For every black man in America, from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedy is personal. It could have been me or one of my sons. It could have been any of us.
How many George Zimmermans are out there cruising the streets? How many guys with chips on their shoulders and itchy fingers on the triggers of loaded handguns? How many self-imagined guardians of the peace who say the words "black male" with a sneer?
We don't yet know every detail of the incident between Martin and Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., that ended with an unarmed 17-year-old high school student being shot dead. But we know enough to conclude that this is an old, familiar story.
We know from tapes of Zimmerman's 911 call that he initiated the encounter, having decided that Martin's presence in the neighborhood was suspicious. We know that when Zimmerman told the 911 operator that he was following Martin, the operator responded, "OK, we don't need you to do that." We know that Zimmerman kept following Martin anyway.
"This guy looks like he is up to no good," Zimmerman said on the 911 tape.
Please tell me, what would be the innocent way to walk down the street with an iced tea and some Skittles? Hint: For black men, that's a trick question.
Black America was never a monolith but, over the past five decades it has become much more diverse -- economically, socially, culturally. If you stood on a street corner and chose five black men at random, you might meet a doctor who lives in the high-priced suburbs, an immigrant from Ethiopia who drives a cab, a young aspiring filmmaker with flowing dreadlocks, an unemployed dropout trying to hustle his next meal, and a midlevel government worker struggling to put his kids through college.
Those men would have nothing in common, really, except one thing: For each of them, walking down the wrong street at the wrong time could be a fatal mistake.
I hear from people who contend that racism no longer exists in this country. I tell them I wish they were right.
Does it matter than Zimmerman is himself a member of a minority group -- he is Hispanic -- or that his family says he has black friends? Not in the least. The issue isn't Zimmerman's race or ethnicity; it's the hair-trigger assumption he made that "black male" equals "up to no good."
Today, young black men grow up in a society where racism is no longer deemed acceptable. Many live in integrated neighborhoods, attend integrated schools, have interracial relationships. They wonder why their parents prattle on so tediously about race, warning about this or that or the other, when their own youthful experience tells them that race doesn't matter.
What could happen on the way home from the store with some Skittles and an iced tea?
Whether Zimmerman can or should be prosecuted, given Florida's "stand your ground" law providing broad latitude to claim self-defense, is an important question. But the tragic and essential thing, for me, is the bull's-eye that black men wear throughout their lives -- and the vital imperative to never, ever, be caught on the wrong street at the wrong time.