Trayvon Martin discussion promotes campus dialogue on race and profiling
These words spoken by one student, an immigrant from Somalia, were the beginning to the discussion held Tuesday night regarding the Trayvon Martin controversy, which has received significant media attention in recent weeks.
Martin, a 17-year-old boy, was shot dead in February while walking to his dad’s house on the way back from a store carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea. He was killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, who claims to have shot the boy in self-defense and was not arrested.
The exact details of the incident remain unknown, but, since the 911 tapes of Zimmerman’s call and a witness’ call were released, there has been speculation as to whether the act was out of self-defense or if Zimmerman should be charged with manslaughter or murder.
The incident has brought questions of racial profiling and racism into the national dialogue, reaching Wash. U.’s campus and culminating in the Monday night event.
The event was co-sponsored by the African Students Association, Black Law Students Association, Black Pre-Law Society, Pre-Law Society, Society of Black Student Social Workers, Association of Black Students, Social Justice Center, and the Alpha Eta Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
The organizers started the event by randomly choosing audience members to stand up and read from cards. Each card named a person and how they had died. Some of the people included Emmett Till, the 14-year old boy who was brutally beaten and killed in 1955 for flirting with a white woman; Amadou Diallo, whom four police officers killed in 1999 on the basis of his race; Anna Brown, the woman who was arrested for refusing to leave St. Mary’s Hospital and died in police custody in September 2011; and Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi immigrant and mother of five who was beaten to death in her home on March 24, 2012.
They were meant to demonstrate the role of racial profiling in these incidents.
Zimmerman is trying to defend himself by calling on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which says that if a person feels reasonably threatened, he can use deadly force to protect himself from death or bodily harm. He is also invoking the Castle Doctrine, which says that if a person fears death or bodily harm to himself or another in his own abode, he may use deadly force against an intruder without becoming liable to prosecution. In this case, the street on which the incident occurred could be seen as Zimmerman’s “abode.”
The speakers asked the audience to define what it means to feel threatened. One student pointed out that the irony in this case is that it appears Martin was the one who would have felt threatened.
“If I’m walking down the street and someone’s following me, well, I feel like my life is in danger,” the audience member said. “I don’t know this person; it’s this random guy following me, pursuing me. Man, my life might be in danger. That automatically makes [Zimmerman’s] claim invalid because he’s the one who made the effort to follow Trayvon.”
“My main issue is that you can’t quantify what it means to feel threatened,” one of the organizers of the discussion, sophomore Kelsey Times, said. “I could be walking down a dark street and feel scared, whereas someone else might not feel threatened at all. How can you determine, ‘Well, this person wasn’t threatening enough; this person’s definitely threatening?’”
The discussion then moved onto the issue of stereotypes that surround black males. The organizers said that pictures of Martin and Zimmerman have been manipulated by the media, which at first used out-of-date pictures that portray Martin as a young and innocent child and Zimmerman as a menacing criminal. They noted that after a more recent photo of Martin surfaced, the picture was brightened to make Martin seem lighter-skinned, and perhaps less threatening.
“I feel like a lot of the images are used to dissipate the racial issue that’s been surrounding this. Can a Hispanic man be racist to a black man?” asked one audience member. “Or, if [Martin] was light-skinned, it’s not really racism because he could have been perceived as not black. …The media is changing these pictures to give whatever representation they want of the face.”
The discussion then moved towards the focus on the hoodie that Martin was wearing and the idea of having to alter who you are in order to avoid being stereotyped.
“It’s ridiculous that the hoodie has anything to do with it, but how many crime alerts have we gotten at Wash. U. saying ‘a black male wearing a hoodie’?” sophomore Michele Hall, another of the event’s organizers, said. “It’s about being somewhere where you’re not supposed to be while black.”
“It’s like blaming a rape victim—you dress slutty, that’s why you got raped,” Times said. “How can we say how you dress was the reason your life was taken away?”
One student pointed out that profiling doesn’t always occur to black males, and that he himself has experienced profiling based on the way he looks.
“With a white kid with bleached hair and studs in his face, you ask, ‘What’s this kid up to?’” the student said. “I spent years with bleached hair and no one wanted to get to know me. I look different now and people have a different appreciation of my personality. That’s not a racial thing.”
But other students responded saying that these were two separate issues that could not be compared.
“People of color have had [to deal with making] people feel comfortable since the beginning of time. There’s no point to where I can make people feel comfortable to where I can change my skin color. I can’t take off my black skin. It’s the responsibility of the other person to accept it,” one student said.
Students discussed how to respond to the stereotypes.
“[By avoiding the stereotype] we’re giving that stereotype the power that it doesn’t deserve,” one student said. “It’s by [Martin’s] actions that we judge whether or not he was innocent. We’re giving too much power to these stereotypes, and we’re not the ones actually creating them.”
Hall believes that the event was successful at fostering a dialogue.
“We had not just undergrads but also members of the grad community and students from other schools. And it wasn’t just students, but also professors,” Hall said. “We got a large cross section of people. The dialogue brought up a lot of tangible issues that are important to the case.”
Still, Hall acknowledged that the discussion tended to be one-sided in that there was no one to play devil’s advocate and speak from Zimmerman’s side of the argument.
“At a liberal university like Wash. U. it’s going to be difficult to find someone to be vocal on the other side of the case,” Hall said. “There was one student who was very active on the Facebook [event] page, but he didn’t speak up, and I wish he had.”