The Trayvon Martin Case: A Lesson Still to Be Learned

racismFor years, my father, a federal employee with a top secret clearance, carried a copy of his birth certificate when he went into Baja California from our home in San Diego. Many times, when he tried to reenter the U.S., he was stopped by the Border Patrol.

My father had thick black hair and naturally dark skin, and the Patrol thought he was a Mexican brazenly trying to sneak back into the country by claiming to be married to the black-haired, blue- eyed, light-skinned woman he claimed was his wife. Once back home, he faced discrimination because neighbors thought he was Mexican; the ones who knew better discriminated because he was a Jew.

When I was 11 years old, we moved about 120 miles north to a suburb of Los Angeles. My parents bought a house in a new tract of about 150 houses, all owned by Whites and a few Hispanics. Three or four years later, a Realtor came by, plastering flyers on all the houses, announcing he had a special real good, one-time only deal.

A few wouldn’t sell their houses at any price if it was a Black who was planning to move into the area. Someone in the tract finally took up the offer, and a Black family — he was a mechanical engineer — moved in. It didn’t take long before other White families began putting their houses up for sale. Only this time, they weren’t getting as much as the first family that sold out. Soon, the prices began tumbling as other Blacks and Hispanics moved in.

Eventually, the first Black family moved out. But my parents refused to sell their house. They had no intention of becoming involved with what was now known as “block busting.” A few of our Hispanic and Black neighbors wondered why we stayed; some even said we were crazy. But, until my father died in 1983, he owned that house in a neighborhood that went from almost 100 percent White to almost 100 percent Black, Hispanic, and lower-class White, refusing to be sucked in by racism.

Discrimination occurs throughout our country, whether we want to believe it or not.
At a synagogue in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, someone painted a swastika. In New York City, unidentified individuals threw several Molotov cocktails against a rabbi’s residence. These weren’t isolated incidents. The Anti-Defamation League says there were 1,239 reported incidents in 2010. (The 2011 number is still being tallied.)

Several American communities and the states of Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and Utah have enacted oppressive anti-immigration laws. On the surface, it appears they want to rid their areas of illegal immigrants, acting only to protect law-and-order. But, the deeper structure is that they fear Hispanics, more of them legal immigrants or citizens of the U.S. than undocumented workers, will get political, educational, and financial power and would reduce the influence of the ultra-conservative White population.

At the University of California at San Diego, a fraternity of Whites sent out invitations to a “ghetto-themed” party, which it called the “Compton Cookout.” The invitation noted that “ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes.” At that same school last year, a Klan hood was placed on a statue of Dr. Seuss.

At innumerable local schools, where the teachers had “cultural diversity” classes in college and on-the-job “diversity training,” it’s not unusual to hear a few teachers telling racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic jokes, not just among themselves in a faculty lounge but also with students.

White supremacists shout for “White Pride!” and Black militants call for “Black Power!” Each claims they aren’t planning to destroy any other race — although myriad Klan and Skinhead actions prove otherwise — but merely to strengthen their own. Add into the mix, a few who will shout “racism” when no racism occurs and, thus, make it difficult for those with true compassion for justice to separate the truth from the fiction. Peel the rhetoric, and the core is still fear.

And that may be why the death of Trayvon Martin is so important. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch leader in Sanford, Florida, killed Martin, February 26. Zimmerman acknowledges he killed Martin, but claims it was in self-defense. Under Florida’s reactionary “stand your ground” law, borne from fear rather than logic, people who feel threatened can take whatever action they think necessary, even shooting Black teenagers who are armed only with a pack of Skittles.

walter braschThere are numerous versions of what happened, all of them advanced by myriad people with social and political agendas rather than a search for justice, no matter what they claim. But, fear is at the core of the rhetoric. Mistrust and distrust, often fueled by the mass media with their own agendas, may lead some to irrationally believe that entire demographics of people — White, Black, Hispanic, gay, Jew, Muslim — may pose threats to their own safety, leading them to react as if the threats were real rather than imagined.

The reasons no longer matter to Trayvon Martin. The lesson however, should matter to the rest of us.

Walter Brasch

Walter Brasch is the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. distinguished service award. His latest book is Before the First Snow; a major theme of the book looks at issues of racism and bigotry. The book is available from Greeley & Stone Publishers or amazon.


  1. Reggie Brown says

    Under Florida’s reactionary “stand your ground” law… people who feel threatened can take whatever action they think necessary, even shooting Black teenagers who are armed only with a pack of Skittles.

    Your statement exemplifies exactly the kind of misinformation and spin that the media has put out about the Zimmerman/Martin tragedy. Armed with only a pack of Skittles? Really?
    The media has a vested interest in disseminating misinformation because they want to stir the racial pot so they can sell us more media disinformation. But why are you misleading people Mr. Brasch? If Trayvon Martin was angry that Zimmerman was watching him, and if he ran away but came back to beat him up, then he was armed with more than Skittles. As a strong young man with the element of surprise, he had his fists and very deadly strength. He was over six feet tall and almost the same weight as Zimmerman (the media originally misinformed the public about Martin’s weight and repeatedly published a little boy picture of him that appears to be from when he was 13 or 14 years old). He played football and other sports. If he punched Zimmerman in the face and smashed his head into the cement, which Zimmerman claims and which has been corroborated by a witness statement, then Zimmerman was a risk of serious head injury or death. What we don’t know yet about this incident is 1) How extensive Zimmerman’s head injuries were, and 2) Who started the physical altercation.
    Martin might have been a sweet young man who would never attack another person. Or he might have been a hot headed, angry young man who was p!ssed off that he was being watched. I’d be mad if I thought someone was profiling me. Maybe he was casing the neighborhood (which had recently had a series of burglaries by young men, mostly black), or maybe he was just talking on the phone and spacing out, which would account for a misimpression that he was acting strangely. We don’t know yet. We don’t have access to his phone records because the State hasn’t provided discovery to Zimmerman’s defense attorney. But I’ve seen lots of people act strangely when they’re immersed in a phone conversation. Maybe Zimmerman completely misread the situation. Or maybe he was spot on and Martin reacted in anger to getting caught. Both could have happened. We really don’t know until all the evidence is made available. In fact, even then we might not know for sure.
    What we do know is that the spin and manipulation regarding this tragedy is out of control. That includes NBC airing Zimmerman’s call to the police after editing out the dispatcher’s question about the suspects race, Faux News and other right wing media outlets pushing their usual racist memes, bloggers and protesters deciding they already know what went down, and political and religious leaders instigating racial divisions. The result of all this disinformation is that many people have already decided in their minds what happened: A racist thug hunted down and murdered a poor innocent little boy who was just coming home from the store with candy. In the words of a prominent African-American politician, the police told Zimmerman to “Stand down, leave him alone!” But instead Zimmerman “…hunted [Trayvon] down like you hunt a rabbit.” Once someone agrees with that version of reality, any other possible scenario is considered an affront and an attack on Trayvon. But what if what happened was completely different than that scenario? When you listen to Zimmerman on the police call, does it sound like he’s hunting down a kid to murder him?
    We don’t know for sure what happened that night, but the evidence indicates that Trayvon Martin may have had ample opportunity to continue home, but chose to go back and confront Zimmerman. Listen to the original call from Zimmerman to the non-emergency police. Zimmerman isn’t even sure of Martin’s race. Was this a case of racial profiling then? Or was Martin truly concerned about a stranger’s behavior? During the call, Martin stares at, then approaches Zimmerman. Then he abruptly runs away. Zimmerman follows him, perhaps in an attempt to keep him in sight so the police could find him when they finally arrive, and he continues to speak with the dispatcher for almost 2 minutes after he lost sight of Martin. Listening to his breathing, he appears to have stopped running after losing sight of Martin, yet their altercation took place in approx the same place he started (behind the house, back where his car was parked). Take a look at a map of the neighborhood. If Martin came back to beat up Zimmerman for having the nerve to stare at him, and if he provoked the use of force, then Zimmerman has a valid claim to self defense under Florida law. If Zimmerman initially provoked the deadly encounter, then he cannot invoke any “stand your ground” defense. The law doesn’t define “provoke,” but if it includes following the victim and harassing him, then Zimmerman may have provoked Martin. If Zimmerman also grabbed Martin, his actions would certainly constitute provocation. However, even a provocateur has the legal right to defend himself under Florida law if he can’t escape and if he is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, as Zimmerman claims he was.
    We’ll know more about this incident after more evidence is disclosed, but in the meantime, it does our community a disservice to continue to pretend we know what happened, or to imply that a racist white thug hunted down and killed an innocent black child armed only with candy. Whatever pain we feel over this tragedy, we need to be cognizant what our words encourage other young men to do. If Martin made a conscious choice to beat up someone because he was angry that he was being profiled, then the message to other youth should be to use better judgment and restrain their inner gangbanger. Framing this incident as something it’s not only hurts us more.

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