Like many of you, I, too, am outraged at the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin. I am sure there will be those who will speak of the tension between Blacks and Latinos or Black and whites; and those discussions will deal mainly – if not solely – with blame and victimization. In that discussion there is little talk of solution. Depending on what they believe, one picks a side and is either declared “racist” or “not racist”. If you side with those who are being blamed you will be considered “racist”; side with the victim and you are cleared. But what if I suggest that while we aren’t all racists, we are all victims? Of what, you ask?
We are all altered, if not victimized by what social psychologists refer to as identity contingencies – the things we have to go through based on our social identity (i.e., race, gender, political affiliation, age, sexual orientation). Claude Steele, in his book, Whistling Vivaldi, speaks specifically to a particular type of identity contingency that he calls “stereotype threat”. It has a negative effect on our performance, our psyche, how we view others and even how we view ourselves. Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin is the latest victim of this phenomenon. My prayers are with his family and all parents ( like Christa Olgesby of CNN ) who live with this fear daily.
The common denominator is “Black”. “Black” seems to carry an almost universal nefariousness. Black Monday. Black October. Black Market. Black Male. I have never been any other race but I can assume that white parents don’t have to have “the talk” with their children before they walk out of their homes and into the world. By, “the talk”, I don’t mean sex … I mean survival. The laundry list of “don’ts” that every Black male has heard from one or both of his parents regarding how to simply be in the world; all the things that must be done just to exist. Growing up it was just another inane rule, we didn’t know any different. As an adult and, especially in light of Trayvon’s murder, I shudder to think of the foolish things I did. Trayvon obeyed every rule.
These rules were and (sadly) still are universal. Washington Post columnists, Jonathan Capehart and Eugene Robinson felt compelled to weigh in on this tragedy. First, Capehart stated “one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions. One minute you’re going about your life, the next you could be pleading for it if you’re lucky”. Jonathan was raised in New Jersey and had the same rules that I had growing up in Baltimore, Maryland years earlier. His colleague at the Post, Eugene Robinson, being raised in South Carolina and nearly ten years my senior certainly knew the rules. “For every black man in America”, says Robinson, “from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedy is personal.” Trayvon’s demise struck a low, deep chord that united all Black males in sorrow regardless of social status. It could have been anyone of us growing up.
These statements get at the crux of Steele’s “stereotype threat”. Steele contends while some identity contingencies influence us by constraining behavior, the greater danger, a tad more subtle but exponentially more dangerous, is “putting a threat in the air.” I could recite stereotypes for every social group but since Trayvon is Black, I will summarize the “threat(s) in the air” to which much of society subscribes as it pertains to Black teenagers: they are suspicious by nature, abnormally prone to skullduggery, crime and drug dealing; untrustworthy and generally guilty until proven innocent. Of course all of this is utterly ridiculous but there are those who hold these as self-evident truths. We can place George Zimmerman’s name high atop that list.
What will it take for us to speak life in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s senseless death? What will it take for us to vote those out of office who support legislation that promotes vigilantism – like “Stand-Your-Ground”? Since the passing of that law in 2005, deaths due to self-defense are up over 200 percent. The Tampa Bay Times reported 132 cases where the “Stand-Your-Ground” law was invoked; 74 defendants (56%) were cleared. Now, almost half of the states in America have similar legislation on the books. Laws like these coupled with a growing desensitization to violence and a disenfranchised electorate work to create and embolden the George Zimmermans of the world.
Trayvon Martin was a victim of the stereotype threats that Steele defines. We have allowed these threats to pollute the air for far too long. We will never conquer what we will not confront. Let’s clear the air because all of humanity is gasping, if not choking…pleading for help in the same way Trayvon pleaded for his life. Let it not be in vain.