People are throwing around all kinds of bizarre comparisons of the Trayvon Martin case to newer crimes in which blacks and whites are fighting, and/or killing each other, generally. This does not a similarity make. Please stop making these comparisons.
Two cases have arisen in the past week which the media, and some good friends, have conflated with the Martin/Zimmerman case. The most recent is the Christopher Lane murder. Lane, an Australian baseball player living in the United States, was murdered by three “thrill kill” suspects. The motive, as they stated it, was because they were “bored.” Oh, and at least two of the three suspects were, in some varying shade, black, also (check the comments on CNN for a dispiriting reminder as to why that is so important). The third perp’s race is still anyone’s guess, and I feel demeaned to have to have written that sentence. This story continues to evolve, but there are already plenty of strong opinions emerging, which is exactly the situation the numbskulls at CNN are paid to create, so, bravo.
The second case that’s being shoved into the box with Trayvon Martin is the Florida bus beating. Although initially angled as a story about the obligations the bus driver did or did not have to intervene, it wasn’t long before the usual talking heads made it into a race story, even going so far as to criticize Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for their silence on the issue.
To clarify, any connection between these stories is a media invention. The only– only! points of overlap are that all three stories featured whites and blacks in conflict. Indeed, so far the motives behind each seem to be entirely different. Still, I’m constantly impressed with the ways this story can be re-framed by the beholder to fit their particular agenda.
Here’s mine. So let’s recap.
First, it’s probably worth mentioning what made the Trayvon Martin case so important to black America, and why it became a cause at issue for the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and everyone else.
Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are concerned with the advancement of African Americans specifically, and underrepresented minorities in general, in light of a system that systematically undervalues them (as a historical note, take a look at Sharpton’s recent endorsement of LGBT causes in his time on MSNBC). We can talk about the specifics of what it means to be undervalued, of which there are many, but to save typing on topics that I hope are obvious and well-documented, there it is.
To put it another way, their traditional area of concern is not crime overall and not law-enforcement in general. They are not under any special obligation to respond to each and every murder in the media, over even every black-on-black, black-on-white, or white-on-black crime.
Black America believes, rightly or wrongly, but as has been borne out statistically, that they are disadvantaged in the criminal justice process. Specifically they believe that black guilt is overstated (racial profiling, disproportionate sentencing) and that the likelihood of achieving justice is lower than for whites. Trust in police is low overall, and there is a belief in selective law-enforcement that is borne out by history, most especially in the contemporary conversation as concerns this nation’s so-called drug war. A black corpse at a murder scene is worth less than a white one, a black suspect is guiltier than a white one, all before the trial even starts. If you kill blacks, your sentence will be light, if you kill whites, you are going to jail. And if you kill a white woman, you are going away forever. This is the feeling, these are the perceptions, these are the bells that this case rings.
White America does not have to agree with this, but they need to know that this is the moment where in so doing, they are telling black America, “we disregard your personal and direct experience and substitute our own.” Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Ask your black friend.
The Trayvon Martin case was illustrative of this. Not only could an innocent teen be stalked by an armed vigilante, but he could be killed by that vigilante with no perceptible consequence. Self-defense or no, this was galling to people of color for the simple reason that there was the strong belief that if the situation were reversed and Trayvon were white and Zimmerman were black, black Zimmerman would be in prison today. This is the perception, and the core of what that case is about to black America: the feeling, backed by evidence, of systematic disadvantages in the justice process.
This was the symbolic significance of the hood: The anonymous, existential danger faced by black men in a society that is incapable of distinguishing their basic humanity, one that sees them as a statistic or a threat. One in which they can be stopped, frisked, and killed.
It was not a discussion about crime. Crimes happen. Everyone gets this. Heads-up: there will be another one tomorrow.
It was not a discussion about white-on-black attacks. Some people may have declared Zimmerman a ‘racist’, but its probably more precise to say that he took a racist step in his approach of Martin. It’s important to note here that one does not have to be a committed, ideological ‘racist’ to behave in a racist way or work on behalf of a racist power structure. You don’t even– get ready for this– have to be white. You can be black! You can even be half-Peruvian. The assertions that “Zimmerman isn’t even white, so there” showed a pretty fundamental misapprehension of this part of the situation.
If there is documentation of historically racist behavior by Zimmerman, however, this should be part of that conversation. But it isn’t important to the story, really, unless we are seeing this as some kind of hate crime, which never seemed to be in evidence.
It was not a discussion about legal strategy in the state of Florida, though that was absolutely pertinent to the outcome. Yes, they should have gone for manslaughter, etc etc. But this is legal strategy, not the intuition about what justice would actually mean, or the sense that it can be attained.
It was partially about gun law, and alluded to Stand Your Ground. Though SYG played no part in the trial, it would have been impossible to have the story play out the way it did without some expectation that killing an unarmed teenager could play out without consequence. So the SYG philosophy was an ongoing, if off-camera, presence in these discussions. SYG was the context, but not the content.
Back to Lane and those damn kids on the bus.
I find the attempt to force a connection to be, well, kind of racist. It’s not enough that there are black people still committing crimes, and sometimes they will even kill white people (statistically far, far more infrequently than other blacks, of course). But that’s not really any kind of commonality.
The kids on the bus stated it plainly: the beating was retaliation because the victim turned them into their teachers as drug dealers. Not sure we can’t still squeeze some racial motive in here, but as far as reasons go, this one is as old as the hills.
As far as the thrill-kill goes, if we take the killers at their word, they were bored and wanted to kill someone. The fact that the someone turned out to be white may well have just been his bad luck, not a specific filtering criteria they were using. If race does turn out to be a factor, a comparison to the James Byrd Jr. case in Jasper, Texas would be more apt. Byrd was dragged to his death behind a truck by avowed white supremacists whose intent was to kill him for the crime of Walking Down the Road While Black.
In the Trayvon Martin case race was the detail that most believed enabled overzealous profiling by Zimmerman and less-than-vigorous law enforcement response on behalf of Martin, but few people believe that Zimmerman left the house with the intent to kill any given black teen, or anyone in particular. At this point in the discussion, most believe Zimmerman to be a bumbling jackass who made a cascade of bad decisions leading to a predictably tragic outcome– and who was insulated from the full force of the consequences due to the race of his victim.
Another reason we see no connection is because in both the FL Bus and the Lane killing, law-enforcement acted promptly, and there is the total expectation that the guilty parties will be punished– indeed, the ‘try them as adults’ crowd should be ginning up around the Lane case right about now. Nowhere do we see the complaint that the wheels of justice are not turning when they should. Oh, there’s gonna be a hangin’. We’re just discussing types of rope.
Likewise, in neither case was the victim left unspoken for, as Martin was. Indeed, sympathy for Zimmerman ran so strong that Martin was almost immediately vilified in the right-wing media and made to look like a criminal, overlooking the fact that he was still considered innocent, indeed was never on trial. Or, as one writer so elegantly put, that “only in America could he be put on trial for his own murder.” This is the type of historical moment that will summon up an Al Sharpton or a Jesse Jackson.
Whereas in the Christopher Lane case, they will be put on trial for the murder of someone else, for which they were caught, and for which they will go to jail. No further amplification is needed– if race is indeed a factor, the prosecution can and should seek hate crime status. Everyone is pretty well agreed on this.
Really, there is no connection.
Also published on Medium.