During two weeks under Morocco’s sheltering skies, one loses a granulated sense of current American civil discourse. Sipping mint tea in the souks of Marrakesh, the world filtered through the International Herald Tribune, it appeared that Iranian nuclear policy, gas prices, and the health care challenge were sucking up American discursive oxygen. I was vaguely aware that a teenager had been shot in a small town in Florida, but across the ocean that seemed like a routine tragedy in a nation awash in firearms. Teens are often shot and often shooters.
Within hours of touching down at JFK, I learned that the killing (or, some insist, the murder) of Trayvon Martin in Deland, Florida, constituted that now-common spark that creates a blaze in the public sphere. As is so common when the insistent force of the image outruns mundane evidence, people were making forceful pronouncements, selectively parsing the facts of the incident. Trayvon was transformed from a Skittles-eating kid to a talking point. Anytime an adolescent dies, we should weep, but should we pounce?
As many have noted, from Attorney General Eric Holder on down, Americans have great difficulty – perhaps cowardice – in discussing the pathologies and the possibilities of racial contact. Even our president is palpably anxious behind his bully pulpit. So rather than discussing the broad structural challenges of race relations we often rely on idiosyncratic moments, often tragic ones: Bernard Goetz, the subway vigilante; the dragging death of James Byrd; the wilding attack on the Central Park jogger; and, of course, OJ. Now we discuss the shooting death of young African-American Trayvon Martin in a suburban gated community. Each of these instances is a rare and atypical moment, but they are magnified to reveal pervasive racial animosities and resentments. And frequently what we believe is at some remove from how the events evolved.
The jury is still out on Trayvon’s shooting, or perhaps with more accuracy the jury hasn’t yet been called in. But on that evening of February 26th, 17-year-old Trayvon, wearing a hoodie, was returning to his father’s home in a gated community in Deland, where neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman noticed him and felt that he was acting suspiciously. As things transpired – we know not how, precisely – Trayvon died from a gunshot wound, and Zimmerman is in hiding, not arrested but under moral assault. With the details trickling out, the story became curiouser. Despite the reputation of gated communities as redoubts of the white elite, Zimmerman is Hispanic (sometimes snidely described as “white Hispanic”) and Trayvon’s father is black. Both reside in this gated community, which is perhaps a positive sign of a sort.
As information was released, neither Martin nor Zimmerman was a paragon. In 2005 Zimmerman was charged with resisting arrest with violence and battery on an officer, a charge that was dropped. Trayvon had been suspended several times from high school with indications of drug use and perhaps burglary. While this background does not determine what happened that February night, imperfection rules. Together the two created a complex puzzle.
Is this a case of “walking while black”: A harmless youth harassed, and then murdered, because of the symbolism of his hoodie and the pigment of his skin. Or was this an instance in which a wild youth threatened the tranquil order of a multi-racial community. These two are surrounded by others who attempted to use the incident for their own purposes. The filmmaker Spike Lee felt it his responsibility to tweet the (wrong) address for George Zimmerman, leading an elderly couple to fear for their lives. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson each hoped to boost their own sagging street cred. Ann Coulter for her part likened those who wanted justice for young Martin to the KKK. Gun rights advocates have weighed in, endorsing Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, permitting the use of deadly force.
These incidents misdirect us away from the deliberate consideration of our real racial divides. As we tell them, these are stories that are too good to be false. We trap ourselves when treating racial imaginaries as definitive accounts. As a parent myself, I recognize the anguish of Trayvon’s parents. Further, as a student of racial rumors (in my book with Patricia Turner, Whispers on the Color Line) I realize how difficult it is to avoid the desire to draw conclusions based on hunches. However, the debate over the linked fate of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin reveals our racial tensions at their most troubling. We would rather have our fantasy Martin and Zimmerman without waiting for the complex world to unspool. Perhaps the events of February 26 hold a mirror up to American race relations, but more surely the discussions since that Sunday do so. It is not the acts of Martin and Zimmerman that we need most to worry about, but the claims of those who struggle to fit these two into Procrustean boxes of their own design.