Trayvon Martin & Black Males in America by Karen Maniraho

trayvon-martinRacism is most certainly not dead. I hope that this statement is absorbed as undeniably obvious as the country begins to get acquainted with the utterly painful and regretful shooting and death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. It is also without a doubt that the country is currently finding itself in a moment of reflection. Floridians, Americans, and the international community are being vividly reminded of how differently individuals move through this world and how our lives can literally be threatened and ended by markers of perceived or presented race, gender, and class status. It has been comforting to see people everywhere empathizing with Trayvon’s family by speaking their minds. For too long, black families have been burying their loved ones, fighting against injustice, and all the while also teaching their kids to tread softly and not attract suspicion to law enforcement officials. People all over the world have mobilized and stood in solidarity with Martin’s family, just as they did with Troy Davis’ family just six months ago. But just as we chanted “I am Troy Davis” and just as Trayvon’s mother thanked the crowd of the Million Hoodie March with her phrase “our son is your son,” one thing remains clear: I, as a black female, will never be a black male or will claim to know what that is like in the context of an American criminal justice system. With that positionality stated though, I and many others sympathize and will fight for justice along with a family reeling from the sudden loss of their baby; Trayvon’s story as a black male fits into a larger racialized history in this country that disproportionately shifts the way black people, particularly black males, live their lives. But as someone who is deeply distraught by the systemic violence that affects black males everyday in the form of racial profiling, I as well as anyone else in the world, need to take this moment to change the institutions that put bright, young, black men at risk everyday.

At the University of Washington, student leaders from the Ethnic Cultural Center, the student government, and from the local community mobilized against the UW Police Department’s proposition to relocate their new police department across the street from a location many students of color call their “home away from home” on a predominantly white campus. Three thousand miles away from Florida, students feared that the police’s proposed relocation would result in more cases of racial profiling for students of color and would result in an even more strained relationship with police officers and students that are increasingly associating police figures with men such as Sanford Chief of Police Bill Lee. Pleas for a different location were eloquently said and openly heard by the UW Police Chief and today UW students find themselves more comfortable in speaking their minds against injustices in our backyard and literally a stone’s throw away from our “homes.”

Young people worldwide are trying to poke holes into a glass ceiling of the  criminal justice system. Millions of people, including the likes of Reverend Al Sharpton and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver, are asking themselves, how could a man who claimed to be part of a community neighbourhood watch group kill a man in cold blood because he looked suspicious? People are asking, how could a man not be arrested or charged after admitting to shooting this man? And what is the validity of a self-defense statement against a child who was not armed in any way and was in fact running for his life before being fatally confronted by Zimmerman? What is Zimmerman standing his ground against? A threatening bag of Skittles? A dangerous hoodie? A frighteningly unopened bottle of iced tea? We’ve listened to Zimmerman’s call, we’ve wept at Trayvon’s desperate pleas for help, we’ve waited for justice; So many questions and so few arrests…

Undeniably, George Zimmerman needs to be arrested and convicted for the hate crime of killing an unarmed, 17-year old boy. Skittles and iced tea do not, under any law, count as arms, the National Rifle Association can surely agree with that. I do not think a self-defense statement will stand as justification for the senseless killing of this young teen. Many are claiming that if the racial roles between Zimmerman and Martin had been reversed, the lack of arrest in this case would not be playing out as it is today. However, this is acting upon absurd and simplified assumptions that

  1. Zimmerman is indeed white.
  2. Hate crimes can only be committed by white people.
  3. Black masculinity is naturally associated with criminal or suspicious behaviours.

These are the underlying assumptions that are being carried out in the discourses of this case and these are the assumptions that need to be challenged. The criminal system needs to be reevaluated and reanalyzed in ways that explain how not only a man such as Zimmerman can be allowed to roam the streets without an arrest as of today but also to explain the disproportionately continued relationships black men have run into with law enforcement officials nationwide. Mothers, fathers, students, community members, EVERYONE all over the world is asking for at least this much. And we do not need another black male being wrongfully killed to begin this necessary process.

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