The “not guilty” verdict made the Trayvon Martin case a double tragedy. Beyond the courtroom theatrics and the legalistic maneuvers within the past couple of weeks, the fact remains that an unarmed black teenager was proactively pursued and murdered and no one will be held accountable for this tragedy.
Of course this case was about race. The people marching before the verdict and crying after the verdict were overwhelmingly African American. The folks that seem to focus only on the factual nuances of the case seem to be overwhelmingly non-African American. For those focused solely on the law, the right verdict was rendered because the defense won the courtroom tug of war. According to the jury’s verdict, the prosecution could not prove Zimmerman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The ubiquitous “facts v. emotions” argument seems to be the dichotomy that highlights the racial divide. The legal experts stated that the facts should trump emotions. This mindset was evident from choosing the jury at the outset to explaining the “not guilty” verdict at the end. For African Americans, however, the verdict was another assault on common sense.
The first text that I received about the verdict was from one of my young black male mentees: “The verdict hurt . . . crazy, no manslaughter, nothing, disgusting.” I think this text reflects the sentiment of many African Americans and others. The chants of “no justice, no peace” have resonated in multiethnic demonstrations throughout the nation.
The case was not only about race; it was also about the threat of black masculinity in American society. Historically, from Emmett Till to Rodney King and beyond, the life of the young black male in American society seems to be valueless. We cannot deconstruct the Zimmerman case without looking at it in the broader context. Zimmerman profiled Trayvon as a threat because America has stereotyped the young black male as a threat.
This summer, I have been running the BLOOM Reintegration Academy for 15 previously incarcerated black males ages 14 to 18 from South Los Angeles. This five-week summer program brings these young men to a college campus and immerses them in academic, career-development and life-skills modules. Some of these youth have been incarcerated for things ranging from fist fighting to petty theft. Imagine their thoughts about the paradoxical Zimmerman verdict. A text I received from one of my 16-year-olds in the program stated, “That man should have gotten life or the death penalty. If Trayvon had killed him, he would have gotten life.”
Beyond the verdict in this case, the big-picture question is how we move forward in dealing with young black men in America. The deliberate criminalization of this population is problematic. Incarceration, police brutality and murder are not feasible solutions.
But, the sword of the problem is doubled-edged. Although the young black male has been intensely stereotyped, he has intensely embraced these stereotypes instead of contradicting them. The enthusiastic embrace of the gansta-thug persona has become detrimental to an entire generation of young black men. Internally, the African American community needs to address this phenomenon in order for progress to be made. Externally, every educator, police officer, counselor and politician should be held accountable for their policies and behavior towards this population in order for progress to be made.
In his statement about the Trayvon Martin case, President Obama stated, “We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.” On his recent tour of Africa, the president introduced the Young African Leaders Initiative’s Washington Fellowship program, which will bring 1,000 African leaders between the ages of 25 and 35 to the United States for immersion in democratic governance and entrepreneurship modules. Now is the time to have an equally noble and ambitious initiative for young black men in the United States.
As we limp toward the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, the Trayvon Martin case is a poignant reminder that we have fallen short of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. It will take the courage of all Americans to right the wrongs in our society. It will take the collective will of all Americans to make sure we consistently judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Each day forward from this tragedy we should strive to make King’s dream a reality. In doing so, we will be honoring Trayvon Martin.
Renford Reese, Ph.D. is a professor in the political science department at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the author of five books, including the widely discussed “American Paradox: Young Black Men.” He is the founder and director of the Prison Education Project, which can be found at www.prisoneducationproject.org.
This article originally appeared in the “Los Angeles Daily News.” Reprinted with permission.