The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 25, 2013

Aisha Sultan: A letter to my kids about the Zimmerman verdict

By Aisha Sultan
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — If I have raised you right, you should have felt a sadness, a pinch, a gut check, an anger, a hurt when that verdict was read.

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, was senselessly killed. Yes, that hurts. It should.

George Zimmerman, the man who shot him, was acquitted by a jury of six women in Florida.

A boy lost his life. And there was no acknowledgment from our criminal justice system that a wrong occurred.

We know the prosecution had an uphill battle to make a case in the land of Stand Your Ground. But this we know: Trayvon had bought Skittles and iced tea at a convenience store. He was walking back to where he was staying when Zimmerman followed him, and ended up in a confrontation.

Rather than repeat the rules you've heard from those who love you about how you should behave if you ever find yourself in a similar situation (because, hopefully, you know that survival matters most), let me say what we know in our hearts to be true:

That man should not have assumed Trayvon was a criminal because of how he was dressed or because he was black.

He should not have ignored the 911 dispatcher, who said he did not need to follow the teenager.

He should not have taken the law into his own hands.

All of that was wrong.

It's OK to feel outraged.

It's OK to feel scared for a moment.

Anything man-made is imperfect. Our laws, our government, our justice system can never be completely fair. And, if you look anything like Trayvon or have ever been looked at with suspicion simply for what and who you are, you know that better than most.

I know how that look feels. I hope that you will never learn how that look feels, but odds are that you will.

Anger. Fear. Resentment. These are powerful emotions. They can paralyze us, or they can call us to action. They are never justification for resignation or apathy or violence. Despite what louder voices might try to say, our country is not where it was 100 or 50 years ago. We will not discount the progress that has been made, the battles that have been fought and won. There are friendships and families that exist more easily, with more respect, that may not have been possible mere decades ago.

Any time we bear witness to injustice it is a reminder of how great our responsibility is, and that each of us has a role to play.

Look in the mirror. You may wear a hoodie. You might share Trayvon's features or color. Or you may not look a thing like him. It doesn't matter.

We are familiar with the saying that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama added, "It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: It does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice."

Where are your hands on that arc?

Read. Read even more. Educate yourself. Make your voice heard. Call your elected officials. When you are able, vote. Work to help elect those who you believe will make things more fair. Stand up to bigotry when you hear it. Challenge assumptions when those around you make them.

And take a minute to feel what a teenager being questioned, followed and confronted by an unidentified man with a gun might have felt in the moments before he was shot.

After the anger and hurt, injustice is meant to remind us of our own power. It is the most stark reminder that our worth is not derived from others' assessment of us. It is intrinsic to us as human beings.

You know that you belong. You know your own value and worth, just as I know mine.

I still don't feel right inside about what happened with Trayvon or the man who killed him. Any of it.

I don't think we ever should.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.