Trayvon Martin's Death Cries Out For A Reexamination of Race in America

The horrible death of Trayvon Martin has put the stereotyping of black men and racial profiling front-and-center in the national consciousness like no other case in more than a decade. Trayvon, a teen with great promise, who played football, loved video games and had dreams of going to college was struck down by a man who clearly had an ax to grind. George Zimmerman, according to neighbors in the gated community in Sanford, Fla., where he lived, seemed to have an obsession with black males. In Zimmerman's mind, Trayvon could not simply be a kid innocently carrying skittles and ice tea who liked wearing hooded sweatshirts. He had to be a thug, carrying a weapon who was "suspicious" and "up to no good." To Zimmerman, Trayvon fit the profile of a criminal and this self-appointed neighborhood watchman who toted a 9mm and liked walking the neighborhood with his Rottweiler was going to track Trayvon's whereabouts to protect his neighborhood. And minutes after he first spied Trayvon, the 17-year-old lay dead from a gunshot wound to the chest that Zimmerman inflicted.

So many facts about this killing indicate that Trayvon was by no means the predator but the prey. Trayvon reportedly told his girlfriend he was being followed by someone and that he was trying to get away. Neighbors say they heard what sounded like a young voice, yelling for help and saw Zimmerman straddling Trayvon pressing his hands into his back around the time he was shot. Yet, to the Sanford Police Department, Zimmerman's account that he was attacked was all the information they needed to conclude that Zimmerman was credible. Typical police work after a homicide involves combing the neighborhood for witnesses, interviewing them extensively and returning again and again to look for more witnesses. But that was not considered necessary in this case. In fact, witnesses, like neighbor Mary Cutcher, who wanted to tell police what she saw was virtually dismissed initially -- only a brief 2 to 3 sentence note was taken by police, according to news reports. She had to repeatedly call police to give them a full account of what she had witnessed.

I suspect the Sanford Police Department, like Zimmerman, was swayed by racial stereotypes in deciding how to handle the case instead of being moved by Trayvon's humanity. The idea that the alleged victim -- Zimmerman -- could, in reality, be the perpetrator must have been inconceivable. It didn't matter that Zimmerman was armed with a deadly handgun and Trayvon wasn't. Or that Zimmerman was 250 pounds and Trayvon 140. Or that a police dispatcher told Zimmerman to stop following Trayvon. Or that Zimmerman had been arrested for assaulting an officer in the past. Or that neighbors heard a young voice crying for help. Or that Trayvon's mother recognized the voice of her child pleading for his life. Or that witnesses saw Zimmerman straddling Trayvon pressing his hands into his back. This case -- like none I've seen in my lifetime -- so clearly illustrates what is so deeply sickening and twisted about a society where people of color are so often viewed through a distorted prism that has little semblance to reality.

And from the distorted perceptions come judgments about who's right and who's wrong, who breaks the law and who doesn't, who should be charged and who shouldn't, who should go to prison and who should remain free. Then, we end up with massive racial disparities where black and brown people are behind bars in much higher numbers than their proportion in society or the rates at which they commit crimes.

I think it's likely that the stereotype that black people are prone to criminality informed how the Sanford Police Department investigated this case: the assumption that Trayvon was indeed suspicious made it so easy to accept Zimmerman's claim of self defense. It seems Trayvon's rights were horribly violated initially by Zimmerman and again by the Sanford Police Department. The Fourteen Amendment was intended to guarantee equal treatment of the laws -- not separate standards of justice based on the race of those involved.

The stereotyping and distorted perceptions around race also cause Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian people to be associated with terrorism and Latinos to be thought of as likely to be undocumented. These stereotypes enable the New York Police Department to get away with stopping and frisking nearly 700,000 residents in 2011, with nearly nine out of 10 those frisked being black or Latino in a city where whites are the largest racial group. These stereotypes allows the police to get away with singling out Muslim communities for extensive surveillance in the absence of any crimes. Latinos, regardless of citizenship, are often assumed by law enforcement officers to be undocumented, resulting in biased police stops and having to prove one's legal status. Although many like to think of this country as a nation of relative equality, the reality is that law enforcement practices and systems of criminal justice, national security and immigration do not operate in a colorblind way to any degree. And it is for that reason that leading civil rights, human rights and immigrant rights groups from around the country will descend on the Capitol, April 16-20, during National End Racial Profiling Advocacy Week to meet with members of Congress, calling on them to pass the End Racial Profiling Act of 2011.

The End Racial Profiling Act would: prohibit the use of profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity or national origin; create a private right of action for victims of profiling; mandate that the attorney general submit periodic reports to Congress on any ongoing discriminatory policing practices by federal, state and local law enforcement; and allow the attorney general to provide grants to law enforcement based on implementation of best policing practices while withholding grants from law enforcement agencies that fail to comply with the Act.

Passing one law is not going to end all biased law enforcement practices in the criminal justice system. But passing the End Racial Profiling Act would bring about a stronger level of monitoring by the federal government of discriminatory police activities on the local, state and regional level and greater accountability.

No law can prevent people like George Zimmerman from doing what he did to Trayvon -- especially while guns are so readily available. But to change biased thinking and unfair stereotypes, we should begin immediately with a national dialogue on race in America and the creation of a national commission to study race-based injustices -- so that eventually there will be less George Zimmermans out there. We must begin to think much more deeply about what we can do to make a difference in a society so 17-year-olds like Trayvon are not so easily dehumanized, dismissed and discounted. Otherwise, women and men of color will continue to see their sons unjustifiably assaulted or killed and unfairly jailed, incarcerated, detained and deported.

I'm sure many who are reading this have experienced racial profiling. Tell us about it here.