Triumph and Tragedy

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Like bookends, two major news events that have recently captured the attention of America stand distinctly and tragically apart. One involves the senseless shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17, an unarmed Black teenager in Florida by a white Hispanic, self-depu

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Like bookends, two major news events that have recently captured the attention of America stand distinctly and tragically apart. One involves the senseless shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17, an unarmed Black teenager in Florida by a white Hispanic, self-deputized neighborhood watch captain; the other, Don Thompson, 48, a Black man who grew up poor but got a great education and a chance to prove his himself and will soon become the CEO of McDonald’s.

Trayvon may have died because of his race, showing what can happen when fear and bias rule. Thompson was elevated to CEO of McDonald’s Corp. one of the largest and most successful companies in the world, proving the value of embracing our differences. The opposing fates of Martin and Thompson, 48, are like two sides of a mirror on our country showing both our deepest challenges but also our amazing power and potential. 

Thompson’s success at McDonald’s was possible because the company has worked at creating an environment of equal opportunity. At the company Thompson is valued for his sizable talents and skills and the results he brings to the business. His background and experience are assets. The fact is McDonald’s values diversity as a strength, a competitive advantage.  It is in its DNA. From its board of directors to its vendors, to its franchisees and employees McDonald’s walks the talk.

The Black community is proud to see men like Thompson make it. There are other more intelligent ways of thinking and dealing with our differences, and it’s not through fear. McDonald’s is a great example of what America can accomplish when we embrace new and different and prosper through our collective intelligence, something you can only achieve in a diverse and tolerant environment.

But what happened to Trayvon Martin reminds us of so many other young Black men who did not get to grow up and realize their potential because of fear-driven racism .It reminds us of  the “other” America, where, to George Zimmerman, the hooded, Black teenager seemed “suspicious” walking down the street carrying a bag of candy at night. So Zimmerman got out of his car, chased Trayvon, confronted him and shot him.  As a former prosecutor, I am unfamiliar with any interpretation of legal self-defense that includes chasing someone down. Yet, as of the writing of this column, the gunman remains free. The police chief’s job is in jeopardy but the shooter has not been charged. I know that I am not alone in my belief that if Trayvon had been the shooter, he would be in custody by now.

The circumstances harken eerily to pre-civil rights America, when being Black and male at the wrong place and time could get you killed. To those who would act violently based on stereotypes, it says: ‘If he’s Black and looks dangerous to you, then it’s OK to shoot him. Don’t worry about repercussions. There aren’t any.’ %u2028

The kind of race based fear and distrust that got Trayvon killed does not

represent our potential; it represents the worst in us. And it threatens to move us back. Our fear of our differences is fundamentally destroying our country and we have to fight against it – not just when there is a tragedy – but in our daily lives. In the end, whether we succeed or fail in a multicultural world lies in how we treat one another, our ability to step away from the fear that feeds hatred and discrimination in all its forms and embrace what we can be without it.

Andrea. L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League

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