Matthew Shepard and Trayvon Martin: Bigotry Knows No Boundaries

matthew shepardThe nation is once again divided alone the fault line of race. In a perceived 2013 post-racial society, however, William Faulkner’s prophetic quote “the past is never dead. It’s not even past” of the last century have come back to haunt us in this century.

Faulkner’s quote haunts us because of the recent verdict of the George Zimmerman trial.

The story, as you well know by now, of how George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchmen of a Florida community, was acquitted of all charges — murder and manslaughter — related to Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s actions resulted in the fatal shooting of Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black teenager. Martin was perceived to be a suspect because he was wearing the signature piece of clothing that some associate with violent young black males — a hoodie. And he was not only wearing it but also “walking while black” in a gated community.

With no one of African descent — male or female — serving on the jury, the nation sadly, once again, has shown itself to be neither colorblind with an all-white jury nor post-racial with one. And the notion that an all-white female jury would render a fairer outcome than an all-white male jury assumes racial bias is gender-specific.

Just as racial bias isn’t gender-specific, it is also not race-specific. Zimmerman is of a mixed ethnic descent (mother Peruvian, father Jewish) who identifies as Hispanic.

The question, however, many are still asking even after the verdict is whether Zimmerman was motivated by racism because he, too, is a person of color; therefore, was Zimmerman racially profiling Trayvon?

Racial, gender, gender-expression, and the all the other biases float freely through society — landing on all. Just because you’re a person of color or a member of an oppressed group, it doesn’t mean you don’t buy into stereotypes and racial and cultural attitudes. These themes inform our judgments and actions toward others as well as your own group. (Case in point: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.)

trayvon on horsebackAs a matter of fact, the bombardment of stereotypes has proven to have both subtle and unintended consequences toward people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, class and religions, to name just a few. It’s not just regular people who succumb. Geraldo Rivera, a renowned Latino, stated that Trayvon wearing a hoodie was “as much responsible” for his death as Zimmerman’s pistol. Of course, Rivera later recanted.

A young man has become the symbol of the horrific result of such stereotyping, and is fast becoming the symbol for a movement. Just as Matthew Shepard’s death galvanized a nation, Trayvon Martin’s death is doing the same.

In 1998 both James Byrd Jr., and Matthew Shepard were victims of bias-motivated crimes. Byrd, an African American, was murdered by three white supremacists who chained him to the back of their pick-up truck at his ankles and dragged along a three-mile asphalt road until he was dismembered. Shepard was tortured, tethered to a fence, and left to die because he was gay.

irene monroeThe Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, was passed. The measure expanded the federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived race, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, to just name a few.

With Florida’s Stand Your Ground permitting Zimmerman to walk without charges, the Shepard-Byrd statute not only reminds us of how bias-motivated crimes links gays and blacks together but that it’s the best hope for Trayvon Martin and his family seeking justice.

Rev. Irene Monroe

Wednesday, 16 July 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on July 18, 2013
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About Rev. Irene Monroe

Rev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes - “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim.

Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As an religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”