As a school reformer, a father-to-be, an uncle, and a black man, I am indignant about the — and disappointed with –Saturday’s decision by a Stanford, Fla., jury to find George Zimmerman not guilty of ether second-degree murder or manslaughter in his slaughter of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. And I am even more disappointed by commentary in the aftermath of the verdict. Both are sobering reminders that America still struggles with addressing the racial bigotry that is this nation’s original sin.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngAt the same time, the Zimmerman verdict offers Black America and the school reform movement a new opportunity to keep our young black men alive and on the path to lifelong success. This starts by tackling the nation’s education crisis, whose origins in racialist policies and practices such as ability-tracking have done so much damage to the futures of young black men as well as to all of our children.

There’s no way any black man or woman in America cannot be saddened, angered, horrified, or disappointed by the Zimmerman acquittal. It is saddening because the life of a young black man was senselessly snuffed out. Zimmerman had no justification whatsoever for taking Trayvon’s life. After all, Zimmerman had no real claims of self-defense because Trayvon had not threatened Zimmerman’s life, liberty or property (you know, the traditional notions of protecting oneself from harm) because Trayvon didn’t not rob Zimmerman’s house, or threaten his life. What Zimmerman did instead was live out his Charles Bronson fantasy, preying upon a young black man in street clothes who Zimmerman thought was a thug and a punk. From following Trayvon for no good reason (and in spite of being told by Stanford police to not follow Trayvon*), to the confrontation by Zimmerman that led Trayvon to defend himself, to Zimmerman’s firing of the shot that took Trayvon’s life, Zimmerman instigated a series of events that were going to lead to someone’s death. The fact that Zimmerman behaved calmly and didn’t call out racial slurs during his actions was not a sign, as some such as Carl Cannon of RealClearPolitics suggest, that his actions weren’t motivated by bigotry; if anything, it shows that he had long ago prepared himself to take another person’s life.

Zimmerman will never serve jail time for murdering Trayvon. But he will pay a high price over time for his actions. Because no one can slay an innocent life without bringing torment to their own. God have mercy on Zimmerman’s soul.

At the same time, the Zimmerman verdict stirs anger because the decision was morally reprehensible. While the jury’s decision may have been legally correct, is absolutely repugnant. Certainly the evidence in the case as much allowed for reasonable doubt as it did for conclusions of Zimmerman’s guilt. There’s also no way to know for sure, if at all, whether the jury in the case had any bigoted sentiments against young black men. Even if Zimmerman was convicted, it wouldn’t heal the grief of Trayvon’s mother and father over the loss of their child. But in effectively buying into Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, the jury failed to keep in mind that Zimmerman instigated the series of events leading to Trayvon’s slaughter by targeting him, ignoring warnings by police to leave the young man alone. Their decision to acquit Zimmerman has sent a message (and justified a perception) that the lives of young black men are less valuable than those of anyone else in this country. Parents of young black men, who have learned from their own experiences that cute young boys are perceived as threats once they reach their teens, rightfully fear that their sons may be shot for simply walking in white neighborhoods where they may or may not live.

From Emmett Till to Trayvon, America has a long, sordid history of sanctioning the murder of young black men.

From Emmett Till to Trayvon, America has a long, sordid history of sanctioning the murder of young black men.

Then there is the horror over the Zimmerman verdict and how it serves as another reminder that America has a long history of disregarding — and even sanctioning — racially-motivated murders of young black men. Certainly one must keep in mind that incidents such as Zimmerman’s slaughter of Trayvon are incredibly rare these days. But no one who is decent, moral, or intellectually honest can fail to admit that American history is replete with instance of black people — especially young black men — being murdered with impunity. This long history, which began during slavery, includes the lynching of 4,733 black men and women throughout the southern states between 1892 and 1959, the decision  in 1919 by the Chicago Police Department to not arrest whites who murdered young Eugene Williams because he dared to swim over to their side  of the 29th Street Beach (and to ignore white assailants who instigated the infamous race riot that followed), the 1955 acquittal of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for their murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, and the 2008 acquittal of three New York City police officers for their role in the botched police sting that led to the killing of the innocent Sean Bell.

Meanwhile the Zimmerman verdict is disappointing because it has brought out the worst in people. Since the acquittal was handed down, some commentators, nearly all of them white, have been unwilling to see as justified the anger and sadness of African-Americans over this verdict. Their deliberate ignorance about America’s shameful history of sanctioning the slaughter of young black men and the been deliberately ignorant about how the nation’s sordid history of sanctioning the slaughter of young black men, have trumped up Trayvon’s youthful misbehavior (of which all of us have been guilty) in tawdry efforts to blame the victim for being a victim, and have called many honorable black men and women race hustlers for daring to stand up for what they believe is right. Certainly there are those who have engaged in shameful race-baiting, demagoguery and rhetorical charlatanism; but this applies across ideological and political lines, including Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. But it is as intellectually disingenuous to write off the outrage of every decent black person over the verdict as disingenuous as it is for black people to think that every white person who thinks the Zimmerman verdict was correct is a secret bigot.

But for all the outrage that both the Zimmerman verdict and Trayvon’s murder have inspired in us, we must remember that this is only the most-extreme example of the dangers that can befall our young black men.

There are the murders of young black men in urban communities, which are the most-visible reminder that America is in many ways plagued by cultures of death in which the lives of children and young adults are physically, socially, spiritually, and economically from conception to graduation. The homicide rate of 51.5 young black men aged 10-24 per 100,000 in 2010 alone is four times the average homicide rate for young men overall of 12.7 per 100,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Certainly the efforts by big-city mayors such as Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York on addressing crime and other quality-of-life issues have reduced the numbers of our sons and other citizens being murdered on our streets. But this weekend’s carnage in Chicago reminds us that far too many young black men are still murdered each and every day in this country, often at the hands of other black men.

The path to prison starts from the dropout factories and failure mills that condemn the futures of young black men.

The path to prison starts from the dropout factories and failure mills that condemn the futures of young black men.

There are also the lives of young men who have dropped out of school and dropped into the economic and social abyss. Young black men make up one out of every five eighth-graders who will drop out in five years; even if they make it out of high school, young black men will earn only 34 percent of all the degrees awarded to black students overall. And once a young black man drops out of school, they, along with their white, Latino, Asian, and Native peers, are unlikely to stay out of prison or earn the kind of incomes that can sustain families. The average black high school dropout, for example, earns $9,142 a year less than a peer with some form of college education; sixty-percent of black male dropouts will have landed in prison by their early thirties, according to Princeton University researcher Bruce Western.

At the heart of these ills is an education crisis that eats up the potential of young black men and spits them out into the streets — and even feeds into the other social ills (including unwed motherhood) that are obstacles to their progress.

For our sons and nephews, the path to educational and social failure begins early. The failures of traditional districts  — especially urban districts often run by black men and women who ally themselves with traditionalists and organizations such as the NAACP —  in providing intensive reading remediation to the 40 percent of children entering schools with struggles in literacy, along with the low-quality instruction and reading curricula at all grade levels, especially affects young black men; like their white and Latino schoolmates, they struggle mightily with literacy because the areas of their brains involved in reading comprehension generally develop later in them than in young women. The consequences for one in two young black men in fourth-grade who is functionally illiterate are devastating. They are more-likely to be placed in special education ghettos in which they are unlikely to receive high-quality education. The literacy issues also affect behavior. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles noted in their 2006 study, low levels of literacy in first grade lead to children — especially young black men — becoming discipline problems by third. Little wonder why 28 percent of young black men in middle school have been suspended by the time they leave for high school.

But it isn’t just the failures of American public education to provide high-quality literacy instruction and curricula that also condemns the futures of many young black men. Far too many adults working in schools condemn young black men (along with other poor and minority kids) with low expectations. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that adults in schools have a tendency to label certain groups of students — most-notably young black men — as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. These ghettos of low expectations exist by design. From the comprehensive high school model to so-called ability tracking (and ability grouping regimes that seem to be coming back into vogue, to special ed and vocational education programs, to the overuse of suspensions and expulsions the policies and practices defended by traditionalists have led to the perpetuation of educational abuse and malpractice. Add in the Zip Code Education policies — especially in suburbia, where increasing numbers of black families live – that restrict families from choosing schools fit for their kids, and it is little wonder why so many young black men simply drop out.

For our sons, the consequences of these failures of adults in schools — including black men and women — to do right by them aren’t manifested just in unemployment and prison time. When our sons are mired in school cultures of low expectations, they are also told that they and their lives are worthless, useless, unworthy of consideration. When they cannot read proficiently and understand abstractions upon which the world is formed, they cannot emerge from poverty into the middle class, and play roles leading their communities, churches, and corporations. They end up lacking the healthy self-confidence gained from achievement, and end up engaging in the kind of behaviors – from promiscuity to joining gangs – that leads them (and those around them) on paths to ruin.

Meanwhile the consequences of the nation’s education crisis aren’t just manifest directly on the lives of young black men. As Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristin Lewis of the Social Science Research Council pointed out in report released last year, the social possibilities for young men and women dropouts are as bleak as their employment prospects. Thirty-five percent of young women neither working nor attending school become pregnant — and bring young men into the world –versus a mere 10 percent of peers who are engaged and college and career; once pregnant, they are unlikely to graduate from high school or college even though achieving those goals will help them and their children stay out of despair. As a result, pour sons pay the price, and so do our communities, whose fortunes are dependent on all of our sons and daughters gaining the knowledge they need to keep Black America on the path to the economic and social mainstream.

Our young black men can succeed. It is our job as reformers and black people to make ti real.

Our young black men can succeed. It is our job as reformers and black people to make ti real.

The path to saving the lives of our young black men leads to the school at the center of their lives by the age of five. The successful efforts of schools and programs such as Excellence Boys Charter in New York City show that neither race nor poverty is destiny. So black men and women, along with the school reform movement, must transform American public education so that our sons have the knowledge and confidence they need and deserve.

Providing our sons with early reading remediation through efforts such as response to intervention will keep more of our young men off the path to dropping out. So will overhauling how we recruit and train teachers, especially in reading instruction. The implementation of Common Core reading and math standards in 45 states is a promising step toward providing all of our sons with comprehensive college preparatory curricula. And expanding the range of high-quality educational opportunities for all children – including the expansion of charter schools and vouchers, as well as increasing the number of Advanced Placement programs – is also critical.

The most-important solution of all must be undertaken by black men and women who realize, as earlier generations intimately understood, that we must be champions for our sons. it means challenging those within our communities who aid and abet the educational abuse and malpractice visited upon our children. This includes battles with old-school civil rights leaders and groups such as NAACP and Jesse Jackson who have taken financial aid (and given political comfort) to failing districts as well as AFT and National Education Association affiliates that have defended practices that educationally abuse black children. It also means forming Parent Power groups, launching efforts to pass Parent Trigger laws that allow families take control and overhaul the failing schools that our sons attend, and even banding together to launch our own schools. And each and every day, in every neighborhood, it involves nurturing the genius within all of our sons, forming groups to tutor them in reading and math, and teaching them each and every day through word and deed to know their own names.

By taking these steps, we save the lives of our sons and turned tragedy into a positive force for our communities. At the same, we will have challenged the dark legacy of America’s racial bigotry, which still permeates our schools through policies and practices that are no different than the Jim Crow laws of the past, as well as rears its ugly head on occasion on dark streets in well-manicured neighborhoods at the expense of children’s lives.

We can’t reverse the Zimmerman verdict. We can’t even bring Trayvon back. But we can use this moment to help all of our sons do all that Trayvon will never be able achieve. And we owe it to Trayvon, his family, and to all the young men in our lives.


* Note: The sentence was changed to reflect the 911 transcript.