Walking While Black: The Senseless Killing of Trayvon Martin

The recent slaying of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin is yet another reminder of the every day presence of racism in the United States. I find it necessary to remind everyone that this is not an isolated incident, but one that occurs daily across America for most black men. The difference here is that the normal threats and harassment that Trayvon would typically encounter on any given day as a black man, turned into his innocent death. As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in the death of Amadou Diallo, an innocent black man in New York City who was mistakenly shot 19 times by 4 police officers (who fired a total of 41 shots), the decisions that George Zimmerman made about Trayvon Martin were done in a “blink of an eye”. His actions, on the other hand, were done in justification of his already conceived (and likely subconscious) thoughts about this young man rather than in response to Trayvon’s clearly non-threatening behavior. Any one of Zimmerman’s compilation of actions that fateful evening, if terminated, would have likely resulted in a different outcome, one where Trayvon would still be alive today. But Zimmerman is operating on societal-based stereotypes and assumptions of anti-black racial frames about black men that has been around since the mid-1600’s and continues in today’s white-dominated society.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would be foolish enough to discount the continuing assault on the black male presence. Black men have always been public enemy number one in white America, and that has not changed much in 400 years. Since slavery times, African American men were seen as threats to white manhood. Unrelenting white racial stereotypes around black male bodies provided the perfect justification for the incredible violence directed at them, whether in the cotton fields or working for his master in the big house.

Black men were clearly not on equal footing with other men, especially white men for centuries. The conditions, stories, received wisdoms and other discourses created by whites about black folk constituted predictable cognitive road maps or frames that white folks enacted on black bodies. Frames are patterned ways of thinking about human differences such as race that apply generally to people at large and influence our legal system, schooling, healthcare, unemployment and housing to name a few. The white racial frames created around “Black” were and remains anathema, which is certainly the case with Trayvon’s senseless death. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a man of apparent Latino heritage and self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain, mystifies many white observers. Given that both black and brown people in American are oppressed, how could this be? What’s happening here is that Zimmerman is acting on the existing white racial frames that operate as unconscious scripts on how to interact with racial “others” in our society.

White racial framing of black male bodies is a large-scale centuries-old undertaking that not only affects white behavior toward Blacks, but black and Latino behaviors toward each other and themselves. These racial understandings have existed ever since Europeans first stepped foot on the Western shores of Africa and began a long and tortuous relationship with Africans. And this continues today where the steady stream of media portrayals of young black men as “dangerous” predators is too prolific in our society to ignore. Anyone reading this blog can certainly think of one or more stereotypes about black men. When you think of the face of crime, it is easy to conjure the image of Trayvon or another young man of color as the scary and dangerous “other” or the boogey man. Minorities are not immune to this frame or thought process. Latinos, Blacks and other Americans of color receive and act on many of the same white racial stereotypes and impulses, and Mr. Zimmerman is no exception.

Now, take the context of white society from its historical vantage point and see how it continues the play out (albeit less overt at times). Floridians have instituted a law that has resurrected the Wild Wild West, which allows an individual to take the law into his/her own hands. A law seemingly provoked by the looting that occurred following several Florida hurricanes. After filtered media images following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the assumption is that the people looting are black. Thus, the law can be interpreted such that if a black man is stealing, a white man can shoot and kill him. And the onus is placed on the victim from prove he was innocent of a crime before being shot. We have now gone even beyond the egregious “eye for an eye” and moved to a place where a heart can be taken for the loss of a finger, but no one seemed to care that the law implied it was the heart of a black man until it was taken literally. What results is that someone like Trayvon Martin has become caught in the crosshairs of a nation that has yet to truly reconcile its profoundly racist past.

While the nation continues to mount an all out and justifiable assault on the circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death, let’s not forgot the conditions that gave rise to this young man’s death in the first place: white supremacy, or to put it nicely, a white dominated society. Rest in peace Trayvon Martin; may your death not be in vain.

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