George Zimmerman was recently acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. One of the primary reasons for the acquittal was Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Upon close examination, it becomes obvious what the laws really mean, who they are for, and who they protect.
Currently, twenty-one states have “Stand Your Ground” laws. These laws are suppose to give property owners the right to defend themselves in the event they are assaulted or threatened by a perpetrator. However, these laws are premised on the mentality of a gangster. They are based on the notion that a person has the right to kill another for violating his or her turf.
It is also important to realize for whom these laws were written, how they operate, and whom they protect. If race is removed as a factor, these laws lack credibility. Imagine if two gangsters of the same race had an altercation over turf. One gangster kills the other and uses “stand your ground” as his defense. This case would be viewed as absurd.
Conversely, when race is a factor, the laws gain legitimacy and social acceptability. It also becomes obvious that the laws are nothing more than a legal shield for whites who confront minorities in suburban communities. We see that this is sort of what happened to Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen-year-old child who was stalked, bullied, and provoked by Zimmerman, a white adult. The “gangsta law” provided Zimmerman with a legal shield to defend his turf. Fear of the other was viewed as a rational and acceptable behavior. The jury ultimately ignored the fact that Trayvon Martin was standing his own ground.
Fear is often the response when people have not been able to cope with the demographic, social, political, and economic hardships. When this occurs, revitalization movements occur. People retreat into their culture and their communities and attempt to isolate themselves from the threat and attempt to reassert their values and culture.
From 1880-1920, twenty million immigrants migrated to the United States mostly from southern and eastern Europe. Although they were considered to be white, not being Anglo-Saxons induced fear across the United States; this helped to swell the ranks of the Klu Klux Klan. White immigrants not being Anglo-Saxon also were a primary cause for the enactment of prohibition and voter registration. There was fear that “the other” would lead America astray from its Anglo-Saxon values and down the path of moral and social decay.
Similar fears were prevalent during the Civil Rights Movement. When schools, jobs, and residential communities began to become integrated, there was a white backlash. Many white people abandoned the cities for the suburbs to escape. Many white people believed that the system no longer worked for them.
Politicians like Nixon and Reagan played on these sentiments for political gain. As a result, we have a war on drugs, which has had a disparate impact on Afrikan Americans and other minorities. The maintenance of prisons is now bankrupting California and many other states.
Immigration and racial integration have continued. Hence, the enactment of “Stand Your Ground” laws. Even the election and re-election of President Barack Obama have taken people out of their comfort-zone, and as a result we have seen the enactment of voter identification laws as yet another attempt to control “the other” and render America a safe place for “descent people.”
These laws have given people a false sense of security and have not solved the problem. They have only helped to get politicians elected and re-elected. They do not foster dialogue and build bridges of understanding. They simply play on the fear of “the other”. The acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin makes it clear that the United States is not a post-racial society and needs to have an honest dialogue about race. If those who profess color blindness were to take off their rose colored glasses they would see a stark reality where race dominates. Only 40% of the Afrikan American males students in the Los Angeles Unified School District graduate from high school.
Afrikan Americans are still overburdened by the problems of race. We still have to contend with racial discrimination on the job and in our daily lives. Racial profiling has become a routine apart of the lives of most Afrikan American men. The police have stopped most Afrikan American men for Driving While Black (DWB) and Walking While Black (WWB), just to name a few. In addition, Afrikan Americans are still portrayed as clowns and criminals by the media.
Race still plays an overwhelming role in a person’s chances for success. Today, a poor Afrikan American child born in the inner city is unlikely to achieve upward mobility and is likely to remain poor for the remainder of his/her life. Race still affects the quality of life one has in the United States. The average life span for a white male in the United States is 75.7 years while the life span for an Afrikan American male is 69.7 years. Afrikan Americans are also disproportionately poor, 24.5% live in poverty, while only 10.5% of white people live in poverty. White people earn 72.2% of the bachelor’s degrees while 9.6% of African Americans earn bachelor’s degrees.
The death of Trayvon Martin should serve as a catalyst to mobilize America to deal with its racial problems, but unfortunately it will not. Modern racism, labeled the “New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander in her recent book, has gone underground. Gone are the racial epithets and separate facilities. However, many of the same old racial attitudes remain and they have been enshrined in our institutions under the guise of equal opportunity. Equal opportunity is nothing more than a misnomer for maintaining the status quo. As the late Derrick Bell has written, “given the continued motivations for racism, the society has managed to discriminate against blacks as effectively under the remedy as under the prior law–more effectively really because discrimination is covert, harder to prove, its ill effects easier to blame on its black victims.” In other words, our policies appear to be race neutral but racism is still deeply enshrined in our attitudes and institutions.
Numerous rallies will be held and there will be more Trayvon Martins in the future until we finally decide to how to effectively deal with racism. We do not live in a post-racial society. We have not overcome.
Author: Dale C. Tatum, Ph.D.