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Trayvon Martin: the crime of being black, male, and wearing a hoodie

Whatever happens to neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, the dialogue on race must go on. Media perpetually associate criminality with black males. Legislators criminalize black dress. And the criminal justice system disproportionately penalizes black men and boys.

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And contrary to the perception that such profiling is justified because blacks and Latinos commit more crimes, a 2011 report by The Leadership Conference finds that compared to whites who were stopped and frisked, blacks were 42 percent and Hispanics 32 percent less likely to be found with a weapon. Even comparing whites and blacks who consented to searches, police were 37 percent less likely to uncover weapons on black suspects, and about 24 percent less likely to uncover drugs or any other type of contraband than consensual searches of whites.

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Frequent reviews of police department data across the US demonstrate that this pattern of disparate police treatment of blacks is increasingly the norm for police conduct, rather than an exception.

So was Trayvon Martin at risk for at least being suspected and followed because he was black? Unfortunately, yes – in Florida and many other parts of the US. Should his parents have warned him that dressing in a hoodie might exacerbate this risk? Perhaps. Dress and race are closely associated with criminality. Though, if they are like most black parents, they likely prepared their son to face racial discrimination. Are they ultimately to blame – even marginally – for his murder? Of course not.

Neo-conservative ideology makes it easy to blame individual victims for the discrimination and violence they face because of their racial group membership. And – if past practice is evidence, even liberals calling out for justice will limit that to the justice that Trayvon and his parents might receive by investigating and punishing – if charged and found guilty – his killer.

If change is to occur, we must first replace our exaggerated images of black male criminality with those more in line with reality, borne out by evidence.

For instance, a 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics compared homicide victim and offender data over a 30-year period. It showed that the gap between black and white offenders is much smaller than what the images we see on television and film tell us. From 1976 to 2005, blacks account for 51 percent of all homicides perpetrators, whites 47 percent. Surprisingly homicides perpetrated by whites are more likely to be gang related.

We must be willing to start countering the scary black man narrative with statistics like these when children are still young. Recent developmental research shows that children pick up fear of people of different races from their parents, and do so at a very young age.

No matter how Trayvon Martin’s story ultimately ends, we would be remiss if we let the conversation it has instigated pass us by without serious consideration and concerted action.

Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. He is co-editor with Stephen M. Caliendo of “The Routledge Companion to Race and Ethnicity,” and co-author, also with Stephen M. Caliendo of “Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. elections.”


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