Standing My Ground

Our nation is experiencing something that is devastatingly common, and yet, still peculiar: the use of a black man’s racial identity to justify his murder. In light of the killing of Trayvon Martin at the end of February, the strength and variety of cries for justice have stirred our hearts and widened our eyes to the battery and bruising of our pervasive, racist American narrative. From the evidence that has been given to the public, it seems that this young man was pursued by George Zimmerman, his killer, for nothing more than the color of his skin and the clothing that draped his 17 year-old body. Since the evening of February 26th, when evening Sanford police sent narcotics officers to the site of the homicide, fictitious racial assumptions have run rampant on and off the air. As the media began to defame Trayvon’s name, perpetuating and encouraging racist thought, so began the character assassination of our just America.

Despite sentiments circulating on the internet, it is not good journalism to report on contestable aspects of Martin’s perceived character. To the contrary, this type of writing and “reporting” is more in keeping with the tradition of cheap sensationalism that has become such a prominent part of American culture. After a comparatively light response to Martin’s death, portions of the right wing began to weigh in on his character. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin and her team posted a photograph on her website that allegedly portrayed young Trayvon Martin. In the image, a shirtless young African American boy with his shorts sagging below his waist casts his middle fingers to the camera.

It goes without saying that this image is troubling in more ways than one. To begin with, it has been confirmed that the photograph is indeed not of Trayvon Martin. It seems that Malkin either could not differentiate between two black faces or intentionally decided to project a false representation of the slain teenager. Unfortunately, Malkin’s contribution to the greater smear campaign only reveals the surface of racist thought in America. Perhaps, what is more heinous is the notion that the coloring of Martin as a budding gangster could justify his murder or mitigate the devastating weight of racial profiling in this case.

As an African American, or rather as an American citizen, I am forced to ask a horrifying question. What are the intentions of these besmirchers? How can the presentation of such attacks on Martin’s character at all contribute to exercise of justice? And furthermore, what does entertaining such narrow-minded conceptions of racial identity really say about the progressive nature of what some are quick to call “post-racial” America? Now, as his compromising tweets and actual photographs are presented as evidence for his less than innocent life, the persistent focus on determining his moral character through such a superficial presentation of his identity shows the standards by which the public is expected to determine Martin’s worth.

In the past week alone, I have been bombarded with upsetting reports presenting proponents of Trayvon Martin’s African American identity as explanations for Zimmerman’s confusion, when in reality, the implications of his “blackness” should play no determining factor in assessing the mitigating circumstances. Zimmerman had no way of seeing these images and tweets prior to his actions. Instead, it is likely he judged Martin based on his prejudiced conceptions, making much of this evidence presented in the right wing media moot.

What’s more, comments on Martin’s choice of clothing greatly diminish the agency of Zimmerman in the altercation. It is not as if Martin wore his sweatshirt to make a statement on that rainy night. The hooded sweatshirt is most certainly not the exclusive, choice clothing of hooligans and criminals. It may even be safe to say that every undergraduate student on the Harvard campus owns a hooded sweatshirt.

Trayvon Martin’s death sheds light on a much larger picture of the American consciousness. In the state of Florida, the same state allowing Zimmerman’s right to “stand his ground” and thus evade trial, African Americans under the age of 18 have been charged with non-homicides and received life sentences without parole where their white counterparts have enjoyed more forgiving judgments. Apparently, it takes large-scale federal intervention to maintain a semblance of justice for black citizens, as the Supreme Court deemed these punishments cruel and unusual in 2010. Fast forward two years and Trayvon, unarmed, carrying nothing but skittles and iced tea, is hunted like an animal and killed. The demonized image of the black man in the greater American narrative, on television, and engrained in our psyches thus continues to influence the lack of egalitarianism in our culture. Trayvon Martin’s death is a reminder of existing racial prejudices. It seems that the color of your skin, whether you are a perpetrator or a victim, will determine the force and variation of justice you will receive.

Bethlehem Dereje ’14, a history and literature concentrator, lives in Cabot House.