How do media images of scary black males relate to the Trayvon Martin shooting case?
At least twice yesterday journalists working on stories about the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin asked me this question:
What role did media images of scary black males play in self-appointed watchman George Zimmerman's decision to shoot an unarmed African American teenager walking back from a convenience store run in Sanford, Fla.?
That's the concern expressed by protesters and concerned citizens nationwide, mobilized by social media and growing national news coverage to challenge the fact that police haven't yet arrested Zimmerman. During an emotional public meeting Tuesday night, residents heard from national NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and saw local leaders demand Zimmerman's arrest and the resignation of the local police chief.
My answer to that simple question is a complex one. Because I think the racial dynamics here are different and deeper than the superficial stories some national news outlets are telling.
The in-depth reporting I've seen -- and my own scant knowledge of small Florida towns like Sanford -- reveals a neighborhood in transition, with an influx of poorer people, people of color and rising crime rates raising tensions. The Miami Herald reported in the year before Martin's death, there had been eight burglaries, nine thefts and one other shooting in the area. (photos above and left by Tampa Bay Times photojournalist Kathleen Flynn).
There have been frictions between the Sanford police department and the area's black community. In 2010, the department let seven weeks pass before arresting the son of an officer caught on video punching a homeless man, and in 2005 two security guards with personal connections to the department were acquitted after killing a black man they said tried to run them over.
I think some of this is wrapped up in a very simplistic understanding of racism. We still, too often, act like racism is a switch -- either you're Archie Bunker or David Duke and acting as a clear cut white supremacist, or you're not.
But that's not how I think it works. Very often, people who would never consider themselves racist in other settings have very negative views of minorities in certain circumstances -- say, if they live in a high-crime neighborhood where many offenses are committed by black or brown people.
Zimmerman's father has released a statement saying his son speaks Spanish and has partially Hispanic heritage (his mother is Hispanic), perhaps to suggest that he isn't prejudiced against racial minorities because he's a minority, too. They may also be trying to make any federal civil rights prosecution tougher by pushing back against the notion that he was a white guy zeroing in on a young black male for little reason.
But even if that were true -- Tampa Bay Times writer Michael Kruse reports that Zimmerman self identifies as Hispanic on his driver's license and voter registration -- that doesn't mean he couldn't have also been someone who singled out black people for special, pejorative attention while watching over the neighborhood.
Add in a police department with longstanding frictions among the black community, and you have a story which sounds sadly familiar to people who know Florida and race issues. The state has a sad legacy of law enforcement which doesn't always treat people of color with the respect they deserve; if anything comes of this awful tragedy, it should be a close look at how Sanford police handled the investigation and their unwillingness to release material such as audio of the 911 calls.
Click here to read a compelling Huffington post column about the many ways in which Florida legislators have acted to weaken the voices of people of color in the state, contributing to what the writer calls a modern-day "Jim Crow atmosphere."
In the end, the only people who may fully know what happened that night on Feb. 26 is Zimmerman and Martin. Given the way Florida's Stand Your Ground Law works, it may be tough to challenge Zimmerman's account, despite growing questions.
And as more national media outlets pile onto the story -- and Zimmerman declines to speak publicly -- a narrative is developing that simplifies everything a bit too much.
I'm hoping after the Grand Jury, FBI and Justice Department investigations Sanford police are asked tough questions about their handling of this case. It's unconscionable that the family had to spark a tsunami of national media coverage to get a close look at this case by law enforcement.
I also hope gated communities in that area figure out how to keep watch for possible crimes without randomly questioning every young black male who walks in the area. Walking while black does not justify interrogating people about their destinations and intentions.
But more than anything, I'm hoping for more good journalism peeling back the specific issues at play here.
That may be the only hope for some progress to come out of this awful situation.