After Sanford: Moving Forward

On either side of a river that serves as Jacksonville’s racial and socioeconomic Mason-Dixon line, it’s hard to get a haircut without a certain topic entering the conversation. If you sit long enough, in any public space, the talk will likely turn to the debates surrounding “stand your ground,” Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and Jordon Davis.

Can our citizens benefit from these discussions? We think so. But first, we all need to turn down the vitriol of our words a bit.

President Barack Obama said in his commentary on the Zimmerman trial that in Sanford, justice had run its course. The prosecution and defense argued their cases, the judge conducted the trial in a professional manner, and the jury rendered a verdict based on facts presented.

The facts speak for themselves. We are proud of the Constitution and the rights that it guarantees. Extralegal profiling is wrong; it undermines these rights. A pro forma way of seeing and reacting to a black child as “the other” appears to have played a significant role in the events leading to the death of a 17-year-old boy. This fear-filled view of “the other” damages America. It shortens lives, stifles relationships and, in Jacksonville, hurts the local economy.

Do we know what was actually said after Zimmerman followed the boy through the condos? No. Do we know exactly why the kill shot came to be fired? No. We know there was an altercation between a Hispanic, Zimmerman, and a hooded African-American minor, Martin, who texted and ate Skittles. The rest of the details are, well, cloudy.

But regardless of the wrong or right of the last minute of Martin’s life, or for that matter Davis’ life, for us, these deaths carry personal messages.

As Richard Danford and Erick Dittus, we are racially, economically and religiously different. A Bethel Baptist and Reform Jew, Florida A&M and Florida undergrads, educated a few years apart, in segregated all-black and all-white K-12 schools; a drafted Vietnam veteran who survived the Tet Offensive, and a former Nixon supporter who, upon failing an induction physical, became a leader in the peace movement. These experiences played a role in shaping us.

These are significant differences. However, we’ve been friends for the better part of three decades. We talk, argue and make fun of our absurdities, but we also listen in ways, we believe, too few Americans do across color lines.

What’s happening on Florida’s streets, and in particular in Jacksonville, is reason for concern. Between us, we have three sons, one black, who is 16, and two white, who are 12 and 10. Each will face threats, but we both are concerned for his son — and other black teenagers — because an African-American boy is 400 percent more likely than his white counterpart to die from gun violence. On any given day, a black child may fit the profile of a misguided volunteer security guard, an overworked police officer or a disgruntled man with a gun who doesn’t like the music played on someone else’s radio.

A moral dilemma exists for white parents. In the world of 24-hour online junk news, our children can unwittingly fall prey to believe the insanity that the killing of young black men and boys, whether it’s black-on-black or 
white-on-black, is somehow normal. It’s our duty, as parents, to help our children properly interpret that news.

William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t past.” So we agree with President Obama when he says that unless we look at the death of Martin through the lens of American racial history, we will not have the faintest idea why many black Americans are so angry with the Zimmerman trial results.

Blacks are annoyed, when told their particular history is exaggerated or no longer relevant. Jews correspondingly fume when those denying the Holocaust and discounting 2,000 years of anti-Semitism publish in journals, shout from skinhead societies, or, in the Middle East, say straight-faced: “Your history does not really exist.”

Since the opening salvos of the War on Crack Cocaine 30 years ago, too many in a racially and increasingly economically divided America see the uptick of deaths of young blacks as either fate or a “regretful” new normal, an expected debit on the demographic balance sheet. Accepting this carnage as normal brings us, as a people, to an emotional bankruptcy, a lobotomized morality.

Several publications have addressed “the talk” that disgruntled but wise African-American parents are having with their sons about needing to be more careful than their white counterparts in exhibiting normal teenage behavior in public. Unfortunately, this type of warning is not new to the African-American community or other communities, including Hispanics and Asian-Americans. News and entertainment media have often negatively portrayed minorities, proscribing attributes that many in the majority population view as reality. Recently, Americans of Arab descent, or of the Muslim faith, have experienced similar prejudice. Yet no group, with the exception of the American Indian, has felt the brunt of stereotype, social stigma and restriction more than blacks.

For many African-American parents, there’s a sense of déjà vu with the deaths of Martin and Davis.

The 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi and the sham trial that set the white killers free brought black parents in the South fear for their children’s safety. A child who was unaccounted for — because he wandered off to play a few blocks away — could bring his mother to tears and suffer a serious spanking upon his return.

Before Emmett Till, white rioters swept through New York City during the Civil War. In the early 20th century, mobs in Tulsa, Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta killed hundreds of innocent blacks. There was also the murderous Ku Klux Klan whose founder, Nathan Bedford Forrest, had fought to preserve slavery, America’s original sin. Along the way, at least 3,500 African-Americans were lynched, mostly in the South; more than a few lynchings occurred less than an hour’s drive away from where you picked up this Folio Weekly.

Without acknowledging this racial history, no one can really expect there to be a much-needed dialogue, a place to converse, to tell each other our fears and move forward as we build essential mutually beneficial solutions. Unfortunately, in what some label as a “post-racial era,” more than a few detractors argue that we can skip these steps.

In our increasingly diverse city, we will benefit from a concerted effort to more fully utilize all our human resources. Otherwise, our city will not successfully compete with regions around the globe that do not have similar divisive racial histories.

In many ways, Jacksonville is similar to a large corporation. Neighborhoods can be likened to functional divisions or departments, or disconnected silos. Our city creates diverse products and services, and the perception of our brand plays a role in the market success of this urban enterprise. When consultants find ineffectively linked, underproductive silos in a business, smart managers dismantle these barriers to profitability by analyzing their origins, improving cross-enterprise communication, and eliminating the aspects of old culture contributing to an “us versus them” view inside the organization. In doing so, they decrease inefficiency, increase productivity and enhance morale.

If ending isolation works well in corporate America, can we apply similar methods in reconnecting our community? We believe that if we give up on, or deeply discount, the potential of any division, we undermine the whole.

We need to support the existing programs — while adding more — that protect and mentor more young African-Americans. In addition, the long-term viability of Jacksonville requires us to open more doors to decent-paying jobs that will give them, and their parents, reasons to see themselves as part of the larger community. Otherwise, they continue to feel like outsiders looking in. And that’s good for no one.

In moving forward, our city needs smarter, long-term investments in the education, transportation, libraries and recreation infrastructure that put first-class resources within reach of every citizen. Financially challenged neighborhoods are already hurting; reducing these essential services erodes our whole city’s potential.

In Christianity, there is agape — to love the other, to reach beyond oneself. In Judaism, there is tikkun olam, a healing of the earth. For Christians, it will be quite difficult to meet Jesus without learning to love the other. Among religious Jews, it’s thought by many that until we heal the splits that separate us, a Messiah cannot come.

As friends, we believe that our ability to love our neighbors, while working to heal our world and build our city anew, is fundamental in achieving success for our city and ourselves. Until we as a community conclude that every single person, for much of his or her life, has considerable potential for greatness regardless of race, we will not be able to move beyond being a second-tier city.

And our children deserve much better than that.

An active community leader, Jacksonville Urban League President Richard Danford served as Chairman of the Board for Florida Coastal Law School and River Region Family Services. Senior Communications Advisor for Jacksonville Urban League, Erick Dittus has advised more than 100 C-level executives on leadership communications.

About EU Jacksonville

october, 2021