Trayvon Martin, Race, and Perception

This week I weigh in on the Trayvon Martin case and the perils of being young, male and black. I think the issue at the heart of this case is the tendency to view young black men as inherently suspicious.

Someone asked me today if this column was hard to write, since I relate my own personal encounters. And it was, but not necessarily for that reason. I wrestled with this column because I wasn’t sure if it would make enough difference to be worth it.

I’m not overly pessimistic, and I’m thankful for the positive responses I received today. But I’m also a realist when it comes to race. The people who get it, get it. The people who don’t will probably stick with their own preconceptions no matter how much evidence you throw at them.

This latter group shrugs off experiences like mine as isolated incidents.  I wrote about being accused of stealing and thrown out of a store; naturally, I got a couple of “I’m white and I’ve been followed too” responses.

That’s valid, and I’m not discounting anyone’s experience, but these folks tend to gloss over the bigger picture that almost every single person of African descent I’ve ever met has a story about being followed, or accused, or generally treated as suspicious. How many does it take before they’re not isolated incidents?

It’s not just “racists” who see the world this way. I’m more concerned about the Justifiers and Deniers, who look for any excuse to get out of discussing race at all. They tend to toss around terms like “post-racial” or say that they “don’t see race.”

News flash: everyone brings biases to the table. Everything about me—married, Christian, almost 34, Canadian, father of four, a mix of African and Scottish ancestry—affects how I see the world. I’m not tuned in to my own hangups every single time I react to something, but I’m at least aware they exist. And when I’m interacting with another person, I try to recognize what they bring to the table that affects how they see the world.

When race is the subject, so many people are unwilling to open their eyes even a little bit wider. They cling to their version of the world even in the face of actual facts.

I got a glimpse of that today, as I expected.

I heard that Trayvon was six feet tall, or maybe six foot one. He weighed 160 pounds—no, a muscular 175 pounds. Of course George Zimmerman felt threatened.

Reality? Trayvon was 5-11 and 158 pounds, according to the official autopsy report and conveyed widely in dozens of online sources.

I referred to Trayvon as “baby-faced,” because he looks like he could have been 14. I had a reader direct me to the conspiracy that claims every media outlet (even Fox!) has been using a five-year-old picture of Trayvon to make him look more innocent. In reality, they say, the Trayvon who attacked George Zimmerman looked like this:

The Game

To start an Internet conspiracy, you need the Internet. And if you have the Internet, it’s pretty easy to figure out this is not the “real” Trayvon Martin.

Reality? That’s a photo of Jayceon Taylor, aka The Game, a fairly well-known rapper who is my age. I knew in an instant it wasn’t a 17-year-old boy, and I confirmed it in the 45 seconds it took me to Google and read this article.

I had one woman tweet a string of almost incoherent thoughts at me over half an hour. A couple of examples (I’ve deleted her Twitter handle):

tm is a far cry from the I have a dream speech. Mother didn’t raise him for most of the years and says his age wrong as 16. @ChadGALucas

GZ was not left off the hook. He was living the gagster attitude and buying candy for lean. tradgedy yes but @ChadGALucas

I have no idea what Trayvon’s parentage or reasons for buying candy or ability to fulfill Martin Luther King’s famous sermon have to do with anything. There’s a whole corner of the Internet devoted to dragging a dead 17-year-old’s name through the mud.

But consider this: even if everything they believe is true, even if Trayvon kicked a puppy and plucked his bag of Skittles straight out of a baby’s hand, does that justify what happened? Did he deserve a bullet in the chest?

All of these theories and justifications are largely irrelevant to the big picture. In fact, I suspect that people haggle over (and invent) the details in order to avoid considering the big picture.

This is the point I’m making, the point so many people are trying to make: everything that unfolded that night began in the moment George Zimmerman decided a boy he didn’t know looked suspicious.

It takes a great feat of mental acrobatics to deny that Trayvon Martin would probably be alive if Zimmerman hadn’t made that choice. And that maybe—just maybe—Trayvon’s skin colour had something to do with it.

Maybe—just maybe—skin colour also plays a role in countless other choices where someone decides another person looks suspicious.

Yet some people would rather perform mental acrobatics than consider a perfectly valid question that contradicts their own view of the world.

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2 responses to “Trayvon Martin, Race, and Perception

  1. I don’t understand why people can’t see the race issue in this case… Or maybe it is that they see it but they want to deny it. And enough with the guns! Stop letting stupid people walk around armed! Sorry… I just had to let that out.

  2. Tough conversations are always tough to start, and they can attract a wide variety of responses….many of which aren’t helpful. But your voice matters and the internet and readers need to see a well reasoned point of view. I’m glad to have read this. I wish it wasn’t
    needed.

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