We Need To Talk About Trayvon

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As America debates race yet again, Rita recalls an incident in racial profiling that occured close to home…

America is going through another one of its periodic Rorschach tests on race.  The O. J. trial, Rodney King, now Trayvon Martin.  Not to mention the long litany of names going back through the Civil Rights era and before. Reasonable voices urge that we need to have a conversation, as though we’re not talking about it enough.  But any cursory sampling of radio, TV, and the blogosphere shows that the conversation is taking place, at top volume. Even President Obama has weighed in. It just doesn’t seem to be bringing people any closer together. Instead it reveals the yawning gap in perceptions between black and white.

One thing that all sides agree on in the Martin/Zimmerman case is that it all began because Zimmerman perceived Martin to be suspicious. Whether that was reasonable or a case of racial profiling is where the disagreements begin. On that issue I do have something to add to the conversation. A few years ago there was an incident of racial profiling in my neighborhood.

I live in a very diverse community, but my immediate neighborhood is a bastion of upper middle-class homes, almost exclusively white. Quite frequently students go door-to-door selling everything from Girl Scout cookies to Christmas wreaths and other fund raising efforts for their schools and sports teams. Given the neighborhood these young people are usually white. One day a black teenager came to the door on a similar mission. He had his clipboard with information about his team and was dressed in standard teen gear, at least nothing that was noteworthy or memorable. He moved on to the next house and I promptly forgot about it. After all, what was there to remember about such a common, everyday occurrence? But as it turned out, some of my neighbors didn’t feel the same.

A week later I received an email inviting me to a “security” meeting for the neighbors on my cul-de-sac. I decided to go out of a mixture of curiosity and a desire to be neighborly. The meeting leader began by talking about how there were a lot of “strangers” passing through the neighborhood recently. How “they” used the pretext of going door-to-door for some cause in order to case the houses for burglaries. As the conversation went on it was clear everyone was talking about the black teen who had been collecting for his sports team the week before. He was a “stranger,” he was “they.” No one said the word ”black” or “African-American.”  They didn’t need to. They had a whole coded vocabulary at their disposal. Finding their concern a bit ridiculous, after all there had been no actual burglaries, I spoke up and asked, “Isn’t this a bit of an overreaction?” They all looked at me as if I was from another planet. Perhaps they thought that, not being American born and bred, I just didn’t get the subtext of their conversation. They were a roomful of perfectly nice white people. They would never consider themselves racist. But it was clear that they had just engaged in racial profiling. We had never had a meeting like this when any white teenagers came to our doors.

All across America, day in and day out, as people of different races encounter one another they are making similar snap judgments about “strangers.” Most of the time, as was the case in my neighborhood, there are no serious consequences. This black teenager left the neighborhood unscathed, oblivious to the judgment passed upon him. But occasionally and too often, as happened in the Martin/Zimmerman case, the encounter blows up into a tragedy, a tragedy that reveals the full depth of the racial divide.

While the Zimmerman trial held center stage in the news I happened to be reading a book about the history of sugar plantations in Barbados (Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart). In the chapter on the early seventeenth century settlers the author describes a society divided along class lines between wealthy planters and their indentured servants. As more and more African slaves were transported to the island there was a gradual change to a society divided on color lines. By the end of the seventeenth century, Stuart writes, “The dichotomy of black and white became the defining factor in every encounter and every conflict on the island.”  How much had changed by the time of an early 21st century encounter in Florida? The answer to that question is written in black and white.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.
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About Author Profile: Rita Byrne Tull

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

14 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Trayvon

  1. Worm
    July 24, 2013 at 13:14

    This will probably bring out the freaks but to me the main problem facing Treyvon was the fact that Zimmerman had a gun on him. No gun and this would have been a minor scuffle of no import whatsoever

    • alasguinns@me.com'
      Hey Skipper
      July 26, 2013 at 07:20

      I guess it depends on how minor it is to get your nose broken and your head slammed into the pavement. Because of the gun, it is impossible to say how much more minor it was going to get.

  2. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    July 24, 2013 at 14:07

    It’s a mess to be sure, but suggesting there is little to choose between Florida today and 18th century Barbados may explain why the “conversation” you want has so much trouble finding traction.

    • ritatull@verizon.net'
      Rita Byrne Tull
      July 24, 2013 at 17:32

      I don’t believe I suggested any such thing. I suggested that the answer would differ between blacks and whites, something that shows up in recent polls about reaction to the trial.

      • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
        July 25, 2013 at 00:02

        It was your analogy/metaphor, Rita. What else were we to make of it?

        Are you sure about that account of your neighbourhood meeting? The one where everyone displayed clumsy, badly-hidden racism except the progressive English ex-pat? Could be, but that doesn’t sound typical of upscale, white Eastern Seaboard neighbourhoods to me.

        • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
          July 27, 2013 at 00:44

          I would say a number of things here.

          First, that if you are a fair-skinned American, chances are that you will someday be in a conversation where other such are wondering whether you are on board, and how far they can go with racial talk. It is entertaining, in an uncomfortable sort of way. The same sort of thing happens elsewhere in America, as Jesse Jackson found to his discomfort many years ago in discussing why he wouldn’t do well in New York.

          Second, maybe some context will help out Rita’s neighbors. Who goes door to door in this area? Your neighbors’ kids, selling stuff for school fundraisers. Missionaries, almost invariably white if Mormon, commonly African American or Hispanic if Jehovah’s Witnesses. Kids hustling donations for causes–Clean Water Action, PIRG, etc.–usually of European or Asian descent. People offering estimates for replacing your windows, who may be anyone at all. Finally, the kids you’ve never seen before, selling candy and magazines. The last are resented, for nobody wants to buy overpriced M&Ms, and few feel that good about turning down a hot, tired 12 year old with a thirty pound case of the stuff. I used to hear a lot of resentful talk about the crews of these kids that came around, mostly focused on the adults who ran them. It is possible that the apparently low return of the business leads people to wonder about motives.

          As for the sports team, why would one collect where one was not known? I’ve bought a lot of wreaths sold to support the Wilson crew team the last several year, all from the son or daughters of people I know. Those who know the demographics of American sports or Washington, DC, high schools will guess that these kids were not African American. But if the kids from my block who are show up to levy contribution for the St. Albans or Sidwell or whichever team, I will certainly cough up.

  3. mel@leedg.com'
    July 24, 2013 at 18:40

    Although there was a gun in Zimmerman’s holster, Martin was twenty paces ahead. If Martin had kept on walking would the confrontation have happened? Does anyone recall Martin’s girlfriend testifying that Martin engaged in his own ‘racial profiling’ of Zimmerman, referring to him with a term normally sufficient to establish a “hate crime”? It is easy to agree that what happened was a tragedy; but it is difficult to talk about Trayvon

  4. Frank Key
    July 24, 2013 at 18:42

    I wonder if what’s lost in all the inevitable hysteria is that – on the night – what made Martin suspicious to Zimmermann was not his race but his clothing, specifically the hoodie, It may well be that millions of young hoodie-wearers are perfectly law-abiding, but it is also the case that it’s the uniform of antisocial wannabe urban “gangstas”.

    As a case in point. I overheard a conversation between two black teenagers on a London bus the other day. One said: “I was getting stopped-and-searched by the cops all the time, until I started dressing like this – now they take no notice of me at all”. He was dressed casually but smartly – no hoodie, and his trousers weren’t baggy and looking as if they were about to fall down in that (inexplicable) fashion that ne’er-do-wells adopt.

  5. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    July 25, 2013 at 01:30

    ‘“The dichotomy of black and white became the defining factor in every encounter and every conflict on the island.” How much had changed by the time of an early 21st century encounter in Florida? The answer to that question is written in black and white.’

    Don’t know, I’ll have to ask a Barbadian. As for Florida, it is occasionally my impression that I’m the last person in North America who doesn’t know what happened that night in Sanford.

    I live probably within 10 miles of Rita, in a neighborhood that is considerably more mixed than she reports hers to be. The email list used to have little spasms where “an African-American youth is riding his bicycle slowly down the alley” would be followed by posts to the effect that “that is/could be/could have been my son.” Lately this has fallen off, and it is other topics that send the list into a frenzy.

  6. mail@danielkalder.com'
    Daniel K
    July 25, 2013 at 02:06

    And we should also recall that according to the current systems by which Americans define ethnicity, Zimmerman is not white. It was quite fascinating to watch the torturous constructions deployed by the media to blame the killing on his evil, German half and not his Peruvian half, e.g.”white Hispanic”… “defines himself as Hispanic”- of course nobody would ever refer to the president as a “white black” or as someone who “defines himself as black” though he, like Zimmerman, is the product of a white parent and an immigrant non-white parent.

    • bensix@live.co.uk'
      July 27, 2013 at 11:44

      Indeed. Which is odd given that the most ferocious interracial violence in the US is between black and Hispanic gangs.

      I have yet to see evidence that race was an important factor in the initial Zimmerman/Martin tragedy, though. The former had called the police with suspicions about black people in the neighbourhood; Hispanics in the neighbourhood; whites in the neighbourhood and dogs in the neighbourhood. Perhaps he’ll be proved to be a worse man than the available data now suggests, but it seems to me that his suspicious nature was an inclusive one; casting doubt upon anyone who was unknown to him and less obviously reputable than a priest or a former President.

    • grahamandrewsmith@gmail.com'
      July 28, 2013 at 18:29

      US racial categories seem quite ridiculous from the perspective of Latin America: where I am right now, hispanic is white.

  7. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    July 27, 2013 at 14:06

    Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury using the evidence presented to them, so it speaks well of the Florida justice system that Martin becoming a cause celebre and a provoker of debate about ‘wider issues’ didn’t affect the rule of law.

  8. grahamandrewsmith@gmail.com'
    July 28, 2013 at 18:39

    Actually, a lawyer friend of mine recently sent me a short text concerning the Trayvon case. Here are her main points:

    A) “Stand your ground” law basically legalises and promotes killing someone with the intent to kill even where you can escape from imminent danger – you can “meet force with deadly force”. So, it seems the spirit of legal defence in Florida is to use excessive force, even death – even if this is not required… Hmmm…

    B) Neighbourhood watch – seriously? Do we just give any man a gun in the States? If you give the average Joe a gun and say, ‘hey, you can use this to “protect” yourself and your neighbourhood if you feel scared’ (bear in mind, these are private rights they are protecting on subjective bases, and they are not trained like cops or other enforcement agents – for what that training is worth – to deal with delicate or confrontational situations) – guess what? They’re going to sometimes misjudge, misuse and make mistakes – and some people will flagrantly abuse, manipulate or hide behind that power… and innocent people die. Since innocent people can react to being followed by other citizens and can get angry and confrontational if they feel someone is infringing THEIR civil rights, it’s a recipe for disaster and then all gloves are off.

    C) Yes, he admitted to shooting and killing Trayvon – actually, ironically, Zimmerman did HIS part. It is the laws of Florida and perhaps an initial wrong choice of charges that led to Zimmerman walking without any charge at all. It all gets so complicated with judge directions for second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, self-defence, “stand your ground” all thrown into the mix for the jurors. Some of them wanted to find him guilty of a charge, but they felt, in view of the laws, they just did not have the grounds to – that is the prosecution’s job – and the legislator (“And after hours and hours and hours of deliberating over the law and reading it over and over and over again, we decided there is just no way — other place to go.”)

    D) There is no formal “imperfect self defence” in Florida (as I understand it?), so the jury has a choice of“self-defender” or “murderer” – they can’t really say ‘you acted in self-defence, but you overreacted so you get manslaughter’ – perhaps that’s why the prosecution bizarrely added a manslaughter claim at the 11th hour and the judge threw that to boot at the jury at the last minute. Lucky jury…

    E) The jury cannot be blamed for everything. I feel sorry for the jury because they were let down by a prosecution that didn’t frame their charges appropriately; a reprehensibly flawed fact-finding, investigative and evidentiary process, including withheld and/or distorted information; a judge whose directions were complex and here and there and, most importantly, a system of laws that seems to promote killing random people with guns, and using excessive force even where that is not necessary – for me, self-defence is conditioned by reasonable force – and it doesn’t sit well with me that an armed guy should find solace in the Florida system when he shoots down an unarmed 17 year old.

    F) The media has a lot to answer for… as do the “politicals” – all they did is weaken the possibility of having a fair trial and decrease the already slim chances of finding any element of truth.

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