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SIMMONS: Looking inward to draw lessons from a tragedy


The fear factor.

Not the game show, or the unnerving grip from being around uncaged lions, tigers or bears. And certainly not bona fide fears of flying, claustrophobia or even being unable to fathom envisioning yourself in the shallow end of a swimming pool.

I'm talking about racial fear, the kind of stereotype that leads to racial profiling and raw uncut discourse like that displayed Tuesday evening at the D.C. Armory.

Fear was front and center, where an all-black panel of the D.C. Commission on Black Men and Boys drew a mostly black audience for its forum titled "Lessons from the Life and Death of Trayvon Martin."

The rhetoric of lessons offered at the forum were as potent as the raw uncut insights into America, where the jagged edges of our individual fears about race continue to rip at our nation's ragged wounds:

Ignorance of the law.

White folks are the problem.

Black-on-black crime.

The unending pain of a father who lost his son at the hands of a gun-wielding off-duty police officer.

Mass incarceration of blacks.


Too few government services.

Too few family values.

Faith-based initiatives that are not exploited.

And hopes and dreams? Suffice it to say that the crux of one young woman's comments about low expectations and the failure to teach youths common courtesies were eye-opening to the scores of attendees.

"I come from the ghetto," the 25-year-old said, before adding that youths should "mentor and tutor" one another and that young people need to be taught "how to shake a hand and look another person in the eye."

Others were more self-critical, including one man who said Americans have been tolerant, perhaps anesthetized to violence in general and urban violence in particular, while another said the Martin/Zimmerman case is but one battle in a "race war" that began during slavery.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's lone congressional wolf who convened the commission, was diligently taking notes the entire time. It became apparent that the specters of black-on-black crime and racial profiling, which a few members of the audience had raised, struck a nerve with the true-blue Democrat.

Saying the forum was the first for the commission since Trayvon's Feb. 26 slaying, she thanked attendees for "comments that were self-critical" and characterized the remarks as having a "no-excuses attitude" and a "no-tolerance attitude."

Mrs. Norton also revealed her own and-justice-for-all attitude by saying racial profiling "is not a passive subject."

"Racial profiling," Mrs. Norton said, "is the last remaining vestige of discrimination in our country. We've got to lick this one, too."

To that end, she plans to introduce legislation next week that would re-establish a non-mandatory federal grant program for states "to develop racial-profiling laws, to collect and maintain data on traffic stops, to fashion programs to reduce racial profiling, and to train law-enforcement officers."

The program expired in 2009 and there's little doubt that heightened racial fears across the land will lead to considerable support.

The Norton forum preceded the 14th annual convention of the National Action Network that opened Wednesday here in Washington, where for three days Trayvon's parents and others will discuss America's race issues and where U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. promised that "preventing and combating youth violence and victimization is, and will continue to be, a top priority" while he is head of the Justice Department.

But let's be real: We can pretend that whites and blacks do not share a common fear factor - a mistake that would leave Freud himself shaking his brilliant noggin - or we can acknowledge that deep-seated racial stereotypes do exist and find common ground to alleviate them.

After all, hoodies don't kill people.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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