Justice Hidden In A Hoodie
By Michael MaherMarch 30, 2012
The shooting of an unarmed black youth in America's South has reignited the volatile debate over race and justice in the United States.
“If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” (Barack Obama)
America's first black president rarely talks about race.
This country as a whole rarely talks about race, despite it being what David Remnick, Obama's biographer and the editor of the New Yorker magazine, describes as the nation's ''primal wound, the incendiary element in our national saga''.
Just how incendiary an element race is in the United States was graphically demonstrated by an incident that occurred shortly after President Obama moved into the White House. One of the nation's leading African-American academics, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, of Harvard University, was arrested as he was entering his own home after a neighbor who mistook him for a burglar alerted the police. In the controversy that ensued, Obama remarked: ''What I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."
Due to the outcry from law enforcement agencies, the President was forced to apologize for his remarks. But his apology had more to do with a truth that can't be spoken than an error of fact.
Now the fatal shooting in Sanford, Florida of an unarmed, 17-year-old black youth, Trayvon Martin, by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, has put the vexed issue of policing and the African-American community back on the national stage. Zimmerman, who has a white father and a Latino mother, has yet to be arrested or charged with any crime as he claimed he was acting in self-defence.
The local Orlando Sentinel newspaper reported that Zimmerman told police he had been struck down by a single punch from Trayvon Martin and that Martin had then slammed his head into the pavement. Thousands of protestors around the country who have rallied in support of Martin contend he's the victim of a racially motivated hate crime and was murdered as he was walking home from a local store by a ''wannabe cop''.
Investigations by the US Justice Department and a state grand jury are now underway to determine what in fact happened in this increasingly murky case. But the Martin shooting has reignited a debate about the festering issues of racial profiling, the alarmingly high number of African-Americans caught up in the criminal justice system and a deep-seated conviction in the black community that its members are treated unfairly by law-enforcement agencies.
Jamal Joseph is a prominent member of Harlem's storied African-American neighborhood. A former Black Panther, he served jail time for his activities as a militant in the 1960s and 70s and is now an Ivy League professor at Columbia University. Professor Joseph's personal story is a remarkable one of success born of adversity. However, he's quick to point out that he's an exception. ''More than 40 years after I joined the Black Panthers program, sadly I can't point to one thing that's been satisfied,'' says Joseph. ''Although there's a black president and although there are some black CEOs and there are success stories from entertainment and sports, the majority of people in the black community continue to struggle with food, with clothing, with shelter, with keeping a job and certainly with opportunity and hope.''
Like many others in his community, Jamal Joseph is disturbed by the Martin shooting and other incidents elsewhere in the country "where police have just randomly shot unarmed black boys''. George Zimmerman was not a policeman, he was a Neighborhood Watch captain and had a permit to carry the Kel Tek 9mm he used to shoot Trayvon Martin. Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law, which has allowed Zimmerman to avoid arrest by asserting he was acting to defend himself against an assailant, also has heightened perceptions that his actions have been condoned by the police. The intensity of these perceptions is such that Sanford police chief Bill Lee has had to temporarily step down because of the public outcry over his handling of the case.
''This has been a botched investigation and prosecution from day one,'' says Dr Barry Krisberg, a leading criminologist from the University of California, Berkeley. ''I think we're all urgently waiting for the FBI and more competent investigative resources to come to the table and actually tell us what went on.''
Dr. Krisberg, who has written about race and crime, contends that the "Stand Your Ground'' law should not have prevented an arrest from being made: ''The law might ultimately have something to do with whether an indictment or a conviction is sustained but I am completely confused as to why the police chose not to make an arrest in this case based on the evidence that's being put forward.''
According to Krisberg, this failure to make an arrest has only bolstered the view among African-Americans that the justice system is not fair towards them: ''Why has this person [Zimmerman] not been arrested? If you went back over 250 years of American history you would not find too many situations in which African-Americans murdered young white people and this kind of behavior took place. I don't think you could find any.''
Statistics help tell the story of race and American justice. According to police figures obtained by The Wall Street Journal,the New York Police Department stopped and interrogated people 684,300 times last year. Some 87 per cent of those stopped were black or Hispanic. While African-Americans comprise only 12 to 13 per cent of the population, they make up 40.1 per cent of the United States' 2 million male prison inmates. Another statistic that Jamal Joseph, who works extensively with black youths, cites is that young African-Americans, if they graduate from high school, have a one in four chance of going to university but a one in three chance of going to prison. "This is what we are up against," says Joseph.
It's statistics such as these which bear testament to just how deeply race permeates America's criminal justice system. They also feed the roiling cauldron of mistrust between black communities and law enforcement officials. They are statistics as well which have served to stigmatize young black men like Trayvon Martin in the wider community. Writing about the subject recently, the African-American blogger Mikki Kendall had this to say:
The myths attached to black men in American culture have left far too many people incapable of remembering that our sons are children. Somehow kids like Trayvon, like my son, like the boys I see at the playground, become grown men out to do harm to everyone once a stranger starts projecting their fears and biases onto them. They don't see gangly bodies, peach fuzz, a sweet tooth and a love of music. They see the scary monsters that racist ideologies have helped them create in their minds.
In the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, stories were leaked to the media that he had been on suspension from school for possessing a small amount of marijuana. The Fox TV shock jock Geraldo Rivera even suggested that the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin contributed towards his death because it might have appeared menacing to Zimmerman. (Rivera later apologized.)
Martin's parents have dismissed these reports as attempts to demonize Trayvon and to muddy the waters surrounding the case. The only facts that concern the Martins at the moment are that their 17-year-old son is no longer with them and that no one has been arrested or charged with his killing.