Frederick Douglass Hall is situated between four freshman dormitories on Morehouse College’s campus. The building doubles as the home of the historically black college’s archives and a resource center for its students. On any given day, young men, most of them black or brown, can be found, books and laptops open, seated at the tables throughout Douglass’ central, circular room. So it was on a February afternoon two years ago as Corey Hardiman, now a graduating senior, sat studying for an exam.
From where he was sitting, Hardiman could see a television as he took notes. He looked from his book to his notepaper to the television and back. Suddenly a breaking news ticker flashed on the screen. The room went silent, and Hardiman dropped his pen in disbelief.
Stunned students watched as a slide show of Trayvon Martin photos cycled and details of his death scrolled along the bottom of the screen. Hardiman immediately remembered his own childhood, on Chicago’s South Side, where he often visited a local corner store, bought snacks and wore a hoodie — just as Martin had the night he was killed in Sanford, Fla., by a neighborhood-watch volunteer named George Zimmerman.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this can’t be real. How do I look like a threat?’” Hardiman said. “Then I thought, ‘It could have been me. It could have been anyone in that study hall.’”
Hardiman is one of many young black men who contend that, contrary to the notion that the United States entered a “post-racial” era in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election, the lives of black Americans are devalued by society, and that, in particular, young black men are under constant threat.
The contention comes into particular focus for many African-Americans when they consider the deaths of two black boys, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and the subsequent trials of the men who fatally shot them. Both Martin and Davis were 17 years old when they were shot; both were killed in Florida in 2012, Martin on Feb. 26 and Davis on Nov. 23; both would have celebrated birthdays this month, Martin on Feb. 5 and Davis on Feb. 16; both were shot by white men (though Zimmerman is of Hispanic descent); and both of their assailants claimed to have feared for their lives and argued that they acted in self-defense under Florida’s version of the now notorious “stand your ground” law.
And, perhaps most painful for African-Americans, neither of the men who took Martin’s and Davis’ lives was convicted of murder. Zimmerman, who pursued Martin as the boy walked back to his father’s home carrying Skittles and iced tea, was acquitted of second-degree murder as well as manslaughter, a lesser charge. And although Michael Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted murder (there were three other teens listening to rap music in the vehicle with Davis when he was shot) and one count of firing into a vehicle, the jury deadlocked on the first-degree-murder charge.