Marc Lamont Hill says America’s inability to see Black mens’ humanity is rooted in its history and is why the George Zimmerman trial turned into the Trayvon Martin trial
ON JULY 13, 2013, A JURY of five White women and one Hispanic woman declared George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. After nearly 18 months of legal battles, Zimmerman was sent home unpunished and is free to go out and buy another gun.
Despite our feelings of pain and anger, it’s hard to be shocked by the Zimmerman verdict. Since the birth of the nation, Black people have been the subjects of routine violence by slave masters, law enforcement and everyday citizens. This violence has been enabled by the criminal justice system, which has systematically denied Blacks the legal protections afforded to both White people and property. From Emmett Till to Sean Bell, history offers little incentive to expect justice for dead Black bodies.
But we were not merely measuring our hopes against the backdrop of history.
Many of us had expectations fueled by the promises of the current “post-racial” America. After all, hadn’t we turned the racial corner on Nov. 4, 2008? If our country had the capacity to place a Black man in the White House, how could we possibly provide anything but justice for Trayvon Martin? Unfortunately, as the Zimmerman verdict reminds us, the presence of a Black president and a Black attorney general does little to change the racial realities of people on the ground.
One of the biggest challenges is a collective inability to see Black males as innocent. Even when they are the victims of violence, Black men are profiled and assumed to be associated with gang activity, drug dealing or other forms of illegal activity that make it easy to deny them social protection, support or even outrage. In the case of Trayvon Martin, there was no evidence of criminal involvement, yet after he was killed, as a part of a routine autopsy, his body was drug tested. The police didn’t see fit to drug test the man who shot him.
This denial of Black innocence allows us to view violence against Black youth as normal. When tragic shootings occur in predominately White places such as Newtown, Connecticut or Aurora, Colorado, the country expresses a collective outrage, a sense that “this shouldn’t happen here.” At the same time, high levels of violence in cities such as Detroit and Chicago are treated as unfortunate but normal. Far too often, White innocence (especially among children Trayvon’s age) is seen as a natural right worth protecting, while “Black innocence” is seen as an oxymoron. As we see in the case of Trayvon Martin, this normalization of Black violence makes law enforcement less likely to investigate, juries less likely to convict and the general public less likely to care.
Another challenge is our failure to see Black males as nonviolent. From slavery until now, Black men have been understood as civic terrors from whom the public must be protected. From television to literature to public policy, the story of Black masculinity is one of natural immorality, violence and sexual misconduct.
This is why the hoodie became a sign of criminality when draped over the body of Trayvon Martin. This is why Trayvon’s walk from the store, despite being in his own neighborhood, made him a suspicious outsider to George Zimmerman. This is why Zimmerman’s defense team was able to convince a predominately White female jury—and much of America—that they, too, would have reasonably shot an unarmed Black teenager if they had been in the same position. This is how “The Trial of George Zimmerman” was effectively turned into “The Trial of Trayvon Martin.”
These understandings of Black males are not merely stitched into our social and cultural fabric, they are codified through our public policies. Laws such as juvenile curfews, civil injunctions against gangs and “Stop and Frisk” force us to engage Black youth through the language of containment and blame rather than investment and love. When combined with gun-friendly public policies such as “Stand Your Ground,” we have literally made it illegal and deadly to be young, Black and outside.
As we gain distance from the immediate emotions of the moment, we realize that the prosecution had a nearly impossible task. Beyond the limitations of its case, it had to convince a jury that a Black male body was worthy of empathy, protection and justice. To that extent, Trayvon is America’s metaphor. He is a symbol that, even in the age of a Black president and post-racial promises, young Black bodies are still viewed as disposable.
Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University.