Here’s a word problem for any former mathletes reading: One neighborhood watchman sees one boy walking in the rain, wearing one hoodie. The man follows the boy in his car while on the phone with police dispatch. The boy notices a stranger has been tailing him and begins speed walking away. Before cops have arrived, the man decides to chase him on foot and confront him, with one gun in tow. A fight ensues and four witnesses hear screaming. The man shoots the boy, and the screaming stops. The boy is later found to have been involved in no criminal or deviant activity, nor was he armed. He died on February 26, 2012. How many nights has the shooter spent in jail?
Hands up if you guessed “0” correctly. No one?
Well, for once, teacher ineptitude and absentee parents can’t be held accountable for your difficulty following the math. To date, the best defense for George Zimmerman’s release have been racially-charged character assassinations disputing the suggestion that Trayvon was a “good black” worthy of being mourned. Not surprisingly, this inclination to taint a victim’s reputation is most often and harshly felt by America’s oppressed classes. Recreational cocaine use couldn’t impede an Ivy League graduate’s path to the Presidency, but an inner city kid found flushing weed down a toilet can be shot dead by police.
So it follows that Trayvon Martin’s death has come to represent a somewhat perverse Holy Grail for black activism and Stand Your Ground opposition, and for good reason: a middle class boy without a criminal record is gunned down, and prosecutors still looked the other way. Florida’s minority population has long considered the state’s judicial system to be a somewhat warped institution, but claims of racial bias are seldom given credence when victims are part of the working or welfare class (see: obstruction of the black vote, both Bush elections). Trayvon presented a more wholesome face to an oft-dismissed cause, and heightened the credibility of our collective outrage.
The effects of institutional racism reverberate loudly throughout every element of his death. The enigma of systematic oppression is that there doesn’t have to be an obvious bigot in sight for the system to continue screwing people over. Zimmerman may not have been a racist, but he showed a consistent and indiscriminate distrust of young, black strangers in his neighborhood. Sanford’s police may not have a stated agenda against black people, yet they opted to take the killer’s word for it that an unarmed child incited the violence leading to his own death. The state attorney may not consciously believe black lives are expendable, yet he assumed he would not be held accountable for completely abandoning a prosecutable murder case. Because most people are not trying to actively oppress anyone, the realities of racism are experientially ubiquitous to minorities, and totally invisible to the rest of the country.
What we fail to realize is that we don’t have to prove the existence of a culture of discrimination in order to address acts of injustice. All too often, black leaders choose to rally the troops against the general idea of prejudice rather than focus on the facts of specific grievances. It seemed inevitable that the publicity of the Troy Davis witness recantations would stave off his execution. His supporters worked themselves into a frenzy after this obvious truth proved incorrect, but once he was dead, no one took the time to explain to people how such damning evidence of a compromised trial could be ignored by the Supreme Court. During this entire debacle, no major black voice in the media had held his lawyers accountable for the procedural failures that prevented his appeals from gaining traction. Racism can be as real as the day is long, but unless the perpetrators are KKK-overt, protesters must offer the media and courts more factual complaints than “This is unfair.” It is no wonder black men keep losing these battles.
If George Zimmerman is eventually arrested, it will not be because white America has finally grasped the scope of racism. A compilation of audio and video evidence and witness testimony has put pressure on Sanford’s police department to reopen the investigation. Several prominent political and legal voices have publicly challenged the state attorney’s application of the Stand Your Ground law.
We are slowly but surely seeing Lady Justice balance the scales. Not every murdered black boy will get his moment in the spotlight in the same way. As this process continues, we cannot allow the media to divert attention away from the merits of the case. For once, momentum is moving in our direction. Distractions like the New Black Panther Party bounties or Spike Lee’s retweets actively work against advancement of the cause. Occupy Oakland riots proved one thing—if the media can’t sell black injustice to the public, rest assured they will try to sell black ignorance.
AJ has been working as an air traffic controller since 2009, after attending Old Dominion University and George Mason University as a journalism major. She currently lives in upstate New York.