George Zimmerman trial: Trayvon Martin portrayed as 'scary black man' [The Guardian]
As the murder trial of Trayvon Martin gets underway, I realize how little I actually know about the unarmed teenager that was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida last year. In the aftermath of his death pictures surfaced of the 17-year-old wearing fake gold teeth and there were rumors of school suspensions and marijuana use, but just exactly who he was, aside from a teen with loving parents was never clear.
However, as attorneys for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who admittedly shot Martin, began to layout their strategy for the trial, their depiction of the slain teen became more familiar. It seems that they want us to think that Martin wasn't just some innocent kid walking down the street with a bag of skittles and ice tea, but something more deviant. In fact, the picture they are painting of Martin is one that so many Americans have come to know well: that of the young, black dangerous thug. In pre-trial motions the defense showed pictures of Martin taken from his cell phone of him with gold teeth and giving the camera the middle finger; and also pictures of marijuana plants, guns and even a video of homeless men fighting over a bike. Attorneys alleged he participated in organized fighting and noted his school suspension, evidence it seems to imply the life of a troubled teen. All of a sudden language about an "aspiring street tough," and "would-be thug" surrounded Martin.
I was saddened and perhaps disturbed to see some of the images on Martin's phone but I could not help but think that the images don't necessarily deviate from behaviors that I see in other teens of all races. Moreover, for a country where Fight Club is a favorite movie, a solid majority support the legalization of marijuana, and a violent episodes of HBO series like Game of Thrones are all the rage, the demonizing of Martin's character rings a bit disingenuous.
I should know better. When things like marijuana and school suspensions become associated with a black male life, they don't often read as part of a story of an impressionable (if imperfect) youngster trying to find his way in life, as they may have been if Trayvon looked different (i.e. white), but as scary and dangerous. The young black thug persona isn't a complicated character, it doesn't require us knowing details about one's specific character or persona, it doesn't require nuance or context, but serves to help us understand one specific thing: that blackness is to be feared. We know the young, black thug. Most of us have encountered (and most likely feared) him. We've clutched our purses and wallets tighter in his presence, regardless of our own race or ethnicity. The young black thug is the same guy that President Obama said his white grandmother would be afraid of walking by on the street. The young black kid is the one who gets shot and arrested more often than other races by police. The scary black kids are the ones blamed for crime problems in western countries. Ron Paul's 1992 newsletternoted that young black males disproportionately "commit murders, rapes, robberies, muggings and burglaries". A British Police Commissioner said black thugs were committing many of the muggings in London in the nineties.
The stereotype of blacks, particularly black males, as criminals has been around since slavery, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the threat turned from the image of a sexual deviant to one with an extreme criminal nature. Legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown calls the recent association with black male as an inherently deviant criminal, the mythical "criminalblackmale". She notes that while media representations of black men have gotten better, "regardless of race, the person most people fear is a young, black man."
It's an unfortunate burden for Martin, whose lifestyle should not have to be on trial, not only because it is unfair, but because so it's often simply not true. I don't know exactly what Martin did or didn't do, and won't excuse or applaud his behavior, but context is important, especially in such a highly racialized society, where blacks and whites both admit stereotypes still exist. Saying that Martin smoked marijuana and was suspended from school doesn't tell of the disproportionate amount of suspensions that black youth receive or that blacks have been found to get penalized for marijuana offenses at higher rates than whites.
I don't know how the Zimmerman's legal defense intends to deal with Martin's character in the long run, but initially, they've proven that they're going to rely on the same old stereotypes that have surrounded African Americans since they arrived in America. The judge has denied the initial requests from the defense to admit evidence of Martin's marijuana use, fight videos, and school suspensions in the case, but that doesn't mean the damage hasn't been done. The invocation of the young black thug may have already made up the minds of potential jurors – consciously or not – who are all too familiar with the story of young black thug. If this trial is to be fair and just, then let's talk about complex human beings rather than one dimensional caricatures of a person that may or may not even exist.