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What Trayvon Reveals About Race in America

Politics in Spires

A Conversation with Rakim Brooks

Background: On February 26, 2012, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed as he was walking home to his father’s house in a community in Sanford, Florida. Unarmed, Martin was seen carrying an iced tea and a bag of Skittles candy, when 28 year-old George Zimmerman opened fire on the boy, resulting in his death. Until yesterday, under the auspices of self defence and through the protection of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Zimmerman had not been arrested for a crime that the civil rights community insists was motivated by racial prejudice.  Public outrage regarding the handling of the incident (no doubt including the decision not to arrest Zimmerman) resulted in the resignation of the Chief of the Sanford Police Department.
46 days after Martin’s death, there is sustained controversy surrounding the question as to whether this tragedy is symbolic of deep racial tensions yet unresolved in American society. Below, Rakim Brooks takes a moment to share his perspective on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, and what popular reaction to the event reveals about contemporary US opinions on the issue of race.
Question: On March 22, PBS Newshour featured a panel to discuss the complexities of “Stand Your Ground” in relation to the Trayvon Martin case, and its capacity to incite vigilantism. During the program, author Donna Britt remarked: “I don’t know what this child could have done to be safe, except not be black.” What are your thoughts on this comment?
Brooks: That quote basically captures the major issue at play, which is why Trayvon appeared suspicious to Zimmerman.  However, there has been a recent narrative in the black community that has made me uncomfortable in that it doesn’t recognize the extent to which Latinos are also profiled, depending on what part of the country they’re in. I want to flag that and say that there is a broader phenomenon at play.
I’m from New York City, and when we talk about something like “Stop and Frisk”, which is also based on the fundamental assumption that black and Latino men (who look a particular way) are therefore menacing and threatening, we understand it as a cross- racial problem. I would therefore expand [Britt’s] notion and say that the real question is whether or not black and Latino men who dress in that way [wearing a hoodie] are capable of being regarded as anything other than threatening.
There is idea that a suit is a black man’s bullet proof vest. Raising that point in relation to the Trayvon Martin case should make us reflect on the intersection between race and class (and culture, quite frankly, as shrouding all of that). I am not convinced that the only thing Trayvon could have done was “to not be black”. I get the sentiment behind it, but I think in its full complexity we want to pay attention to the different markers [beyond race] that made him appear threatening. Ask the question “Who is expected to wear a hoodie as everyday garb?”. This should only lead us to reflect further on the fact that [in American society today] if a black kid dons a hoodie, this instantaneously [gives the impression] that he is threatening, that he is trying to conceal something about himself, that he is suspicious and should therefore be tracked down and apprehended.
With regards to “Stop and Frisk”, it’s been shown to be extremely limited in accuracy, with only 1 of 20 individuals stopped actually being taken into custody. So we should be asking ourselves the fundamental question:  if [our basic assumptions about what type of individuals appear suspicious] lead us to be right only 5% of the time, shouldn’t the criteria we are using to apprehend individuals be revised?