phillip-jackson_web.jpgTrayvon Martin is more valuable to America as a dead young black man than he ever was alive.  As a dead symbol, the president can claim him as a son he never had but, as a living black man, the American criminal justice system claims one out of three young black men born after 2001.  

As a dead symbol, Republicans can claim that Trayvon deserves his right to live as an American; but many living young black men, like Trayvon, are stripped of their rights every day because of harsh, racially targeted and overly punitive laws created and pushed by Republicans.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, reminds us that more black men are in prison today than there were blacks enslaved in America in 1850.  She suggests that we have not really ended Jim Crow but have just given it another name: the criminal justice system.

We can also call it the education system or the economic system but they all equate to a new system of racial control of black Americans, just like Jim Crow.

America has given up on young black men like Trayvon Martin.  As a dead symbol, Trayvon will spark a national conversation on race but, as a living young black man, Trayvon probably couldn’t get a job at a fast-food restaurant.

As dire as this crisis is, there are solutions but they are not in symbols or soul-searching. They are in comprehensive and substantial efforts and actions to ameliorate this stain on America’s reputation for fairness and equality.  Government, foundations, civic, faith and community organizations must:

• Help rebuild black families with fathers as an essential, prominent and functional component of the family structure.
• Provide mentors, positive role models and viable paths for young black men.
• Ensure that all young black men are supported to value education and to experience a globally competitive education.
• Teach young black men to succeed in entrepreneurship, small business, cooperative economics and in the work world.
• Encourage young black men to be spiritually sound and to be of good character.
• Establish rigorous efforts in the largest 300 cities in America that address the issues of education, family, imprisonment and employment for young black men.
• Establish a national commission to manage a comprehensive, coordinated campaign for black male achievement similar to the one created by Open Society Foundations.

Addressing symbols is quite useful and practical when a society lacks the courage and integrity to deal with its disturbing realities.  America loves black men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass and even Trayvon Martin – after they are dead.  It is the strong, vocal, positive, everyday black men whom they have trouble with while they are alive. 

*Phillip Jackson is founder and executive director of The Black Star Project, based in Chicago, whose  mission is to provide educational services that help pre-school through college students succeed academically and become knowledgeable and productive citizens with the support of their parents, families, schools and communities. For more information, email