As Trayvon Martin strolled home with his Skittles and his iced tea in Sanford, Florida, he had a power he was certainly not aware of and would not have wanted. Eventually, it was what got him killed -- gunned down by a nervous member of a neighborhood watch.
Writer and critic Brent Staples named that power in a 1986 essay, Just Walk on By, that has become a classic in the annals of black men and (perceived) violence.
He wrote that he was 23 years old, a graduate student at the university of Chicago, out for an evening stroll on the city streets. A woman walking ahead of him kept looking over her shoulder, nervously.
To her, the youngish black man -- a broad six feet two inches with a beard and billowing hair, both hands shoved into the pockets of a bulky military jacket -- seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Within seconds she disappeared into a cross street... It was in the echo of that terrified woman's footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I'd come into -- the ability to alter public space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse.
Staples was none of the above. He was a student with insomnia, stalking sleepiness instead of white quarry to terrify. And, as he admitted, "As a softy who is scarcely able to take a knife to raw chicken -- let alone hold it to a person's throat -- I was surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed all at once. Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny. It also made it clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto."
In the years since that first encounter, he was menaced by a growling dog in a jewelry store, and chased down the halls of the building where he worked as a writer by a security guard.
Trayvon Martin clearly altered public space for his killer, George Zimmerman, on February 26, 2012.
To Zimmerman, Trayvon, with his hoodie and the dark color of his skin, was in fact wearing what might be called a cloak of stereotype. He was not an individual person, but part of a group that Zimmerman identified as criminal.
Zimmerman reportedly said to police, "There's a real suspicious guy... he's up to no good. He's just walking around, he looks black... late teens." Zimmerman continued, "These assholes, they always get away..."
According to reports, Zimmerman called police in Florida 46 times in recent years to report alleged break-ins, and other disturbances. Prosecutors said he complained often of "suspicious black people" around his gated community in Sanford.
When Trayvon Martin entered the space of the gated community where his father lived, he altered that space for George Zimmernan, making it a darker (no pun intended) and more dangerous place.
And Trayvon may have been reacting, in his fear of the "creepy ass cracker" who was following him, to "stereotype threat."
This situation is discussed in the work of psychologist Claude Steele, now dean of the graduate school of education at Stanford.
Steele says that stereotypes about certain groups are so strong that members of such groups change their behavior to avoid conforming to the stereotype. Brent Staples, for example, took up the habit of whistling melodies from Vivaldi as he went on his nighttime strolls."Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn't be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons."
Becki Cohn-Vargas, director of Not in Our Town, a group that works with communities to overcome hatred, worried about Trayvon's fear: "Perhaps stereotype threat caused Trayvon to tell his girlfriend that he was afraid but not sure he should run, because by running he would confirm a negative stereotype or provoke a response. Black youth describe being followed in convenience stores or being pulled over or frisked."
We don't know what actually transpired in the altercation -- who threw the first punch, who was most afraid. But we do know that an innocent African-American boy who went to a local store for treats ended up being shot dead. He was armed, we are told, with a sidewalk. He was clearly guilty of the crime of walking while black,
What if George Zimmerman had just stayed in his car, as the police dispatcher told him to? Trayvon Martin would be alive today. What if Trayvon had not been so frightened by the white man following him that he could have simply said to Zimmerman, "My father lives here. I belong here. I am not doing anything wrong." Would he be alive today in this scenario? Perhaps so.
What we do know is the case was indeed about race -- all about race, in fact. Racial stereotypes clearly influenced George Zimmerman's actions, and perhaps Trayvon's as well. But only Zimmerman's beliefs proved deadly. In his head danced visions of vicious thugs with black faces. Was he really in danger of his life, wrestling with a 17-year-old black kid? Seems doubtful. Sure, he had some nasty cuts, but couldn't he have wriggled away and retreated instead of pulling out a gun and blasting away like Dirty Harry?
Who knows exactly what was in his head, but in the land of stereotypes, deadly phantoms emerge when such specters do not really exist. Was he firing at all the "thugs" that got away? And does he get to do that against an unarmed kid?
Brent Staples learned that "being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself. I only needed to turn a corner into a dicey situation, or crowd some frightened, armed person in a foyer somewhere, or make an errant move after being pulled over by a policeman. Where fear and weapons meet -- and they often do in urban America -- there is always the possibility of death."
The continual lurking of stereotypes permeates such encounters. What we discovered in the Trayvon Martin case is that stereotypes kill, and that if we continue to let them breed in the dark places in our society, more people will die, many of them young black men.
Caryl Rivers novel about the civil rights movement, "Camelot," was recently published as an e book by Diversion Press.