Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Death and Trial of Trayvon Martin: My Thoughts

Yes, this post will be a bleak one. I just can't ignore the story, though. I can't ignore the media's interest. I can't ignore what I perceive are dangerous laws that encourage vigilantism more than anything else. I can't ignore that to me Trayvon Martin, even in death (warning: graphic), looked like just another high school student. As a teacher of high school students that hits too close to home. Trayvon could have been a student in my class. By all accounts, he was exactly that: a normal seventeen-year-old kid. Trayvon Martin will serve from here on forward, in my classrooms at least, as a deplorable indictment of the superficiality of our society and so necessarily a warning to many of my students who dress and act in a way out of lockstep with the predominant culture in America. That's because the Trayvon Martin case was strange. It both was and wasn't about race. It was not about race in the sense that Emmett Till's death was about race, i.e. a young black boy from the north in the south who possibly misunderstood the social cues of a highly race-charged society and ultimately paid for it with his life, or not and was simply lynched because his being black met an opportunity taken by two racists. The point is, had Till any other skin color -- and in particular if he were white skinned -- he would not have been brutally murdered. The horrible but interesting difference between Till and Martin is that the color of his skin was only a part of why he was ostensibly identified by Zimmerman as a potential threat. Now I'm hardly the first person to see parallels between Till and Martin (here's an interesting piece from the New Yorker, for instance), but I haven't yet been able to determine if too many others have seen it through my own lens, an admittedly opinion-based and not rigorously sociologically-vetted perspective. Still, I think it bears mentioning. The modern iteration of racism comes in the form of distrust of those, as I mention before, who march out of lockstep with what society says ought to be the way they present themselves. Certainly, Trayvon Martin, because he was black and because race remains the locus of the issue, could have aroused suspicion were he dressed like some Jehovah's Witness passing out copies of the The Watchtower. But I am willing to bet it was that hoodie, the one Geraldo Rivera maligned, that played a significant role in his being accosted. His dress was a little too urban. His behavior, according to Zimmerman,  was "suspicious" -- Martin looked like he was "up to no good." In that way, Zimmerman, who is half-Peruvian and some have said that this absolves him of any potential for racism, or at least ought to remove race from the discussion -- as Zimmerman's father essentially wrote in to the Orlando Sentinel (likewise invoking the tired and odious argument of his having lots of black friends!).  The truth is, a poor white kid wearing a hoodie, pants slung low so that his underwear was revealed, might just as easily have aroused Zimmerman's suspicions, and so to me, perfectly illustrates how this new brand of racism has come to pass. It is about the clothes you wear, the anti-establishment attitudes you ape, as much as it is the color of your skin. It's why people of "mixed race" can be the foot soldiers of the new institutionalized racism, as Zimmerman, a so-called upstanding member of the community (notice that in most of his photos he is wearing a suit and tie) apparently was. So perhaps this antipathy toward a certain kind of culture owes its roots to the mercurial lyrics and attitudes and, yes, clothing style of rappers like the late '80s & early '90s gangsta rap group N.W.A. and songs of theirs like "Fuck tha Police." All of this fitting perfectly into the narrative these days of the danger of the underclass. You must fit a certain style of behavior and dress in order to avoid being deemed a threat. And because so many urban blacks fit the designation of "underclass" and do so many things that could be classified as "counter-cultural" and in that way subversive, they, along with anyone who earnestly identifies with them (so much so that they too adopt the same dress and mannerisms), is likewise deemed a threat. And I am aware that many gang members truly are a threat, are terrible people not to be admired or put up on a Robin Hood-esque pedestal. I'd be totally blinded by my own views to ignore the criminality of some of the urban poor. But I'm simply not as convinced as so many others that they make up the lion's share. I believe people always surprise you in good ways more than the opposite is true, and what's more, at the end of the day, we're all just trying to make it in a more or less challenging world. As I say, if I didn't know so many kids who could be reacted to just the same as Trayvon Martin but who are simply kids the same as anyone else, I might see logic in this madness. Instead, a man with a gun decided to take the law into his own hands, was found not guilty of any crime and we're left to try to make sense of its aftermath.


  1. peace!

    just a note: zimmerman is not mexican, but rather, peruvian and white
    he actually made some pretty interesting remarks about mexicans, written about here:

    just important to acknowledge, as not all latinos are the same nationality, obviously.

    also, i want to challenge the idea that a poor, white boy in a hoodie could have just as easily been killed.

    trayvon was killed because he was black. there are not nearly as many examples of white youth being killed by cops or civilian vigilantes. also, it is my belief that zimmerman's FEAR of trayvon was positioned in his own fear of black men and his racist attitude toward them.

    here is a recommended reading that delves mor einto it if youre interested:

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks for writing.

    To your first point, thanks! You're absolutely correct. There is no question not all Hispanics are the same. I fully agree. That was an ignorant oversight on my part, and I'm amending the post to reflect that George Zimmerman is in fact of Peruvian, not Mexican, descent.

    I agree with you that race played a considerable role. I think it would have been less likely had he been white that he'd be accosted and attacked and killed. But I think it's important to note the amorphous quality of the new veiled racism we are now more likely to encounter than the in-your-face racism of the generation to which Emmett Till belonged. It in a weird way is more heterogeneous in the numbers of people who can be subjected to it. People look for signs now that perhaps you're not with the prevailing culture, that you represent an unacceptable version of the underclass. Certainly since this is racial at heart, with "urban" blacks being the ones from whom this culture has largely emerged, they're the first against whom retaliation is perpetrated. But others, minority groups and, yes, to lesser extent whites, are not exempt. I am not trying to co-opt racism, as a white man. I just see how the lines seem to have changed in the contemporary climate. Being white isn't enough.

    Still, though, you raise some interesting points. I'm definitely checking out the links you've provided.

    1. In many ways racism is veiled through policies that disproportionately affect people of color, or policies that disproportionately criminalize them.

      I.e., when our mayor moved to decriminalize possession of weed less than 15 grams, police were instructed to issue tickets instead of arresting them and putting them in jail, which carried up to six months in the cell. sounds good right?

      sounds good right? well, as this ( article shows,

      "Most tickets were issued in mostly minority parts of town, including Austin, where police wrote 30 pot tickets, North Lawndale (28) and Roseland (21).

      Neighborhoods with vibrant night life where you can get hand-blown glass pipes and 3-foot water bongs typically used for smoking weed — Lakeview and West Town, among them — saw significantly fewer pot tickets.

      For instance, police wrote just three pot tickets in West Town, which includes the Wicker Park neighborhood where Jacobi plans to open her clinic. Only seven people received pot tickets in Lakeview, the data shows."

      to me this is an example of veiled racism, and there are many more examples to cite, many more serious than the consequences of possessing weed. stuff like the school to prison pipeline, where black students in CPS are arrested at an alarming rate for behavioral offenses. Since you are a teacher, I am sure you know some of this! More info here on how youth of color are affected here:

      Now obviously the majority of CPS students are black and latino so we are not necessarily comparing them to the amount of white students who are arrested or pushed out, you know? but a lot of this information shows the way that our own prejudices and fears we are socialized into, to be afraid of black folks, to criminalize them, to see "urban blacks" a certain type of way, affects them in very large ways.

      ok, i hope that wasn't too far removed from this trayvon conversation, though i think it fits in because of your point about veiled racism. i do believe that poor whites are more subjected to classist forms of oppression, yes. less access to good jobs + education, yes. but their livelihood being threatened? no. and institutional policies and action that support the notion that it's OK to kill them? no.

      thanks for responding!