An Old Familiar Message
On the evening of February 26, 2012 in the state of Florida, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin walked towards his father’s girlfriend’s house in a gated community. He left a local convenience store where he bought some candy and iced tea. He was followed by George Zimmerman, 28, a self-appointed neighborhood watch person of Hispanic decent.
Zimmerman called 911 and told a police dispatcher about a "real suspicious guy" who “looks black”. The dispatcher told Zimmerman he did not need to pursue this teenager. Zimmerman ignored the dispatcher. He confronted the unarmed minor and fatally shot Martin in an ensuing scuffle.
Zimmerman told local police he acted in self-defense, citing Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which justifies killing someone if your life is in danger.
The police did not press charges, claiming there was not enough evidence to disprove Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. The local community was outraged and news of Martin’s death spread across the nation. Thousands of people protested throughout the United States and Change.org amassed over one million signatures calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman.
As I thought about his claim and the law Stand Your Ground I was shocked and horrified at hearing about this law. Anyone in Florida, and 21 other states, can pursue and kill another person then simply claim they were acting in self-defense. The police weren’t even going to investigate.
I have no doubt that if Martin were white and Zimmerman were black the police would have arrested him immediately. That Zimmerman calls himself “Hispanic” may expand the racism discussion but Zimmerman can identify as a white person if he chooses. The term “Hispanic” isn’t necessarily a racial distinction.
After a month of nationwide protests, Zimmerman was indicted with second-degree murder. The police’s initial inaction infuriated me, anger that melted into despair when I heard the trial’s final verdict a year later. On July 13, 2013, a jury of six women, five white and one Hispanic, rendered him “not-guilty”.
Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s verdict repeated an old familiar message to me. It’s a message African Americans have been told repeatedly for generations in this country: Our lives are not as valuable as white lives.
According to Monique Code, former writer for The San Francisco Bay View Newspaper: “African Americans have long been the scapegoat of injustice in this country so when the verdict came down, I was angry,” she said. “But I wasn't surprised at all.” Was I that naive to expect Zimmerman would be charged with at least manslaughter?
“I have a 14-year-old son and the shooting made me realize how vulnerable our black men are in our society”, says Dr. Kenya Beard, an assistant professor at Hunter College.
Vulnerable - a word the media usually doesn’t associate with black men. The dehumanization of African Americans is rampantly played out in the media. It formulates Americans’ distorted perceptions of black men and crime. These warped ideas come from a history of dehumanization, with roots extending back beyond the creation of the U.S. Constitution itself. These mentalities have dangerous consequences for African Americans, especially men.
I agonized as I imagined having a young son. How would I be able to keep him safe when black men and children can legally be killed for doing nothing wrong? When anxious parents of black boys across the nation discussed Trayvon Martin’s death, they shared stories of giving The Talk to their sons.
That phrase itself, “The Talk,” reveals the racial divide in America. For many parents, The Talk is that uncomfortable conversation to explain how babies are created. If you are an African American parent, however, The Talk means instructing your young son how to behave around police officers so they won’t get hurt.
Numerous unarmed black men have been killed by police officers. Countless others have been racially profiled when they’ve done nothing illegal. Martin’s death reminded the head of the U.S. Justice Department, United States Attorney General Eric Holder how vulnerable his own son is today. Holder said his father gave him that talk. After Martin was killed, Holder gave his own son The Talk, just like his father once did. Generation after generation, African American parents must warn their children against the dangers of American society. “I had to do this to protect my boy,” Holder said.
This verdict was also a painful reminder for me of the reality in my country. I am incensed whenever a white person dismissively says what I feel is unjustified and I am not alone. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll after the Zimmerman verdict, which revealed that 49 percent of white people approved of the verdict, only 30 percent opposed it, while 86 percent of black people opposed the verdict and only five percent thought the trial was fair. The studies revealed that while 60 percent of white people believe the issue of race is “getting more attention than it deserves,” 78 percent of black people strongly disagree.
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post acknowledged how white privilege allows her to view American society as “a welcoming, or at least benignly neutral, meritocracy”. She says, “perhaps the ultimate marker of privilege is not having to be conscious of it.”
What can we do then, as a country, to overcome these issues if many believe they don’t even exist?
A week after the verdict, President Obama gave a press conference about the Zimmerman case and the context in which I and other African Americans experienced it. He gave voice to my frustrations whenever I discussed the verdict with others who didn’t understand my reaction. “In the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here”, he said. “I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
This history spans centuries to the formation of the nation itself. It includes the Three Fifths Clause written into the Constitution in 1787. As slaves, African Americans weren’t regarded as full human beings - only three fifths of one. The U.S. Constitution sanctioned African Americans’ treatment as chattel to be abused at their owner’s whim. In 1883, twenty years after slavery was abolished, the Supreme Court permitted the continued practice of dehumanization by making segregation constitutional.
By 1990, one in three people living at or below the poverty rate in the U.S. was African American although we were only twelve percent of the population. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush cut funding to many federal programs that fostered economic equality. As unemployment rose, their administrations continued to cut federal social programs increasing the population of those living in poverty.
The wealth gap that already existed between white and black people in the US rapidly increased. In 1984, according to a study conducted by Brandeis University, the median wealth gap between white and black families was $20,000. By 2007, it quadrupled to $95,000.
As the wealth gap worsened, President Reagan’s policy of “War on Drugs” disproportionately criminalized impoverished minority communities. These policies continued for decades. The Los Angeles Times article “A Nation of Too Many Prisoners?”, published in 2000, revealed that white people accounted for almost 75 percent of the nation’s illegal drug users but black people accounted for 75 percent of the nation’s drug prisoners.
Just this past week Holder said the U.S. Department of Justice will address some of these racial disparities in the “War on Drugs”. “This isn’t just unacceptable,” he said. “It is shameful.”
Such racial disparities in the judicial system “reinforce the notion that black men are committing all the crime and it goes from black men committing all the crime to all black men do is commit crime.” says Dori Maynard, president of The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.
The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education tries to combat this dehumanization by ensuring all segments of society are accurately portrayed in the media. “That's the work we do every day, trying to lessen the gap between the reality of our lives and the portrayal of our lives. And we talk about the real life consequences it has,” says Maynard. “Trayvon Martin’s death was a consequence of the dehumanization and the distorted depiction of black men.”
These distorted depictions may have compelled Zimmerman to get out of his car and follow Martin. "This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman says in the recording to the dispatcher. "It's raining and he's just walking around looking about."
Why does that indicate criminality?
One way to counter these distortions is through empathy. To receive empathy, we must humanize. ”I can only speculate what it must feel like to always be under the gun. To feel like everyone, when they look at you, are automatically assuming the worst before they get to know who you are.”, says Beard.
Knowing and loving someone can lead to empathy. Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, opposed marriage equality until his own son revealed to him he was gay. Portman said his “personal experience” with his gay son “allowed me to think of this from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have – to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years.”
Maynard says that Portman’s changed position on marriage equality speaks to the importance that empathy can have but also acknowledged its limitations. “Not everyone is going to wake up and find they have a black son.”, she says.
So how can we garner empathy for a stranger? One way is to change the media images we see on the TV and movie screen. A possible example is a movie currently in theatres called Fruitvale Station.
Fruitvale Station is a partly fictionalized story about Oscar Grant, a young black man, 22, killed while in police custody in Oakland, CA. He and his friends were detained at the train stop, Fruitvale Station, because of reports of a fight that took place on the train they were riding. Trying to subdue Grant who was unarmed, a police officer shot him in the back while he had him on the ground. The officer said he mistakenly grabbed his gun when he intended to reach for his taser.
While watching the movie, the viewer discovers Oscar Grant was a loving father, son, brother and boyfriend. He was fired from a job he desperately needed for repeated tardiness. He cheated on his girlfriend. He had gone to jail and had a quick temper. The movie portrays Grant as a complex individual with human traits and redeeming qualities we all can identify with. The movie humanized him so that by the end of the story, the viewer recognizes the tragedy of his death.
Watching Fruitvale Station made me unusually emotional. I cried after I heard the Zimmerman verdict because of that old familiar message. After watching this movie, I cried because it both directly and deftly combated that message and the vehicle through which it traveled for years. I cried because Oscar Grant was yet another unarmed black man killed while doing a mundane task. His mother suggested he and his friends take the train instead of a car because she thought it was a safer way to travel during New Year’s celebrations.
Just as Sen. Portman wanted the same opportunities he had for his son, America should also want those same rights for all its sons - regardless of race. President Obama, our first black president, gives me hope. But my country has a long way to go to reach true equality.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.