Questions of Inclusion: What the Trayvon Martin Case Reveals about Race in America

A Conversation with Rakim Brooks

Background: On February 26, 2012, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed as he was walking home to his father’s house in a community in Sanford, Florida. Unarmed, Martin was seen carrying an iced tea and a bag of Skittles candy, when 28 year-old George Zimmerman opened fire on the boy, resulting in his death. Until yesterday, under the auspices of self defence and through the protection of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Zimmerman had not been arrested for a crime that the civil rights community insists was motivated by racial prejudice.  Public outrage regarding the handling of the incident (no doubt including the decision not to arrest Zimmerman) resulted in the resignation of the Chief of the Sanford Police Department.

46 days after Martin’s death, there is sustained controversy surrounding the question as to whether this tragedy is symbolic of deep racial tensions yet unresolved in American society. Below, Rakim Brooks takes a moment to share his perspective on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, and what popular reaction to the event reveals about contemporary US opinions on the issue of race.

On March 22, PBS Newshour featured a panel to discuss the complexities of “Stand Your Ground” in relation to the Trayvon Martin case, and its capacity to incite vigilantism. During the program, author Donna Britt remarked: “I don’t know what this child could have done to be safe, except not be black.” What are your thoughts on this comment?

That quote basically captures the major issue at play, which is why Trayvon appeared suspicious to Zimmerman.  However, there has been a recent narrative in the black community that has made me uncomfortable in that it doesn’t recognize the extent to which Latinos are also profiled, depending on what part of the country they’re in. I want to flag that and say that there is a broader phenomenon at play.

I’m from New York City, and when we talk about something like “Stop and Frisk”, which is also based on the fundamental assumption that black and Latino men (who look a particular way) are therefore menacing and threatening, we understand it as a cross- racial problem. I would therefore expand [Britt’s] notion and say that the real question is whether or not black and Latino men who dress in that way [wearing a hoodie] are capable of being regarded as anything other than threatening.

There is idea that a suit is a black man’s bullet proof vest. Raising that point in relation to the Trayvon Martin case should make us reflect on the intersection between race and class (and culture, quite frankly, as shrouding all of that). I am not convinced that the only thing Trayvon could have done was “to not be black”. I get the sentiment behind it, but I think in its full complexity we want to pay attention to the different markers [beyond race] that made him appear threatening. Ask the question “Who is expected to wear a hoodie as everyday garb?”. This should only lead us to reflect further on the fact that [in American society today] if a black kid dons a hoodie, this instantaneously [gives the impression] that he is threatening, that he is trying to conceal something about himself, that he is suspicious and should therefore be tracked down and apprehended.

With regards to “Stop and Frisk”, it’s been shown to be extremely limited in accuracy, with only 1 of 20 individuals stopped actually being taken into custody. So we should be asking ourselves the fundamental question:  if [our basic assumptions about what type of individuals appear suspicious] lead us to be right only 5% of the time, shouldn’t the criteria we are using to apprehend individuals be revised?

Some commentators (such as Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic) have attributed much of the public’s outpour of emotion with regards to this case, such as the One Million Hoodie March for Trayvon in NYC, with the fact that  Martin was a child. What’s your take on this?

Trayvon Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, at the Million Hoodies March for Trayvon in New York City, March 21, 2012

The fact that he was a kid explains why his case has received this level of attention. In particular, the fact that he was under 17 and has a “baby face”. When you look at his picture, it does not register that he is almost fully aged, and I think this is crucial. The optics are fantastically vital to our focus on this case; it’s no different than the fact that Emmett Till was only 14; or that Rosa Parks looked respectable.

In terms of national attention, I think it also matters that this happened in the South. I believe that if it had not happened there, folks who don’t fundamentally understand the history of racial oppression and police brutality in this country would have been more inclined to withhold judgment. But given how the South is automatically associated with the US history of racial injustice, for most of the country, the fact that this happened there makes sense.

This point is worth expanding on because many Americans are still disinclined at this moment to believe that racism remains a significant problem in this country. I don’t believe these people are inherently racist, but they don’t consider race to be an issue; they are the group of people who want to withhold judgment in this case [in claiming Zimmerman’s actions were motivated by racial prejudice].  [This attitude] creates a context in which people raising claims of racial injustice are always on the defensive. Anytime a black person alleges that they have been racially discriminated against, they are viewed as a “Don King” sort of radical until they can prove racism did, in fact, take place.

American opinions on race and the Trayvon Martin shooting

This is particularly evident in the Trayvon Martin case, and there is a moment that triggered it for me: how significant it was, in the news coverage, when speculation came out that Zimmerman had called Trayvon a “coon”. It was huge. It was this moment of revelation, like, “Now we have proof!”. Any person sensitive to these issues, whether they’re white, black, brown or whatever, knew that they already had all the evidence they needed to move forward in claiming race was at issue here, without Zimmerman saying that. But it was almost like the heavens had opened up, and finally we truly knew what happened [because Zimmerman had used a racial slur]. And I think that this is a problem that plagues us now presently and will for a very long time. It’s perpetuated by a refusal to see the facts as they are in the first instance.

In recent years, there have been several examples of what I would call racial injustice with regards to the criminal justice system in the United States, and how certain legal policies, such as Arizona’s immigration law SB1070, have specifically targeted non-whites. Do you see these, in addition to the Trayvon Martin case, as part of a larger phenomenon?

I would say so. We as a society have been struggling for a long time with the question of inclusion (and this is not exclusive to the United States, either). Refering back to the notion of the suit as a black man’s bullet-proof vest, we have mandated particular kinds of behaviours in order for people to view [non-whites] as full members of society. There is something that goes on in the cultural realm, which is truly the site of the significant amount of prejudice that we find today. Certain stereotypes about black people have led to laws regarding [the policing and monitoring of] black people (the same has been the case for Hispanics). I agree, I think that in different parts of this country, the notion of safety ─and this applies also to Muslims, so it’s not simply a question of race─ is mistakenly correlated with assumptions about otherness. I don’t fully understand the present dynamic, and I don’t think we will find the answer to our current problems by solely looking at the history of racial injustice in this country. The question we need to ask ourselves is: what is at play in America at this particular moment that is allowing these laws to come to the fore, and fundamentally allowing them to be unchecked and unchallenged?

Not long after the events that led to Martin’s death, President Obama made a statement regarding the tragedy. He said that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon.” What do you think, if any, is the significance of this speech act and the implication that it was a public recognition of the racial dimensions of the case?

For one, as a factual, matter, my initial thought was, “Well yeah, that’s the damn truth.”  On the other hand, it’s again important to recognize that class is at issue here, and so in that sense, Trayvon couldn’t have been Obama’s son.

I do think that in particular pockets of the black community, symbolically it made a difference.  But then again, I’m also inclined to think that what the President did was a substance-less act. All the same, I thank God he did it [that he said something]. But was it enough? And where are the Civil Rights groups? Why aren’t they putting pressure on the President? If this were Clinton, we would’ve been down his throat, making sure he fully supported a thorough investigation of the case so that justice could be dealt. The black community would have had no qualms telling Clinton, “If you want our votes, you’d better pursue this”─ but we aren’t doing this to Obama. It’s really a shame.

Rakim Brooks is a Rhodes Scholar and the C. Edwin Baker Fellow for Democratic Values at Demos. His writing focuses on progressive politics, ideology, and equality, and is regularly featured on the Huffington Post, Policyshop.net, and Truth-out.org.

Cailin Crockett is a Graduate Ambassador for PoliticsinSpires.org, and a second-year MPhil in Political Theory at Oxford University.

About Cailin Crockett

Cailin Crockett is a second-year MPhil in Political Theory at Oxford University; her research engages with gender, democratic theory and global justice.
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