Life Cycles of Inequity: A Colorlines Series on Black Men

By Kai Wright May 12, 2014

It’s hard to imagine there’s more to say about Trayvon Martin’s death, but I continue to wonder about his life.

I’m still haunted by the few details that made it into public discussion, in particular the fact that he’d recently been suspended from school–an event black boys are three times as likely to experience as their white peers. George Zimmerman’s defense team attempted to use Trayvon’s suspension as a smear, to label him a thug. The funny thing is, if Trayvon had not been killed, that’s precisely how it would have been used against him in life. Suspensions have been established as defining steps along the school-to-prison pipeline. At 17, Trayvon’s opportunities were already shrinking, inequity had begun closing in around him.

And so, in July 2013, I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Person after person asked for my reaction to the verdict in Zimmerman’s trial. Over and over, I avoided answering. My challenge wasn’t a lack of thoughts; they just didn’t fit into the narrow space in which we are allowed to consider the stretched lives of black men in America. I suspect a great many of us feel this way. We think about Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis or Oscar Grant–or, if we’re black, likely someone in our family who died early and needlessly–and we are paralyzed by the immense odds those men faced in the first place. We know that their deaths cannot truly be understood without first examining the context of their lives.

Throughout 2014, Colorlines will examine that context. This week, we launch "Life Cycles of Inequity: A Series on Black Men."

Each month, we will publish a package of content focused on a life stage or event that for black men in the United States is uniquely confined by broad, societal inequities. We begin with high school boys–Trayvon’s peers–and we will conclude with the early mortality that takes too many of our fathers, uncles and partners in their middle ages. We’ll explore issues ranging from school discipline to fatherhood, from job markets to health care access. The video above–in which a group of teenagers speak with one another about confronting implicit bias–offers an introduction to the series. Tomorrow, we’ll explore the forces driving the school-to-prison pipeline.

The series is deliberately broad, but we certainly won’t cover the breadth of the black male experience. We won’t even exhaust the range of inequities that impact our lives. Rather, we’ve focused our efforts primarily on places where existing data shows a profound relationship between poor outcomes and being a black man. In some stories we’ll try to explain that relationship, in others we’ll highlight efforts to end it. Overall, we hope simply to join a broader dialogue about the ways in which inequity shapes so many parts of life for black men.

Our stories will vary in both form and approach. We’ll have investigations, essays, dispatches and graphic features–and opportunities to dialogue with you about it all. Each package will be anchored by a short film in which we hear directly from black men who are trying to build lives in spite of the inequities our reporting explores. We’re honored to have award-winning documentary filmmaker André Robert Lee to direct the series.

André and I were honored to meet the eight young men in our opening video in Oakland earlier this year. They talked with each other about walking into classrooms and being pre-judged, about being tracked–in ways both overt and subtle–as problems. From the White House to family rooms around the country, Trayvon Martin’s murder has sparked renewed debates about how to interrupt this kind of bias. We’ll continue following and contributing to that discussion here at Colorlines. But throughout this series we also hope to remind everyone that we’re talking about human experiences–that real people are trying their best to build lives amid this whirlwind. Humanity can be sorely lacking from politicial discussions involving race.

Finally, throughout the year we’ll be inviting you into this discussion as well. We’re particularly interested in hearing from other black men who have experienced the issues we’re covering. Join us on Facebook, Twitter or by chiming in to the comment section of the site. We hope to hear from you.