More than two weeks past George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, the story is losing significant steam. Though decreased coverage is inevitable, fractured activism and a lack of sustained attention will only allow history to repeat itself. As expressed by President Obama, “the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” Writing as a non-African American, but still a person of color, it is important to stress some common ground.
In the 1990s while competing in track and field for the University of California, Riverside, I remember one of my teammates, Paul, approaching me after practice. Though we were neighbors and teammates, Paul and I did not know each other well. He was a long jumper and I a 400-meter hurdler.
Paul asked me if I wanted to go jogging later that night. I agreed, and for the next few months, we would jog for about 30 minutes after the sun had set. As our friendship grew, Paul eventually disclosed why he asked me to go running with him.
Previously when Paul had gone jogging, he was stopped three times by Riverside police, who asked why he was out running at night. Paul was Black, and hence, had committed the violation of “jogging while black.”
Standing about 6 foot, 2 inches tall with a lean, athletic musculature, Paul had an intimidating presence. But within America’s cultural landscape that so often associates blackness with danger, Paul’s skin color intensified the way he was stereotyped as a potential criminal.
Paul, me (upper left-hand corner) and some of our U.C. Riverside teammates.
Paul asked me to go jogging with him because he knew I would serve as a preventative buffer, insuring that police would not harass him while he was attempting to improve his athleticism. The dozens of times we jogged at night, we did so without police aggravation – my white privilege served its function.
Race beyond black and white
The thing is, I am not white. My father is Japanese American and my mother Caucasian, resulting in my skin having a tannish hue, not un-similar to George Zimmerman’s. People across North America frequently assume I am Latino.
My experience with Paul was a mild introduction to race relations in Southern California, illustrating the ever-changing complexities that shape racialized privilege and oppression. However, two decades removed from this experience, now teaching sociology at the University of Auckland (New Zealand), Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal tell me dimensions of race privilege and oppression have changed very little, if at all.
Young Black males are encouraged by society to enhance a fierce, physically imposing athleticism. Perhaps more than any other demographic group, they are tracked into sports requiring explosive athletic abilities (basketball, football, track and field). Yet when Black males present a daunting physicality, they increase the risk of being stereotyped as violent criminals who threaten the social order.
“Most Black males are encouraged to do either sports or something in entertainment as a career goal, not to be in law enforcement, a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer” said Mike Wright, an African American high school teammate of mine who also competed at the university level. “We are influenced heavy on athleticism and usually start building ourselves physically our first year in high school. Over time it becomes more and more common to see a group of Black males physically fit walking through public places and society will view these males as ex-cons.”
This was the pervading stereotype that drove George Zimmerman to – with gun in hand – stalk Martin, characterize Martin as a transient thug, and kill him. Likewise, when my friend Paul was following the conventional rules, improving his athleticism, he was hassled repeatedly by police. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I have gone running at night, how many dozens of times police have driven by and never stopped me.
This is not to say that non-Black ethnic minorities have it easy, but the contextual circumstances that shape racism’s intensity differ, and point to the fact that America is far from a post-racial society. Recent polls in the United States have framed Zimmerman’s acquittal in black-white terms, noting that substantially lower proportions of African Americans than Caucasians feel the shooting of Martin and subsequent verdict were justified.
Framing public response to Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal in this way has its merits, but leads to critical problems. America is, and never has been simply black and white. Diverse Latino reactions have only been marginally dissected in the press, despite Zimmerman being half Peruvian.
Historically, Asian American groups have been pitted against African American communities on a variety of issues in ways that mask their common struggles. Certainly Muslims, Latinos, and Native Americans can identify with the hardships that accompany racial profiling and biased justice systems. And although polls show most Caucasians are satisfied with Zimmerman’s acquittal, very large proportions are not.
Furthermore, by presenting reactions to the Zimmerman verdict in black-white terms, the multi-faceted, messy ways that race is constructed are forgotten, making problem solving unrealistic.
Yes, central to this tragedy are racial profiling and as President Obama said, a systemically problematic criminal justice system. However, this tragedy also speaks to the conflicting messages society sends to young Black males – be big, brash, aggressive and physically menacing as entertainers, but in public spaces that are predominantly Caucasian, revert to embody the subservient house-slave. These inconsistent, discriminatory messages must be confronted if society can truly enact positive change.
Sustained multi-ethnic action required
In May 1961, seven Black and six Caucasian activists boarded busses in Washington D.C., headed for Alabama and Mississippi. These freedom riders were testing court orders, which mandated that interstate transportation terminals be desegregated. Without protection from state law enforcement, the freedom riders were attacked multiple times by mobs, wielding rocks, lead pipes, baseball bats, and chains.
Coverage of the freedom riders’ victimization exposed Americans to the ferocious racism that existed across America’s deep South, but also illustrated that the fight for civil rights did not rest solely upon African American communities’ shoulders. This is a lesson we can all reflect upon now.
From a legal perspective, Zimmerman’s acquittal renders his killing of Martin legitimate. However, this is not a viewpoint everyone shares, including many non-African Americans. Without co-opting African American leadership, it is crucial that non-African Americans who disagree with Zimmerman’s actions and the attendant verdict continue to speak out.
As my old teammate Mike Wright argues, “The only time the United States has ever excelled as a nation is when the American people have come together against a common cause – the end of slavery, the marches with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, all the way up to this Zimmerman case. Many Whites and other ethnic groups have fought side by side with Black people throughout history but the American government and media will have everyone thinking that everything is Black and White.”
Vehement dissent with Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal are not reserved to Black communities. If the United States is to truly evolve, if laws like “stand your ground” are to be ousted, if cultural trends are to be altered that do not send harmful mixed messages to racialized groups, non-African American activists must fight side by side with Black communities in the push for equity over the long haul.