OCHIENG: The myth of a post-racial society

On February 26, high school junior Trayvon Martin stepped out of his father’s girlfriend’s home during the halftime break of a basketball game to grab some Skittles and iced tea at a nearby 7-11. As Martin walked down the street of the small, gated community, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic man, deemed him suspicious, followed him in his car and shot him — in self-defense, or so he claimed. A series of 911 calls have helped us piece together the story and new pieces of information continue to emerge.

While he followed Martin, Zimmerman placed a call to 911, the audio and transcript of which are available online. In those calls, Zimmerman says Martin appeared to be “walking around and looking about” and that he “looks like he’s up to no good.” Despite the 911 dispatcher’s attempt to dissuade Zimmerman from following Martin, he persisted in following the 17-year-old in his car.

In the next few minutes, Martin was dead on the ground, Zimmerman had blood on his shirt and 911 calls from neighbors flooded in with shouting and shots in the background.

Zimmerman had a handgun; Martin had a bag of Skittles and some iced tea. Zimmerman weighed 250 pounds; Martin, 140 pounds.

Almost a month has passed and Zimmerman has not been arrested. He remains free due to a Florida statute which permits the use of deadly force in response to a “reasonable” perceived threat.

As Martin walked down the street, talking to his girlfriend on the phone and keeping to himself, how did he pose a threat to Zimmerman? Zimmerman actively pursued Martin, getting out of his car to confront him while in possession of a handgun, thus calling into question the classification of this case as one of self-defense.

In a society in which stereotypes of black men pervade the national consciousness and tell us that they are violent aggressors, thieves and criminals, should it come as any surprise that some people perceive the mere presence of a black man as a “reasonable threat?” By refusing to arrest or even question Zimmerman, the Sanford police department appears to have reached this conclusion. As the commentator Touré stated in his March 21 column on the website of TIME, “blackmaleness [in this country] is a potentially fatal condition.”

In his 911 call, George Zimmerman described Trayvon Martin as just another one of those “a–holes [who] always get away.” By referring to Trayvon as an “a–hole,” I can only presume that Zimmerman’s statement is based on a caricature of a delinquent black teenager. If Trayvon Martin had been white, I have no doubt that he would not have been stalked and killed in the first place.

By bringing issues of racial profiling to the forefront of national news coverage, this case illustrates that the United States is not the post-racial society that many hailed it to be after the 2008 election. Numerous commentators, journalists and civilians have been outspoken in their demands for justice and their criticisms of the Sanford police department and police departments across the nation for unfair treatment and sentencing of black people. Rallies around the country are currently being organized to protest laws, policies and people who perpetuate the prejudice and mistreatment of black people, particularly young black men.

In my efforts to stay informed about the case, I have come across numerous blog posts, newspaper articles and televised news pieces. The authors of these pieces have been members of minority communities and, for the most part, black. I find this deeply disturbing because injustice is not a fight that solely concerns blacks but a cause around which every American should rally.

The fury surrounding this case has only begun. Trayvon Martin, as an innocent, promising young boy, serves as a sort of martyr for the black community and for those who have been subject to the injustices of law enforcement. However, as we remember him, we must also take care to remember the thousands of other young black men who have been murdered without adequate investigation by the police or humiliated in public due to their race. Their stories may not fit as perfectly into the soundbite of “skittles vs. handgun,” but seeing these stories brought to light and ensuring that justice is served should be just as important.

Kiki OchiEng is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at akinyi.ochieng@yale.edu.

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