Some Things to Remember as We Talk about Race, Identity and Trayvon Martin

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Some Things to Remember as We Talk about Race, Identity and Trayvon Martin

By Qudsia Jafree
Senior Policy & Advocacy Associate, Racial Justice and Civil Rights

This week, the U.S. has been involved in an important, nationwide conversation about racial profiling and civil rights. This conversation has involved voices from every side of the political and social spectrum, discussing everything from Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and when/to whom it applies, to what it means to be a black man or woman walking down the street.

While there are heated exchanges occurring on social media, and vigils and protests in cities across the country, I’m left thinking about the larger conversation around race, gender and identity in the U.S. What does it take to strip another human being of their humanity, and to see them as something a little less significant, a little less meaningful, as the “other?” What are the many faces that make up the “other” in this country, and how does that manifest in the personal, public and judicial space? Here is a collection of articles, in no particular order, that made us here at the YWCA USA think a little bit more about the intersection of race, class, gender and identity.

  • 54 People Were Shot Dead in Chicago During the George Zimmerman Trial

The narrative for the death of Trayvon Martin is largely one rooted in race. Numerous pieces have been written speculating on whether Martin would have been perceived as a suspicious person or threatening if he had been white. The public, national outcry after the verdict was issued on Saturday, acquitting Zimmerman, was one of outrage, citing racial discrimination and a violation of civil rights. Meanwhile: “Over the duration of the trial, over 50 people’s lives came to an end in shootings in Chicago alone — many of them black and many of them teenagers, just like Trayvon… Many were left wondering when the media would tell their similarly tragic stories of lives lost to gun violence.”

While I feel that a more nuanced discussion on structural and institutional racism is needed, I also feel that there is something to be said about how we understand and navigate identity when our collective reaction to murder is based on racial descriptors of the aggressor and the victim. Should we be less outraged about the 54 lives lost over the duration of the Zimmerman trial, because there is no obvious racial narrative to their stories? Let’s all be more outraged about all lives lost, and hold all aggressors accountable for their actions.

  • Why Did Marissa Alexander Get a 20-year Sentence Despite Invoking Stand Your Ground?

In Florida, another case invoked the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law that served as one of the primary reasons that George Zimmerman was acquitted for manslaughter or second-degree murder. However, in this case, the defendant was sentenced to 20 years in prison. What makes this case particularly noteworthy to me is that Alexander indicated that she had a history of violence in her relationship with her estranged husband, and that she shot her gun out of fear. While no one was physically harmed by her shots, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison because the jury was not convinced that she shot her gun in an attempt at self-defense.

I have worked in the field of domestic violence for over 10 years, and this sentencing does not surprise me. However, it does drive the point home that, because it is a fact that 1 in 4 women  face some form of sexual or domestic violence in her lifetime and that the point when a victim flees a violent home is one of the most lethal, our justice system has much catching up to do.

It also makes me wonder whether Alexander’s race influenced the jury. Studies show that, in cases when African American women killed their partners, nearly 80% were in abusive relationships. In cases where African American women were killed by their partners, 50% of the homicides occurred when they were attempting to flee an abusive home. There is a general lack of empathy when it comes to victims of domestic violence; they are perceived as weak and lacking confidence or self-respect, which results in a culture of victim blaming, rather than holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. In cases involving women of color, it is easy to see how racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes can be falsely validated. Unfortunately, for women like Alexander, that often translates into unjust sentencing that punishes her for trying to protect herself.

  • “We Are George Zimmerman”

Last year, Erica Thurman of the YWCA Mclean wrote, “As people across the country proclaim in unison that, ‘we are Trayvon Martin,’ we would be remiss to forget that we are also ‘George Zimmerman.’ We have all been socially conditioned to some degree, each guilty of prescribing or ascribing to stereotypical behavior. While many of us have been on the receiving end of discrimination and oppression, we often perpetuate the same by jumping to conclusions and prejudging others based on physical characteristics.”

The YWCA works to encourage incisive conversation and thoughtful reflection on racism, through our racial justice work and our constant advocacy against discrimination in all forms. Now, in the wake of these events, as this conversation continues (and it will, indeed, continue), it is time for all of us to examine and openly discuss our biases, our privileges, and what we can do to make this a more equal and just world.

As always, please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.