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Commentary: Trayvon Martin's death, threat response and race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 19, 2012 - Some of my best friends are ______

Even still, he still might be deemed “suspicious” and shot. I predict a groundswell of stories about Trayvon Martin's death despite being covered in only a smattering of nationwide outlets.

The basic facts are that a teenage Black male was walking back from the convenience store with Skittles and a drink and was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain. The captain, George Zimmerman, called 911 to report the suspicious looking teen. He was explicitly told not to purse the youth. Martin was killed on Feb. 26; no charges have been filed against Zimmerman.

Research would suggest that we have a lower threshold to deem African Americans shot-worthy compared to Whites. In addition, more recent studies have even found that the neuronal voltage jump associated with the threat response is larger when participants are shown African-American faces compared to White faces. These string of findings occurred within the lab, and were spurred by the 2001 killing of Amadou Diallo who pulled out a wallet that was mistaken for a gun. But if we are honest with ourselves, we can come up with our own anecdotal evidence.

I am married to an African-American man and am raising two boys that I sincerely hope grow to be African-American men, and I can still give you the laundry list of reasons I should fear Black men. I work hard to make those assumptions that are fed to me conscious and to resist them, but it is active work nonetheless.

No one is immune to the smog of persistent stereotypes. Yet, the shooter’s father has defended his son on the basis that he is Latino, Spanish-speaking, and has Black family members and friends. To repeat, no one is immune. Those qualifications in no way suggest that Zimmerman was without bias. Racism knows no boundaries, and it doesn’t matter who your family and friends are.

Without conscious and intentional effort, you will cough up some of the smog. If the pollution is not stopped, as soon as you’ve cleaned up your filters, they get gunked up again. And to be clear, regardless of the outcome of this case, we should be convicted to clean up the mess rather than focus only when there is an outbreak.

In this situation, there are some sources of smog worth mentioning.

First, the incident happened in a gated community. The unspoken, and sometimes spoken assumptions about who is suspicious versus who fits in this setting, is notable. A resident, who is a Black male, discussed the fact that he doesn’t take his walks in the neighborhood for fear of being suspected of being up to no good.

Second, over the course of some years, this neighborhood has become more integrated and those shifts don’t come without growing pains. Residents expressed concern over the shift and the assumptions that “thugs,” who are Black men, are committing crimes. Integration is easier said than lived, and it would be false to overlook those dynamics as important pieces to this story.

Because we are all susceptible, we should also actively engage in eradicating the deep-seated stereotypes bred by racism. While the claim does not hold much weight, if we are going to invoke our friendships with ____ people, we should be outraged, saddened and introspective when a young, innocent, boy is killed.

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