I know a seventeen-year-old boy who stays at his dad’s house sometimes. He’s a good kid, but like all kids his age, he can be impulsive and a little stupid. He loves to play Xbox, he’s good to his siblings, and he loves his mother. His grades fluctuate -- sometimes a lot -- but he’s a talented kid. He has a couple of sketchy friends who hold some sway over him, but he tries to keep his nose clean. Sometimes he fails. Last fall, he got suspended for selling a small amount of drugs to a classmate. Like nearly every teenaged kid in America, his outfit of choice is a hoodie and jeans. Sometimes he wears the hood up, especially if it’s chilly or rainy outside. If he were followed by a guy in a truck through his dad’s urban neighborhood, he’d probably be scared. He might even tell a friend on his cellphone about it. If he were approached by the stranger, he’d probably defend himself. He’s not big for his age -- maybe 140lbs or so, but I’ll bet he’d break someone’s nose if they approached him from nowhere and if he thought he were in danger. People tend to act that way when they are pursued.
This particular kid (and he’s not a hypothetical kid but a real one, whose name I withhold to protect his privacy) did not get shot in the chest. He’s a white kid with blue eyes, freckles and strawberry blond hair. He lives in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area, in a very nice neighborhood populated by lawyers and doctors and influence peddlers. The parents of some of his classmates are household names. Every other weekend, he stays with his dad and stepmom in the city. The drug he sold was Ritalin, which he takes for ADD, which he should not have had in his backpack at school, and which he should not have been talked into selling. But he’s done a lot to make up for his bad choices. He has worked hard, and managed to get into college for next fall in spite of the suspension and criminal record. And if he were to go out for Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, hoodie or no hoodie, it is unlikely that anyone would find him suspicious.
But even if they did, and even if the unthinkable happened -- even if he had resorted to deadly force against a person who pursued him against the advice of the Police -- the man who shot him in the chest at point blank range wouldn’t have gone uncharged for over a month. In fact, the boy’s face would have been all over the national news the instant it happened, and there would have been a rush to bring his killer to justice. There would be candlelight vigils at his suburban high school, where fellow students and his teachers would be interviewed. They would all talk about what a great kid he was. About his contagious smile. About the fact that his sometimes poor choices did not change the fact that he was a good kid. That’s what would have happened to a white kid. If you need proof, just look at the media coverage of missing white kids vs. missing kids of any other color. Sixty five percent of kids who are abducted by a non-family member are minorities. Name one of them. I’ll wait.
The other day, I wrote about how incensed I was that anyone would suggest that Martin’s wearing a hoodie had brought about his own death. Since then, the narrative has changed, but the victim blaming persists. Now, the kid is being portrayed as a rotten apple -- one who got suspended and flipped the bird and had tattoos, one whose backpack contained a substance believed to be marijuana and whose locker contained a “burglary tool” (a.k.a. a screwdriver). In other words, mining his social media presence (or in some cases, the social media sites of someone who shares his name) has revealed that he actually did deserve to get shot in the chest after all. Or, maybe it just shows that he is a completely typical teenaged boy, like the blond, blue-eyed one I know.
It is impossible to make sense of the fallout from Trayvon Martin’s death, no matter how hard I try. There are some things that seem crystal clear, and others that make me feel like I’m living in a circus funhouse.
Here’s what seems crystal clear to me: Regardless of what happened when George Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin, there is zero question that Zimmerman instigated contact with an unarmed minor and set in motion a chain of events that led inexorably to that minor’s death. Did Martin use deadly force against Zimmerman? One eye witness says so. But if that's the case, why doesn’t Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, the very one the police are using to pardon Zimmerman’s actions, not apply to the person who stood his ground when threatened by an armed man?
Here’s what else I don’t understand. What greater good does it serve to deny the role that racism played in this tragedy? Some have pointed out that Zimmerman could not have been motivated by racism because he’s not white, and because some of his friends are black. Um...okay. So now racism is the sole provenance of white people? And we've heard that I'm-not-a-racist-because-some-of-my-best-friends-are-black fallacy too many times before. I heard someone else bemoan the fact that a recent hate crime perpetrated by black kids against a white teenager wasn’t getting the media attention that Martin’s death was. Why would calling a crime against a black boy racially motivated somehow excuse hate crimes against white people? It makes my head ache to even try to follow that logic. I don’t understand how it helps anyone not to look at this crime with clear eyes. Trayvon Martin is dead because he was black, and if he weren’t, he would be alive today. It’s not race baiting to say so, it’s just stating the obvious.