Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Politics > The Killing of Trayvon Martin and the Cancer of Social Prejudice

The Killing of Trayvon Martin and the Cancer of Social Prejudice

The latest tragic and outrage-stoking episode in the long, troubled history of race relations in the United States is the February 26th shooting death of 17-year-old African-American teen Trayvon Martin by mixed-race Hispanic George Zimmerman in a gated community of Sanford, Florida. If you’re unfamiliar with the contours of the case, the well-cited Wikipedia article on it does a solid job of condensing the important points.

But to summarize briefly: Martin, a high-schooler with good grades and no criminal record, was visiting his father at the latter’s fiance’s home in the gated community of Twin Lakes in Sanford (he was on suspension from school for unclear reasons). Martin went out during a break in the NBA All-Star Game he was watching to buy some candy and an iced tea from 7-Eleven, and on the way back noticed that he was being followed. This was Zimmerman, who had called 911 and was reporting Martin’s “suspicious” behaviour. What happened next is not entirely clear, pieced together as it is from the 911 call, testimony from Zimmerman, Martin’s girlfriend (who was on the phone with him at the time), and witnesses, with the usual contradictions and puzzles of evidence very much in play. There was a confrontation of some kind, with Zimmerman claiming he was jumped by Martin but various other evidence making that claim seem dubious (including a firm request from the 911 operator to Zimmerman not to pursue Martin). At any rate, since this is America, Zimmerman was obviously armed, and shot Martin dead.

The reason that it took a couple of weeks for the story to filter to the national media, let alone to explode into an issue that demands a wonderfully measured comment from the country’s first black President, is that Zimmerman was not only not prosecuted or charged with a crime for his act, he was not even arrested. Florida has a stunningly vague “stand your ground” provision in its self-defense legislation which allows for anyone who feels reasonably threatened with harm to use any force necessary to defend themselves, up to and including deadly force. For this reason at least, and arguably for more troubling reasons as well, Sanford police took Zimmerman’s self-absolving account at face value and did not follow up on any charges.

Martin’s death has become a major issue because, like so many stories of its type, it crystallizes so many active anxieties bubbling just below and even above the surface of current American life. As an almost definitely unjustified killing of a young African-American male in a Southern state who was in the “wrong” place acting in the “wrong” way that lead to no immediately legal consequence for the perpetrator, the echoes of segregation-era racial violence in the incident are extremely strong (Andrew Potter doesn’t mince words and calls it a flat-out “lynching” on Twitter). The ghosts of Emmett Till and many others haunt the reaction of the African-American community to these sad events, and their response invokes the social activism of the Civil Rights movement.

But it is not merely an issue that evokes socially-sanctioned racial injustices of a half-century ago, but one that speaks to more contemporary conditions as well. Reactionary conservative anti-crime laws have, it seems, created circumstances in which a literal neighbourhood fascist (Zimmerman, the self-styled neighbourhood watchman, called 911 almost 50 times in the year leading up to the shooting, and had clearly-expressed ambitions of a career in law enforcement despite a history of violence) can literally get away with murder. With many of the particulars of the case still to be cleared up, it is nonetheless obvious that Zimmerman acted with unnecessary aggression (possibly Martin did, too, but there is little support for that beyond the shooter’s testimony) and maybe with racial prejudice as well (the 911 tape showed that he uttered an epithet that certainly sounds like “fucking coons” in reference to the person he is pursuing, but is couched in derisive terms no matter what he pronounces).

A tragic occurence like Martin’s death in a ideologically-divided society like America’s obviously encourages instant side-choosing, and I may be falling victim to that just as assuredly as conservative figures like Newt Gingrich and Geraldo Rivera have done with their despicable comments on the subject. But at the core of this sad turn of events are intertwined realities about how American society is organized and how racial prejudice has twisted itself around the very heart of that society like a serpent. The development of gated communities, those insular suburban developments predicated on the exclusion of a disreputable element that is always already coded as racially (or at least economically) different, makes such mistaken jumps to deadly conclusions practically inevitable, especially with firearm regulations as permissive as they are in much of the country. A strain in popular culture that valourizes law enforcement and exaggerates the threat of criminal activity beyond any reasonable measure also bears some responsibility.

But it’s the imperceptible intermingling of these factors that makes Trayvon Martin’s death not only tragic but also tragically unsurprising. Though it may matter in nuts-and-bolts legal terms whether or not George Zimmerman uttered a racial slur before shooting an unarmed black youth dead, the precision of his language is unnecessary in establishing the hardened core of prejudice of the case. The social forces that led to this shooting are founded on discriminatory assumptions about race, class, and respectability that are ever-present in the fabric of American life, all the more so because they are so openly disavowed.

Systemic and philosophical shifts more radical than those of the Civil Rights era are required to dislodge this animating cancer from the cells of the American organism. Will the Trayvon Martin case be an important element of the eventual vaccine? Perhaps, but more concerted public effort will be needed for any such productive changes to come to pass. For now, it will suffice to consider it to be a dark reminder of a discriminatory disease.

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