Same Sh*t, Different Decade: Trayvon Martin and the Politics of Race
When the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial was announced
on Saturday I turned off the TV and went to bed, emotionally exhausted.
My exhaustion surprised me, though the verdict did not. The verdict was
all too predicable.
It is simply a fact that the racial composition of juries makes a
difference in cases where the victim and/or the perpetrator are black,
yet five of six jurors were white, and none were black. And in cases of
murder where the victim is black, both the rate of conviction and
severity of punishment are suppressed by this fact of race, regardless
of the race of the perpetrator. The failure of the police to vigorously
investigate the circumstances of the killing also follows a
discriminatory pattern evidenced by an unsolved murder rate that is
higher for blacks than for whites, especially when black people are
killed in majority black neighborhoods. And not even following ordinary
investigative procedures, much less conducting a vigorous investigation,
guaranteed that the prosecution’s case would be thin in terms of
Contributing further to my bleak outlook was that fact that justice
would not have been served, regardless of the verdict. Convicting George
Zimmerman would not have returned a beloved son to his family. Nor
would it have struck down the Stand Your Ground law without which this
tragedy might not have occurred. Neither would it have reduced the
implicit racism on which that law is founded; the same implicit racism
that made pictures of Trayvon looking like an adult scary enough to be
effective in helping to build Zimmerman’s case for self-defense.
I awoke the next day, still tired, with one name on my mind. Emmett Till.
I went to the internet to remind myself of the circumstances of Till’s
death. As I read, the source of my exhaustion became clear to me.
Emmett Till was a 14 year old black boy who was murdered while on a
visit from Chicago to relatives in Money, Mississippi in 1955. In Money,
he made the fatal error of acting like a white man when addressing a
white woman. That woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and another man, J. W.
Milam, retaliated by kidnapping Till and torturing him before shooting
him through the head and tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Bryant and Milam were charged with murder but acquitted, becoming heroes
of white resistance to civil rights reforms when they admitted to the
crime in a post-trial magazine interview.
Emmett Till, a Chicagoan, failed to understand the rules of
engagement in the Jim Crow South; rules informed by the vicious bile of
racism that labeled blacks subhuman, predatory, and criminal. According
to those rules, any attempt by a black man to cross the color line, even
with a look or a word, could get him killed in the name of public
When the verdict came down in the Zimmerman case, it confirmed that,
in spite of some not inconsiderable progress since 1955, the underlying
social dynamics of race relations in the U.S. have remained largely
unchanged. Like Emmett Till before him, Trayvon Martin broke unwritten
He was a black boy walking alone at night in a mostly white, suburban
neighborhood. When approached by a man with a gun who fancied himself a
cop, he dared to defy him. He had a history of smoking marijuana, an
act that the composition of our prisons makes clear is a sign of criminality when undertaken by blacks, but is nothing more than a minor indiscretion when undertaken by whites. He got suspended from school. He documented a fight on video, even got into a fight or two himself.
Unwritten racial codes of our society dictate that, far too often,
police harassment, arrest, imprisonment, even death may result when
these ordinary acts are undertaken by black people. Trayvon was today’s
equivalent of a black teenager acting as though he was as free as any
white man in Money, Mississippi in 1955.
And now Trayvon Martin is dead. His killer walks free because
demonstrating that Trayvon had the audacity to undertake these ordinary
acts was all that was necessary to raise suspicion of his criminality.
And, it appears, that suspicion made credible the completely
counter-intuitive theory that an adult armed with a gun was acting in
self-defense when he stalked, shot, and killed an unarmed 17 year old.
That just exhausts me.