A year later, and we’re still waiting for justice. Trayvon is dead. He would’ve turned 18 on Feb. 5, but instead, his heart hasn’t beat in a year. George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon, will be on trial this summer. A trial is what protesters and activists were demanding, instead of another black death swept under the rug as if our lives were worth less. But a trial in this particular case is not entirely justice, because there are deeper societal problems at play that mean another black kid could become the next Trayvon any day.
I’m not pre-emptively convicting or judging Zimmerman, who is claiming self-defense in the face of a second-degree-murder charge. I’m just dealing with the known facts. Trayvon is dead after an interaction initiated by an armed man, a man who acted as a neighborhood vigilante and who, as we heard on a 911 call, saw Trayvon as a threat who was probably armed and on drugs. Early in that recording, he says, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” A little later, he adds, “Yeah, now he’s coming toward me. He’s got his hands in his waistband. And he’s a black male.” That perception of Trayvon as armed, drugged and criminal hits the stereotype trifecta for a young black man. If Zimmerman had not been hopped up on stereotypes and vigilantism then maybe he would’ve waited for the police. Or not followed Trayvon.
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Since the killing, there has been a concerted effort by Zimmerman’s supporters to define him as Hispanic — as if this would change the case by removing the potential of racial profiling. This is a clever way of combining the “people of color can’t be racist” meme (an idea most whites usually reject) and the “one-drop rule”: a holdover from slavery that said having one drop of black blood meant you were a slave so that new slaves could be created even if they had a white parent. This rule has not historically been applied to other races, and extending it to Zimmerman because his mother is Peruvian and his father German-American seems a strange stretch. Besides, race is a social construct, not a biological reality, so to evaluate whether he was racially profiling, we’d have to know what race Zimmerman considers himself. But even that question is moot once you realize that biases against people of color quite often reside inside people of color. Even if Zimmerman sees himself as Hispanic, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t view a strange black body in the distance through a racist lens.
If Zimmerman assumed criminal intent where there was none, assumed the presence of drugs and guns where there were none, assumed he was seeing a thug when we now know Trayvon was not, then he would have been applying racist assumptions to a kind of black Rorschach in the distance. He may be Hispanic; he may have had blacks in his family, as has been asserted; and he may have mentored black kids, as some have said. He may even have had black friends. But he may still have seen Trayvon in the distance and made a trio of racist assumptions about him. The test is not how he behaves toward every black person he encounters or whether he is racist all the time. The test is how he behaved toward Trayvon and whether he viewed this black stranger as an armed, drugged criminal, as the 911 tape suggests, and treated him as such even though he was not.
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After he died, Trayvon became a political football. On one side, liberals were outraged by the delays in arresting Zimmerman for the killing, while conservatives seemed to almost reflexively defend Zimmerman. They either attempted to paint him as Hispanic — as a way to somehow remove the stain of racism — or attempted to racialize Trayvon in a way that somehow proved he was a thug, to somehow back up Zimmerman’s perspective. In this effort, Trayvon’s school records were drudged up, exposing him not as a thug so much as an imperfect teenager, a charge most of us have been guilty of.
What also surfaced were a slew of fake photos that were seized upon as images of the real Trayvon but were anything but. One of them, sent to the Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart, was actually of the famous Compton rapper the Game. That many believed it was Trayvon, thus confirming their worst suspicions, is yet another example of the way some think blacks are all criminals or we all look alike. It’s also indicative of the way the modern right often dispenses with facts in the course of making a point, whether it be birtherism, climate-change denial or the trutherism that inflamed skeptics of the 2012 election polling that showed President Obama in the lead. We are in a political world marked by intellectual gerrymandering, where we pay attention to different sources of news and base our opinions on facts we choose to buy into, even though some are not facts at all.
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Justice in this situation is not merely a fair trial. Justice is a world that minimizes the sort of interaction that is made deadly by an insidious combination of stereotypes and guns. Even though the Trayvon Martin situation is a clear example of why the vigilante mind-set that the NRA carefully fosters is so dangerous, there has been no significant discussion about the problems brought about by that way of thinking and the ease with which civilians make mistakes with guns. There was no sustained conversation about the various Stand Your Ground laws, now enacted or proposed in 29 states, which encourage vigilantism and lead people to shoot first and ask questions later. This, in a society where violent crime is dropping. The gun-rights community would have us believe that 2.5 million crimes a year are prevented by citizens with guns, but this number is routinely unpacked as far from true. The FBI says the number of justified homicides (incidences of killing criminals during a crime) is about 250 a year.
We are simply not a nation of people policing ourselves with our 300 million guns. We are endangering ourselves and our children and suffering preventable tragedies like Trayvon’s death. We will be waiting for justice until people stop assuming criminality in young black men and America’s vigilante gun culture is under control.