By Dr. Luke Tripp
The Trayvon Martin case has sparked the mobilization of millions who are morally outraged because Trayvon symbolized the targets and victims of the deeply racialized U.S. criminal justice system. This case is socially and politically explosive.
To understand the social and political dynamics of this case, we have to focus on the centrality of race and the criminal justice system. Americans profess to believe that the rule of law should be applied equally to all citizens regardless of race or status. Yet, it is beyond dispute that the criminal “justice” system functions from start to finish (definitions of crime, investigation, arrest, charging, conviction and sentencing) in a racially biased way.
The basic facts of the case are these: There was a deadly encounter between George Zimmerman, an armed White man who, while patrolling his neighborhood, stalked Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was simply walking home. During an altercation, Zimmerman shot Martin dead.
When the police arrived, Zimmerman claimed that he was attacked by Martin, and in self-defense he shot and killed Martin. Zimmerman was not held or charged, and the incident was not fully investigated. Legal officials cited Florida’s “stand your ground” law as justification for Zimmerman’s release.
Racism divides and dehumanizes groups. Resisting racism is an act of liberation.
Minnesota Republicans attempted to pass similar legislation, but Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it. The bill would have created the presumption that persons using deadly force believed that they were in danger of harm from any intruder in their home or dwelling. The bill would have expanded the definition of “dwelling” to include a hotel room, car, tent or boat.
Social scientists and criminologists have determined through statistical analysis that in the majority of violent Black-versus-White encounters, Blacks are presumed to be the aggressor. Zimmerman’s account of what transpired and the casual manner in which the case was initially handled fit nicely the racial narrative of the roles and symbols of Blacks and Whites.
In the general crime storyline, the roles of Blacks and Whites have already been prescribed. The White character is the good hero and the Black character is the violent criminal. Adapted to the Trayvon Martin case, the racial scenario is this: Zimmerman is portrayed as a civic-minded White man who protects his community against Black criminals to keep it safe, while Trayvon Martin represents a violent Black thug who poses a threat to public safety.
Every Black male, young and old, is stigmatized as a potential or actual threat or menace to society. The vast majority of Black men have had a negative encounter with the criminal justice system, including Martin Luther King. One of my many personal encounters with the police department happened in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
On Monday, July 9, 2007, at about 3:40 pm, while walking home from my office at St. Cloud State University, I was stopped on the sidewalk by two police officers who were in separate squad cars. One officer got out of the car and looked at me and my bag, which I use to carry books and papers, and said that she had mistakenly perceived my bag as a purse.
The fact that I, a university professor and senior citizen, was stopped on a busy street in mid-afternoon and publicly humiliated by police officers because they perceived me as a suspected purse thief indicates the high level of anti-Black police profiling in the city of St. Cloud. I filed a formal complaint, but it was disdainfully dismissed. I did not even receive an apology.
The social structure of racism is predicated on stereotypes based on the appearance of our bodies. Negative stereotypes and anti-Black prejudices shape the discrimination that makes the everyday lives of Black Americans painful.
Anti- Black stereotypes are derogatory beliefs and cognitions and feelings of antipathy toward Black people. They are used to discredit, vilify, persecute, dehumanize and target Black people, and they become toxic when supported by White power and dominance.
The Trayvon Martin case is especially painful for Blacks. On a daily basis, Blacks feel the stress and insecurity largely caused by White police officers and hostile Whites. The Trayvon Martin case reveals more about the criminal justice system than it does about the killer George Zimmerman.
The criminal justice system has become a dominant presence in the lives of Black males. It impacts employment, housing, family formation, and political participation. The social, economic and political consequences of stigmatizing and criminalizing Black males have seriously weakened the social fabric of the Black community.
Racism divides and dehumanizes groups. Resisting racism is an act of liberation. Rallies, marches, forums and petitions are moves to empower ourselves to dismantle racism. The struggle for justice in the Trayvon Martin case is a struggle against racism.
Dr. Luke Tripp is a professor in the Department of Ethnic and Women’s Studies at St. Cloud State University. He welcomes reader responses to [email protected]