and calling for efforts “to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives.”

The other was a local story for a few news cycles.

Trayvon became the youthful face of racial profiling perceived as a vast problem — an ugly vestige of discrimination and racism.

Jett was just another soon-to-be-forgotten face in the endless parade of black-on-black murders, making homicides the leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

His mother railed about black-on-black crime through her tears while I spoke with her about her son.

This was an artistic, model-handsome, mixed-race son of two respected educators. An athletic, well-to-do kid whose video game was on pause, along with his promising future.

His senseless slaughter helps explain why Trayvon was profiled, if indeed his killer followed him because of his race.

Even Jesse Jackson acknowledges he gets nervous when he’s followed by young black men. Is this profiling, or simply risk assessment?

Nationally, in 2010 there were 12,996 murders, a fairly typical year. Of the offenders for whom race was known, 53.1 percent were black, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime report. Of the victims whose race was known, 50.4 percent were black.

Remember, African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the population.

The numbers are equally glaring when you look at interracial murders, with nearly twice as many black-on-white murders as white-on-black. Robbery numbers, very similar.

Let’s not forget our history of slavery and racism — the legions of blacks murdered and targeted for other violence and unfair treatment simply because of the color of their skin. It’s a nasty legacy that won’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten. That’s why race as a motive is much more likely to be suspected when it’s an interracial crime and the victim is black.

Still, it’s our more recent history that makes Jesse Jackson look over his shoulder.

The waste, the wantonness of it all, sickens Jett’s mom. She wonders what it’s going to take to get our nation invested in turning this around.

Me, too. I’ve covered hundreds of murders during my 27 years of reporting in this town. I’ve seen more than a few young men gasp their last breaths. I can’t tell you how many funerals I’ve gone to, or how many parents or siblings of murder victims I’ve interviewed. I’ve written about babies with their heads blown open, their little caskets closed. Old men who survived wars only to be shot to death for their bus fare. And every imaginable outrage in between.

I struggled, largely in vain, to write and talk about these black-on-black murders so people would care, get fired up and start addressing the root problems — among them poverty, illegitimacy, street drugs, education and stupid-ass street pride.

Murder, vigil, repeat.

We all felt, with horror, the death of the little boy accidentally hit in Chesterfield County by a bullet fired in celebration of Fourth of July.

But how many of us feel the loss of a young life when the bullet is fired in anger in the ‘hood?

Those murder stories are just too common, even though they directly impact us much, much more, with fear, increased costs of policing and health care ($22,000 a bullet hole — I’ve seen shooting victims with $1 million medical bills and no insurance) and years of assistance for the victim’s children, who can wind up being victims, or perpetrators themselves.

But let a dog, cat or horse get shot — look out! We want justice now!

And inject some racism, as we saw in the Trayvon Martin case, and you have a national outrage.

But what’s the bigger threat? What really makes our hearts beat faster as we look over our shoulders on the way to the candy store?

That’s the largely silent tragedy that stains much deeper than blood. That so many feel this over-the-shoulder fear — even if we don’t want to — and a whole race of people who’ve fought discrimination for generations are victimized all over again.

We’ve had one Trayvon, that we know of, in the past year.

And thousands of Jetts. S


Contributor Mark Holmberg is a reporter for CBS-6 and former columnist for The Richmond Times-Dispatch.


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