The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an op-ed piece I submitted. I discuss the importance of acknowledging the role race continues to play in American society in light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. It is the last article on the page.
For some Americans, especially conservatives, the election of Barack Obama was proof that race no longer mattered. Sure, these same conservatives often conspired that Obama was not legally the president because he was not a real American, and his birth certificate was fake. They questioned if he was actually born in Kenya, which was such an absurd topic, yet one that Obama was required to address on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, the race problem was solved as evidenced by the election of a black president, according to many conservative pundits.
For those of us who realized the absurdity of white Republicans celebrating the end of racism, the murder and lack of immediate charges against George Zimmerman prove that racism continues to exist. Racism changes, as society does, and so racism is not the same today as it was in the 1960s, and advances have been made, but that does not mean the race problem is solved.
If Trayvon Martin was white, would George Zimmerman have been arrested? Certainly he would have. The police would not have believed that an unarmed white child attacked an armed man who was much larger than him, causing Zimmerman to shoot him out of “self-defense.” Zimmerman’s family has defended him saying that he is Hispanic and not racist. The fact that Zimmerman is Hispanic does not disprove the accusations that he is racist; Hispanics can be racist. Zimmerman saw a black kid in his upper teens in a hooded sweatshirt in his neighborhood and immediately reported him as “suspicious” and “up to no good.” What was so suspicious about the kid? Would a white kid have had the police called on him for acting suspicious? I am white, and I have never had the police called on me for acting suspicious.
Zimmerman is not the Ku Klux Klan type of racist that burns crosses in black people’s yards if they enter their neighborhood. But Zimmerman craves authority and power and believes that he needs to police the neighborhood for himself, and he also believes it is suspicious if young black males are in the neighborhood. Race still matters in that Zimmerman’s reaction to seeing a young black male in his neighborhood is different than his reaction would have been if it was a young white male. Race still matters in the police’s reaction to seeing a dead black male on the ground was different than if it was a dead white male. The police would not have immediately believed Zimmerman’s account if the races were different, and Zimmerman would not have been immediately suspicious of Martin if he was not black.
The other unsettling aspect of the murder of Trayvon Martin is the legal challenge that the “Stand Your Guard” law poses in Florida. The law was first passed in Florida in 2005, and has since been passed in 16 other states. This law is what Zimmerman will cling to as his defense, and it allows one to use force if they feel threatened in a public situation without needing to flee. Unless there are key eyewitnesses to the murder to contradict the murderer’s account, the murderer can easily say they acted in self-defense, and then how do you convict the person? In 2010, the Tampa Bay Tribune found how often this law has been used as a defense in murder charges, and justifiable homicides were definitely up. If an unarmed kid can be chased and then shot and killed, and yet the child is considered the provocateur by the police since they had nothing to contradict the murderer’s story, it shows how flawed the law is. It becomes extremely difficult to prosecute a murderer without key eyewitnesses because how can the jury be convinced that the killer was not acting out of self-defense if no one saw it? It opens a slippery slope of how one defines self-defense then. Hypothetically, one could harass someone at a park, follow them around, spit on them, push them, and refuse to leave them alone, then once the person has had enough of the harassment and fights back, the provocateur could shoot and kill the person and then simply claim self-defense to the police. People need to be required to attempt to flee what they perceive as a threatening scene instead of provoking them if they are going to claim self-defense. But the “Stand Your Ground” law does not require this and it sets up the potential for these violent incidents. Clearly Florida needs to revise their gun laws, as well as the other 16 states to have since passed them.
The tragic murder of Trayvon Martin is so unfortunate that one has to feel horrible for him and his poor family and friends. The only way that any good can come out of this killing is if it sparks a much needed renewed conversation about race in the United States and it also makes states reconsider these “Stand Your Ground” laws. Both of these issues need to be addressed, and hopefully this tragedy can make Americans reconsider these topics. In addition, Watch Groups need to have careful guidelines of what they follow. Watch Groups are not meant to be police officers without a badge or training. They should not be trying to enforce the laws themselves, but to watch for laws being broken, and then call the police to take action without getting involved themselves. Trayvon Martin will never get his life back, but we can at least learn something from his unfortunate murder by taking action and learning lessons from it.