Trayvon Martin was a good student, had no criminal record and was unarmed, but what George Zimmerman saw was "a real suspicious guy" who might be "on drugs or something." Despite being instructed by a 911 dispatcher to wait for police to arrive, Zimmerman took things into his own hands, leaving an innocent young black man lying dead.
Trayvon's story has sparked outrage nationwide and it remains to be seen if George Zimmerman will have to answer for his crime. This outrage may help deliver justice for Trayvon, but we should also channel it to confront the broader problem this tragedy reveals -- the disconnect between what Zimmerman thought he saw and reality.
Holding a can of iced tea and wearing a hooded sweatshirt should not arouse fear or suspicion in any American neighborhood. But popular culture's influence on the public is strong and leads people like Zimmerman to view the mere presence of a black youth as cause for alarm -- and in this case, deadly action. This is hardly surprising when primetime crime procedurals inundate us with storylines featuring young black men committing violent acts and dealing drugs. Movies routinely portray the American black experience as poor, violent and terrifying. When black men appear in the news, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the stories are almost completely restricted to sports or crime coverage. Our society views young black men as inevitable criminals that we should lock away before they have a chance to do real damage. Geraldo Rivera serves as a perfect, if disgusting, example of how our country views young black men when he said, "No one can honestly tell me that seeing a kid of color with a hood pulled over his head doesn't generate a certain reaction -- sometimes scorn, often menace."
This cultural prejudice pervades our treatment of black boys, the way we educate them and the way we charge them with crimes. And it evidently influenced the action George Zimmerman took on February 26. Zimmerman pulled the trigger, but it is our culture that convinced him to pick up the gun at all. And it is the law that empowered him to do so.
Florida is a shoot first state. Its law, known as "Stand Your Ground," allows citizens to use deadly force if they "reasonably believe" it necessary to prevent death or harm. This law protected Zimmerman in the aftermath of the shooting and it is the reason he is not behind bars today. Florida is among 16 states with similar laws. These laws allow people to kill based on unsubstantiated suspicion or prejudicial fear and escape reasonable consequences.
In a 1963 speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important." Our laws should not encourage the modern-day equivalent of lynching (such as shooting innocent boys in the street), but rather send a strong message about what our society stands for -- that we will not tolerate hatred. These shoot first laws do the opposite by giving carte blanche to people like Zimmerman, who perceive danger in a situation where there is none, to take the life of another human being. If prejudice is the gunpowder, these laws are the match.
After public outcry, including a ColorOfChange petition signed by nearly 168,000 supporters, the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to investigate the circumstances surrounding Trayvon's death. I am glad to see the federal government intervene and I hope dearly that justice will be served.
But the anger we feel over the loss of Trayvon cannot die with him; our work is only beginning. We must repeal "Stand Your Ground" laws so they are no longer used to protect people like Zimmerman who take the lives of innocent citizens. To change the law, we must first change minds. It is the responsibility of people like you and me to stop accepting distorted images of young black men in our popular culture and to transform the way our society views and treats black boys. Lasting change, however, requires our work to go beyond reforming any individual law to reaching hearts and minds and dealing with the underlying bias current cultural norms reinforce.
There is nothing we can do to bring Trayvon Martin back to his grieving family and friends. But we must start to change our culture and change our laws for all the Trayvons we don't know yet who are in danger every day of a similar fate. We must stand our ground if we want Trayvon's story to be the last of its kind.