Even at Swarthmore, we are all Trayvon Martin

Staff Editorial

Courtesy of uppitynegronetwork.com.

Race and politics have historically converged in the context of national tragedy. Joining the long list of lawful injustices is the Feb. 26 shooting of 17-year-old African-American male Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

The elements of the case are simple yet nuanced, as American social issues customarily are: the unarmed Trayvon was shot and killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman.

Twenty-eight-year-old Zimmerman had described the boy to police as a suspicious “black male” wearing a hoodie and pursued him only to open fire on him in “self-defense.” Under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, people are allowed to use deadly force in cases of self-defense when they believe their life to be at risk.

President Obama, in response to the flood of protests calling for Zimmerman’s arrest, said that “if [he] had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” And thus the gravity of the incident weighed heavily on the national conscious, shining a harsh fluorescence on those issues that have long plagued American society — race, crime, and gun rights.

To anyone of color — particularly, black males — Trayvon’s death is a caustic reminder that racial injustice is still prevalent in 2012; the idea that we live in a “post-racial nation” is compromised time and time again. What’s more, it is a reminder that a certain image and context (in Trayvon’s case, being black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt on a dark street in central Florida) is enough to provoke that injustice.

But that reality doesn’t sit well with a society that prides itself on having abolished slavery and elected an African-American president. Yet it is these moments of brutal oppression that expose the rupture between our progressive discourses and scant expressions of racial reformation, and the ways in which we continue to behave towards one another.

The 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Skip Gates Jr., Harvard University’s most prominent black scholar, by a police sergeant who was looking for a burglar in Gates’ home, demonstrates just how ingrained black male stereotypes have become in our collective conscious.

Trayvon’s death also brings to mind the 1955 slaying of 14-year-old African-American Chicago teen Emmett Till by white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Both fatalities have proven themselves galvanizing forces in an enduring civil rights movement. Across the country, the prevailing sentiment is the fear that Martin’s killing has entrenched the precedent that, with the right excuse, it is acceptable to gun down black males.

The renewed attention on race could perhaps not be better timed for that very reason. With the Republican primaries lobbing between Santorum and Romney and the general election looming on the horizon, the shooting of Trayvon has fermented dialogue around America’s gun-carry culture and what it means to be acting in “self-defense,” especially when that action is clouded by racialized understandings. It shouldn’t have to be mentioned that the unbridled right to bear arms in the South seemingly coincides with an abiding narrative of racism. How, then, do we reckon with both a multiplicity of racial attitudes and polar legislative gun measures in the United States — two positions that share a historical, political, and social nexus?

For us, the question of how to feel about the killing of Trayvon Martin should not be limited to just those issues. It should not be range-bound by our views on the legality or morality of carrying firearms, but rather our focus should fix on the rampancy of racism and, more generally, unwavering marginalization in the 21st century.

We should be mindful of the persistence of both symbolic and physical violence towards those who are somehow “different” in our society. We should be aware that both outside and within our lush campus and politically correct notions of the way the world operates, incidents of hate and prejudice are not isolated, but part of an inveterate conception of race and gender and sexuality.

To wave the Confederate flag or hurl a homophobic insult or sexually assault someone is not just to do those things. Our hateful actions are not simply hateful actions; they are only a few steps away from real tragedy. They are part and parcel of every incident of fatal racism, homophobia and sexism, providing the ammunition to bigoted and backward perceptions about anyone and everyone — gay, straight, black, white, male or female.

In this way, we are all Trayvon Martin.

To join students for a march in honor of Trayvon, you are invited to wear a hoodie and meet in front of Parrish today at 4:30 p.m.

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