TRAYVON BENJAMIN MARTIN
Blaming the Victim
Guilty for Trayvon Martin. Not guilty for George Zimmerman.
Our nation’s Black Shadow is causing tears of anguish throughout the country this week after George Zimmerman walked out of court a free man while Trayvon Martin lies dead. We feel again the sharp cut of injustice like a knife in the gut. How can this be happening again? It’s 2013; slavery ended more than 150 years ago. Why are black people still being killed by racism?
Trayvon Benjamin Martin was a 17-year-old honors student who had earned a full scholarship to college and had a bright future ahead of him. He was killed by a gun. He was killed by a 28-year-old white man. He was killed by racism.
A jury made up of all but one white women found white killer George Zimmerman “Not Guilty” of 2nd degree murder or manslaughter. How could they? How could they believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a boy with Skittles in his hand provoked an armed man to shoot him in “self-defense”?
Marc O’Mara and Don West, defense attorneys for George Zimmerman, took a page from the Willie Lynch playbook and used it to convince the jury to blame the victim rather than the killer. The infamous Willie Lynch Letter: The Making of a Slave, was published in 1712, and gave detailed advice to whites about how to control their black slaves. The number-one strategy was to distrust all blacks. As Willie Lynch described, all black people are dangerous and must be controlled and suppressed at all times. White, mainstream America has been selling us all this idea in multiple ways: the biased reporting of the media, the depictions of black people by the entertainment industry; the selective “facts” given in American history books; and in courtroom after courtroom, prison after prison, in our so-called justice system. The racist message is that no matter if he is the president of the United States or a boy buying candy at a convenience store, blacks are to be mistrusted and feared.
Was this case about race? Imagine the situation was reversed and a 230-pound armed black male who was out patrolling his neighborhood shot a 17-year-old white boy who was clutching some candy, and then went to court and claimed he’d felt threatened and scared and pulled the trigger in self-defense. Do you think a jury would have acquitted a black George Zimmerman? We all know it wouldn’t have, because the national racist narrative is that white boys are innocents; black boys are dangerous.
Trayvon Martin, an honors student, a beloved son and friend, was characterized by the defense attorneys as a threatening, larger-than–life, dangerous black man armed with a slab of concrete. George Zimmerman, a self-deputized fully grown man with a gun, who drove around patrolling the neighborhood for “punks and f—ing a-holes,” was characterized as a helpless, innocent, caring, delicate white male. Willie Lynch would be proud.
What happened in that Florida courtroom a few days ago is so toxic that I can barely breathe when I think about it. You see, only the black man’s race was on trial. Trayvon’s blackness reverberated in the courtroom while George’s whiteness was protected, allowing many whites and possibly some blacks to believe that race was not an issue. Since whites are simply accepted as the norm and therefore not raced, white people constantly tell us that blacks see race where it doesn’t exist. Those who believe this was not about race must genuinely believe that color-blind justice was served in the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin. But of course it wasn’t. It’s racism that allowed Zimmerman’s race to be a non-issue; and Martin’s race was the sole reason he was murdered.
Since slavery, blacks have been stripped of our humanity. Arriving in chains, the white imagination was inflamed by images of dark-skinned human beings as sub-human, not much better than beasts; three-fifths of a person. Today, images of blacks as thugs and welfare queens flood the white imagination, consciously and unconsciously. It also floods our imaginations as black people, causing us to doubt ourselves. That’s our black shadow, whispering the lies of white superiority and black inferiority in our own heads. To white people, and even sometimes to black people, our blackness is seen as the problem — not the legacy of slavery (under which we still labor), not racism, not the unjustified, unfair, unacknowledged white fear. For this reason, a jury of, one presumes, thoughtful people was able to find a dead black boy guilty of his own murder and could acquit the white man even though, unprovoked, he accosted Martin and pulled the trigger.
One of the more heartbreaking moments of the trial occurred when defense attorney Marc O’Mara asked Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, to agree that her son had caused his own death. The acquittal of George Zimmerman stands as more evidence of how our own society devalues and disregards us simply because of the color of our skin. O’Mara was asking the murdered boy’s mother to agree that Trayvon was guilty of being black and therefore deserved to be gunned down in ‘self-defense.” I was sickened.
What this verdict does not only to the Martin family, but to all of us who yearn for justice and fairness and kindness in our country, is evoke the deepest disappointment, bitterness and anger. I have to watch my own black shadow carefully now and monitor the doubts that whisper through my mind, doubts that are shaped by the internalization of slavery’s messages. “Trayvon shouldn’t have worn that hoodie. What was he thinking? He should have known better.”
The black shadow is loud in our minds right now, trying to rope us back into our own self-doubts and shame. I refuse to allow my Black Shadow to blame the victim. I reject the lie of black inferiority, the Willie Lynch lie that blacks are dangerous beasts who deserve to be put down when they cross their white “betters.”
I am so grateful to Trayvon’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton, who are not distracted by the lie that their beloved child caused his own death. Like them, I will try not to be distracted by the “Not Guilty” verdict of the armed, white, vigilante who was responsible for this senseless death. They are remembering their son as the bright blessing that he was, and they are not going to let anyone or anything change what they know to be true. We have to do the same, and not just when it comes to the tragedy of this young man, but in the face of the daily tragedies of racism confronting all of our young men and women, and when we remember the struggles of our ancestors, and when we face our own black shadows.
When mainstream, white society agrees that we should all blame the victim, it has the effect of sapping our energy. That is a problem for us, because it takes massive amounts of energy to stand up to injustice and resist the lies about black inferiority. The antidote is to work together, to strengthen our resolve to achieve equality for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age and ability. There can be no greater justice for Trayvon Martin than to help make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream a reality: justice, kindness and equal opportunity for all. As he reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”