As I sit in my living room, the familiar sound of rotating blades of a helicopter whoosh above me. I can hear them, hovering. They’re following the Oakland protestors who have taken to the streets outraged by the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. “No justice, no peace,” they shout as they embark on a mile-long march for justice. This custom is a byproduct Oakland’s long legacy of dissent. To outsiders signs that say “Fuck The Police” seem entirely unrelated to the trial, but the relationship between the department of justice and local law enforcement is one that Oaklanders understand very well.
Like Oakland, the rest of the country is in mourning. People everywhere are trying to reconcile how no one is being held accountable for the untimely death of a teenage boy. We’ve taken to the streets, the Internet, to church and community, but one thing that social media has made apparent is that we’re mourning for very different reasons.
For many, we mourn because this case crystallizes how the legal system does not provide equal protection of the laws for everyone. Some mourn because the not guilty verdict means Martin’s parents will not be vindicated in their son’s death. Others mourn because another young boy of color was robbed of his life and it could have just as easily been their son. And of course, some don’t mourn at all — the death of a black boy is insignificant to their life.
Trayvon Martin’s blackness raises many questions about racial profiling and stereotype threatening. Sadly though, because Zimmerman is biologically Latino, some people don’t believe profiling fits in this equation. This is in large part because profiling is rarely considered a catalyst in brown-on-Black crime, Black-on-Black crime, Black-on-brown crime, brown-on-brown crime or even Black/brown-on-white crime. It is too radical of an idea that people of color internalize the same kind of misinformation about stereotypes that white people do. Unfortunately, failure to acknowledge this has huge consequences for the cultural understanding of a trial like this – and in Trayvon Martin’s case the consequences were fatal.
This is why I’m mourning.
I was stunned to read that some people believe this case has nothing to do with race, that Trayvon’s Blackness was inconsequential to the loss of his life. But race politics in this country are so diluted and misinformed it should really be no surprise that there are millions of people who can’t or won’t make the connection. How could Zimmerman, a multi-racial man, feel threatened by Trayvon? Here is how: Zimmerman’s identity politics appear to be steeped in interpersonal racism — i.e. racism that is fed by our individual ideas and stereotypes about people of various races that informs our attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes this racism is unconscious; it appears that most of America (me included) thinks that’s not the case here. To Zimmerman, Trayvon was not just a suspicious boy; there was a clear distinction that relied heavily on Trayvon being Black.
If you still don’t buy it, ask yourself these questions: For what reason did Zimmerman have to follow Trayvon? Why did Trayvon seem suspicious? Why was his hoodie threatening to Zimmerman? There isn’t an answer that can be given that doesn’t lead back to Trayvon being young and Black. Still, there are people who will justify his murder as a coincidence, who will under no circumstances acknowledge the cultural and racial implications of the case. To you, I say this: your unwillingness to acknowledge what the majority of us know to be true wont make this life any safer for the people that you love. It is only by genetic, socio-economic, or geographic luck that this case wasn’t being litigated on behalf of you or someone you care about. But should something like this happen to you, your brother, uncle, cousin or father, wouldn’t you want people to consider the non-tangible, difficult to understand, cultural relevancies of the situation? Wouldn’t you want the jurors to consider that as humans we are susceptible to buying into deceptive stereotypes and sometimes we behave poorly and mistreat people because of those beliefs?
If you think Zimmerman is a victim, you’re right. He is a victim of institutional and interpersonal racism. Like millions of others, he’s been conditioned to believe that Black men are a threat to his community and that Trayvon, whose appearance he perceived as threatening, should’ve been addressed with lethal force. But Trayvon was not a threat. He was a teenage boy who harmlessly walked to the store at the wrong time; a boy who lost the battle against racial profiling; a boy whose death will not be vindicated.
The complexities of this case have left many of us feeling frustrated. Parents, especially parents of color, are feeling scared and afraid, unsure how they will keep their sons safe from vigilante violence. Other parents are glad their kid will never know what it is to be chastised, followed, assaulted or murdered because of the color of their skin. Activists are infuriated with the legal system, fundamentally flawed and rarely on right side of justice. Moms are holding their kids a little tighter, teachers warning their students to be cautious, and community members gathering trying to figure out ways to keep their neighborhoods safe.
Through all of this, it’s important to remember that some of the most critical evidence in this case could not be been seen or felt. It could not be passed around the juror box or put on display for the courtroom to see. Systemic racism and racial profiling are deeply embedded into the fabric of American society and we have to challenge ourselves to dig deep and reevaluate the way we perceive people of differing ethnicities. A good place to start is by reading, Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, considered a classic by anti-racist educators. But don’t stop there; make an investment in unlearning what we’ve been taught. All of us will enjoy a fuller, more robust quality of life if we do.
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