This week, I had to do something no one ever taught me to do. I had to explain to my kids why a stranger might want to kill someone like them.
There we were, my two daughters and a seven-year-old friend, sitting in the backseat, in their leotards and tap shoes, on the way home from dance class at the YMCA. Before I could grab the volume knob and turn it down, NPR broadcast news of this week’s murders of three Jewish children and a rabbi at a school in Toulouse.
“Three Jewish children?” my older daughter exclaimed.
My husband is Jewish. I am Mormon. Our children identify with both traditions.
My six-year-old turned to her dance buddy: “Aren’t you glad I’m not dead?”
“Why did that guy kill Jewish children, Mom?”
“There are some people in the world who hate Jews,” I told them, matter-of-factly. “But you should know this happened far away from where we live.”
Yes, we have been those parents dropping their small children off at Jewish preschool, at Torah School, at synagogue. But as I write this, police have surrounded the apartment of Mohamed Meraz, the man suspected of the Toulouse murders.
Not so for George Zimmerman. The man who pursued and shot a young, unarmed African-American man named Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, is known to police, and remains free.
“My son is your son,” Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton told demonstrators in New York City on Wednesday evening.
While I’m fully aware of the vulnerability of my own children, I also think about the ways my friends who are African American must raise their children, especially sons, with an ever-heightened vigilance.
Because in America, some children’s lives are held more sacred than others.
The American imagination has vested young white children—girls especially—with an aura of the angelic, while black children—boys especially—often carry the stigma of chaos and criminality. It’s a persistent, centuries-old American pattern of imagining what is sacred. Find it in the nineteenth-century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and find it still in twenty-first century coverage of child murder cases.
If Trayvon Martin were a blonde and blue-eyed girlchild, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Little Eva (short for Evangeline) the story of his death would be on everyone’s lips.
If Trayvon Martin were my son, truth is, his killer would be in jail by now.