The Zimmerman Verdict as a Teachable Moment

By Eric Cooper

Though countless people will long disagree about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, what we shouldn't miss is the invaluable teachable moment that arises from this experience for the nation -- one that enables us to engage in "courageous conversations" that can bring us together in a national dialogue of learning, instead of reducing us to recriminations and accusations.

The natural response is to argue about what is right and wrong, depending on one's perspective. And yet the death of a young American, Trayvon Martin, must not be lost in the debates that will most undoubtedly follow us during the coming days, weeks and months -- and years.

A precious life, forever lost to those he loved, those with whom he shared his life, those he may have helped in his 17 years on this earth. The senseless loss of a son, relative, friend and classmate who had the audacity to walk in a neighborhood, where his color seemingly set off subliminal warning signals for Zimmerman, who seemingly profiled individuals based on the color of their skin and their clothing.

Once again, in the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case, we see that the confluence of reality and belief -- muddied by the toxic waters of racism and stereotypes -- have collided in a court proceeding that involves a white and black American.

It is my hope that we can use this unfortunate circumstance as a teachable moment -- one that informs schoolchildren and youth about the nature of racism, stereotypes and bias in America; one that educates them about the nature of prejudice and the fear it engenders.

Zimmerman, after all, is representative of many who, due to what might be a lack of exposure to the nation's diversity, jump to erroneous conclusions and make fatal decisions. In this instance, Zimmerman decided Martin was a threat to "his" neighborhood, an intruder whose mere presence challenged the safety of those living within the "gated" walls of the community. No stranger to these stereotypical assumptions about the potential danger of African-Americans, Zimmerman was reported to have called police 46 times to report black intruders who dared to stray into the neighborhood.

Questions I, as an educator and former Columbia University graduate research assistant for a project focused on the volatile nature of police work and its impact on New York City officers, find myself asking are: Why didn't warning bells go off in the police department regarding the "tracking" that Zimmerman was engaged in during his neighborhood watch patrols? Could the police have provided Zimmerman with counseling about carrying a weapon during his drive each night through the neighborhood? Is it possible this senseless murder could have been avoided if there were "call-tracking mechanisms," which could have helped to support the safety of those who live in Sanford, Fla.?

The sheer numbers of calls speaks to the fear that seemingly pervades the city of Sanford, and the personality and learned traits of Zimmerman as well. I have seen this fear projected on me during my youth and on my now 19-year-old son, based on assumptions made about me and my son because of the color of our skin and the extant fear of black men in particular.

I have always found this assumption of fear to be perplexing, because as a black man I have largely internalized the same American values shared by those who just happened to have been born white. And for the most part, I have found in my work as well as throughout my research of the literature, that in terms of educational goals, blacks males have been found to actually place "... greater emphasis on getting good grades than whites or Asians; in fact white males were the least likely to say good grades were 'very important' to them." (See 2002 Minority Student Achievement Network study as reported by Tim Wise in his book, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and The Retreat From Racial Equity, p. 130.)

Similar assumptions and stereotypes have been made about blacks' use of drugs. Michelle Alexander, writing in her seminal 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, has written that:

"The notion that most illegal drug use and sale happens in the ghetto is pure fiction. ... Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than 13 times higher than white men (p. 98) ... and that whites constituted the vast majority of drug users then (and now). (page 103)."

What about violent crimes that have resulted in deaths? Close your eyes and imagine who committed the horrific murders of innocent schoolchildren, or college students, or those attending a movie or concert. Would a black face be described in the picture that comes to mind or a white one? One has just to recall the horrible truth of Sandy Hook Elementary School or Columbine High School, to name a couple, for the answer. And yet to engage in stereotyping any race based on implicit assumptions is wrong and will always be wrong.

Whether one concludes that a death was warranted because of fear for one's life, the fact remains that, not by his own hand, Trayvon Martin has given his life for the nation. And through his actions, whether warranted or not, George Zimmerman is forever representative of those who shut themselves off from the beauty of our nation's diversity, fearing rather than embracing the racial and economic differences Americans bring to the rich tapestry that binds our nation's people.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. Eric can be reached at