Because George Zimmerman has not been arrested, the Trayvon Martin case continues to generate enormous attention and outrage. Half the nation, generally younger and more minority, believes a grave injustice has been done. The other half, generally older and whiter, believes that a mob led by professional agitators is trying to railroad Zimmerman for their own political purposes. The case has fractured the country along the undeniable racial fault line that is always there, but is most apparent in charged cases like this and Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell and a hundred others.
What almost everyone agrees on, is that had the roles in the Trayvon case been reversed, and had the shooter been the black kid and the dead victim the white guy, there would have been an arrest for manslaughter or even murder on the spot. That dichotomy is as deplorable as it is undeniable. Given the evidence and the outrage, Zimmerman will inevitably, if not imminently, be arrested and charged.
I also continue to believe, despite furious condemnation, that Trayvon was the latest in a long, sad string of black and brown kids killed because of mistaken identity. They were innocents thought by their killers, in George Zimmerman’s words, to be “up to no good.”
For all his aggressive zeal, deadly weapon and tragic misjudgment, Zimmerman was protecting his home. To his untrained eye, Trayvon looked more or less identical to the suspects in the seven house burglaries since July 2011 that had occurred in the gated complex of modest, connected condominium apartments grandiosely called, “The Retreat at Twin Lakes.” Zimmerman didn’t recognize him, so he reflexively associated him with bad news.
You can call that racial profiling. You can also complain that it is similar to the profiling or stereotyping that underlies New York City’s Stop and Frisk policy, and it is definitely what happens countless times when a pedestrian, white, brown or black crosses the street or moves to the other side of the subway car to avoid a dark-skinned kid whose face is shrouded in a hoodie coming their way. I know there are white kids wearing hoodies too, and students and everyone from grandmas to super models to infants. But context is everything. And in the words of Professor Cornel West, “Race Matters.” We all wish it were different, but that is harsh reality.
However obnoxious, stereotypes exist because they reflect human experience and exaggerated fears. Muslims wearing religious garb at airports make some of their fellow passengers nervous. Is that fair or justified by the 9/11 attacks? Of course not. Is it fair to feel creepy about dark-skinned kids in hoodies just because a thousand crime shows are replete with videotaped convenience store stickups by perps wearing the same garb? Of course not. But it is what it is. And not withstanding all the well-intentioned efforts like the Million Hoodie March and the Miami Heat basketball team wearing hoodies and all the demonstrations on all the nation’s college campuses, in the context of the urban street, a minority kid under fairly common circumstances can be perceived as a threat.
That is the reason that like millions of other minority dads, I have had “the talk” with my sons about how they look when they go out at night. That is the reason we tell our kids not to provoke the cops or give any reason to look like they are “up to no good.” And that is the reason I took the position I took on hoodies, to save kid’s lives.
I know it was raining in Sanford Florida. The rain is a link in the tragic and infuriating chain that led to the homicide. I apologized to Trayvon Martin’s parents on live television because I felt awful about adding to their misery. I apologized because the controversy my remarks stirred obscured the main point, which is that an unarmed kid was killed by an armed civilian who had no business behaving like super cop. I did not nor do I take back my essential point. Sometimes clothes unmake a man.
Now to the reason I am writing about Trayvon Martin again in this space.
My friend Angelo Falcon at his National Institute for Latino Policy has forwarded a letter written by some community activists condemning my involvement in this case. The reason I choose not to respond to their letter initially was their snotty hard left tone. I’ve been in the news business for 42 years, and have done more than my share to enhance understanding of Puerto Rican and Latino culture and won’t list my charitable, legal, literary or journalistic contributions. I advise the authors to look it up. You are not more street than me.
The letter also suggests that since George Zimmerman is Latino, by raising the hoodie issue, I have somehow “divided the Black and Latino communities.”
That provable falsehood cannot be tolerated.
While tension has existed for years in various neighborhoods across the country, like South L.A., is there one example of an alleged divide of the Black and Latino communities attributable to the Trayvon Martin case or the discussion of hoodies? Other than in the political ideology of the authors, can any point to a single incident anywhere in this country where the Black and Brown communities are at odds over Trayvon? If anything, isn’t the reaction to the tragedy bringing the communities together to express shared outrage?
Other than the gracious way in which Trayvon’s parents have accepted my apology, what has heartened me most are the urban parents who have stopped me on the street or called my radio show to thank me for saying what had to be said. Mothers from Bushwick to the South Bronx agree with me. So will their kids and mine, eventually.
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox New Latino.