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Did Trayvon Martin die for being black?

For a moment, forget about guilt or innocence.

Forget about the Justice Department, the grand jury and the tide of protest.

Forget all of that, and ask yourself this question:

Is Trayvon Martin dead because he was black?

The question is not an attempt to paint George Zimmerman as a racist, nor is it a suggestion that Zimmerman's claim of self-defense is false.

The question has nothing to do with Florida's "stand your ground'' law, Zimmerman's bloody nose or the Sanford Police Department's investigation.

Instead, the question goes back to the very reason Zimmerman called police early one Sunday evening in February, setting in motion the chain of events that ended the life of an unarmed teenager on a quiet, residential street.

So, once again, is Trayvon Martin dead because young, black males are more readily assumed to be potential criminals in this country?

It is only a guess, but I would say yes.

For African-Americans, there is a familiar term for being pulled over by police for no apparent reason. It is called "driving while black.'' We may never know for certain, but the crime in this case appears to have been "walking while black.''

"I think you would be hard-pressed to find any African-American who has not experienced that phenomenon at some point in their lives,'' said Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews, who experienced it as a youth in South Florida.

"It's ultimately one of the reasons I went into law and became a judge.''

One by one, Andrews begins recounting the stories. Like the time he and his brother were fingerprinted by police on the side of the road because they couldn't produce a receipt for a can of Pringles they were eating from. They were 11 and 12 years old.

There was the time he purchased a sweater and was waiting for a friend to finish shopping when a store employee accused him of shoplifting and ordered him to leave.

There were the stares and whispers whenever he was in an upscale neighborhood. And, like Martin, there were the times in unfamiliar neighborhoods when people would call the police because they were unsure about Andrews or his friends.

Does this mean Zimmerman was racist for calling Sanford police when he saw Martin walking slowly down the street in a light rain? Maybe, maybe not. Does it mean Zimmerman was engaged in racial profiling? That seems more likely.

Zimmerman was no stranger to the local police. He had called 911 and nonemergency police numbers nearly 50 times in recent years.

He complained about animals. About noisy parties. He called several times to report open garage doors on neighbors' homes, and a couple of times to report potholes.

Zimmerman was also, according to research of the calls done by thedailybeast.com, making more frequent reports of suspicious characters.

He prefaced some of the calls by saying the neighborhood had been experiencing an increase in break-ins, and a Miami Herald study of police reports confirms that was true.

The problem with Zimmerman's recent complaints was they had one thing in common:

The suspicious people were always young, black males.

Six times in the past 10 months, he had made a report of a suspicious black male in the neighborhood. Sometimes it was a single person. Sometimes it was two people. But it was always black males.

Now an argument could be made that Zimmerman was merely connecting dots if young, black males had been suspects in the recent break-ins.

But if you believe there is logic to that argument, you must also admit there is inherent unfairness to the vast number of innocent people swept up in that net.

"The problem is it's hard to talk about these things because we've made 'race card' a pejorative term,'' Judge Andrews said. "Any time you hear someone bring up the race card, it's as if they are trying to use it to gain advantage, and the argument is discounted.''

And this is why it is important to ask these questions.

We will all watch closely in the coming days to see if a grand jury decides to indict, and we will pay attention to federal inquiries of the Sanford Police Department's procedures.

But beyond the official investigations, there is the simple question of whether this sad episode was initiated because a neighborhood watch volunteer was too eager to assume the worst of a 17-year-old student just because he was black.

And if that is why Trayvon Martin is dead, it is a lesson we should all heed.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Did Trayvon Martin die for being black? 03/24/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 4:54pm]
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