Same Sh*t, Different Decade: Trayvon Martin and the Politics of Race

When the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial was announced on Saturday I turned off the TV and went to bed, emotionally exhausted. My exhaustion surprised me, though the verdict did not. The verdict was all too predicable.

It is simply a fact that the racial composition of juries makes a difference in cases where the victim and/or the perpetrator are black, yet five of six jurors were white, and none were black. And in cases of murder where the victim is black, both the rate of conviction and severity of punishment are suppressed by this fact of race, regardless of the race of the perpetrator. The failure of the police to vigorously investigate the circumstances of the killing also follows a discriminatory pattern evidenced by an unsolved murder rate that is higher for blacks than for whites, especially when black people are killed in majority black neighborhoods. And not even following ordinary investigative procedures, much less conducting a vigorous investigation, guaranteed that the prosecution’s case would be thin in terms of physical evidence.

Contributing further to my bleak outlook was that fact that justice would not have been served, regardless of the verdict. Convicting George Zimmerman would not have returned a beloved son to his family. Nor would it have struck down the Stand Your Ground law without which this tragedy might not have occurred. Neither would it have reduced the implicit racism on which that law is founded; the same implicit racism that made pictures of Trayvon looking like an adult scary enough to be effective in helping to build Zimmerman’s case for self-defense.

I awoke the next day, still tired, with one name on my mind. Emmett Till. I went to the internet to remind myself of the circumstances of Till’s death. As I read, the source of my exhaustion became clear to me.

Emmett Till was a 14 year old black boy who was murdered while on a visit from Chicago to relatives in Money, Mississippi in 1955. In Money, he made the fatal error of acting like a white man when addressing a white woman. That woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and another man, J. W. Milam, retaliated by kidnapping Till and torturing him before shooting him through the head and tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milam were charged with murder but acquitted, becoming heroes of white resistance to civil rights reforms when they admitted to the crime in a post-trial magazine interview.

Emmett Till, a Chicagoan, failed to understand the rules of engagement in the Jim Crow South; rules informed by the vicious bile of racism that labeled blacks subhuman, predatory, and criminal. According to those rules, any attempt by a black man to cross the color line, even with a look or a word, could get him killed in the name of public safety.

When the verdict came down in the Zimmerman case, it confirmed that, in spite of some not inconsiderable progress since 1955, the underlying social dynamics of race relations in the U.S. have remained largely unchanged. Like Emmett Till before him, Trayvon Martin broke unwritten racial codes.

He was a black boy walking alone at night in a mostly white, suburban neighborhood. When approached by a man with a gun who fancied himself a cop, he dared to defy him. He had a history of smoking marijuana, an act that the composition of our prisons makes clear is a sign of criminality when undertaken by blacks, but is nothing more than a minor indiscretion when undertaken by whites. He got suspended from school. He documented a fight on video, even got into a fight or two himself.

Unwritten racial codes of our society dictate that, far too often, police harassment, arrest, imprisonment, even death may result when these ordinary acts are undertaken by black people. Trayvon was today’s equivalent of a black teenager acting as though he was as free as any white man in Money, Mississippi in 1955.

And now Trayvon Martin is dead. His killer walks free because demonstrating that Trayvon had the audacity to undertake these ordinary acts was all that was necessary to raise suspicion of his criminality. And, it appears, that suspicion made credible the completely counter-intuitive theory that an adult armed with a gun was acting in self-defense when he stalked, shot, and killed an unarmed 17 year old.

That just exhausts me.








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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

3 replies on “Same Sh*t, Different Decade: Trayvon Martin and the Politics of Race”

I am angry that I have to be furious because I am afraid. I am angry at the idea of a lethally armed grown-ass man feeling threatened by a boy in khakis. I’m still waiting for an explanation of what was so suspicious about Trayvon Martin, other than his race. I’m angry that so many White commenters think he should have explained his presence, actions, and whereabouts to a stranger who was stalking him when they wouldn’t expect their children to do so. I’m disgusted that a murderer gets to keep a souvenir and his brother and least one juror are enjoying the limelight and trying to make a buck; blaming the child for his own death by daring to defend himself and slandering a dead child is beyond apathetic. I am angry that my life and the lives of others who look like me are worth nothing in Florida, so long as White/White Hispanic people feel even a modicum of fear.

It is not fear that they feel. What it boils down to is, they feel it is their right.

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