THE BLOG
08/06/2013 12:20 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

We Are Not All Trayvon Martin

Among the photographs posted to the Chicago Tribune website of the protest in Daley Square following the acquittal of George Zimmerman are several of the same young white woman wearing a t-shirt spray-painted with the slogan "We are all Trayvon Martin." I am gratified that this is a time in this country when a young white woman can express public outrage at the killing of a young black man. And yet, we are most definitely not all Trayvon Martin.

After the shootings at Newtown, another recent incident that might have changed the country, I felt hopeful that in the midst of all the horror, the event might serve as a catalyst for a change in attitude about guns and violence. I wrote a blog piece about the impact education can have on violence in which I called for higher education assessment to be about its public impact not merely as an economic force, but as a force for social change.

There is a risk, this verdict tells me, that such calls are dismissed as mere rhetoric -- idealism without hope of becoming reality. I understand why education does not seem equal to the task of changing a force as intractable as social injustice. But education has been the basis of every social movement for change. It remains our most real hope.

Racial and gender injustice prevails in this country despite groundbreaking changes like the representation of men of color, women, and gay men and lesbians in politics. Like the so-called breaking of the glass ceiling for (white) women, the success of a few at the highest level can be a kind of bait-and-switch. If racism and sexism persist or even, as some have argued, increase, how do we account for the impact of the educational changes wrought by the efforts of past decades? What should educators do next?

Our work is still, as it has always been, to help reveal what becomes normative and thus invisible. I once asked students, What's the difference between college and prison? They laughed. They laughed when I noted that both take strangers and place them in fairly small, shared living spaces. They laughed when I said both usually assign living quarters to residents of the same sex. They laughed when I said that prisons and colleges often feed their populations by employing similar, if not identical, food service companies. But they did not laugh when I noted that one type of institution is disproportionately populated by black men between 18 and 25 years old, who are greatly underrepresented in the other. Nor did they laugh when I noted that both are where we study and learn how to live our lives.

In the same way that molecular physics reveals how our world operates according to laws that are not part of our commonsense experience,so social science provides access to underlying structures of social reality that are not necessarily intuitive. Helping students find new access to experience is also the responsibility of educators.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, a number of commentators including President Obama, the thinker and social activist bell hooks, and Charles Blow of the New York Times, have focused on black masculinity and the particular difficulties that black and brown-skinned boys face in our culture. It isn't difficult to see how race is informed by gender. For this case, it matters that Trayvon was a man and black (and that he was young). But other factors that seem less pertinent matter as well. At the very least, race is bound up with gender and sexuality. This is because what it means to be a man is defined by what it means to be a woman, and gender itself is defined implicitly or explicitly by cultural assumptions about homosexuality. Many political theorists, sociologists, and other social scientists argue that the limits representational politics poses for a struggle for equality can be circumvented by understanding that identity is not just about one category but shaped by others, often invisibly and according to their own well-worn biases. At its most basic level, fighting the pervasiveness of racial prejudice must mean fighting pervasive sexism and homophobia as well.

All of our lives are shaped by profiling and other structural inequalities even though they don't affect us all in the same way. I hope that we remember our histories -- and know that this is not the first time we learned this lesson. I hope that we will move once again from psychological to sociological analyses to collective commitment. I hope those images of the young white female protestor in the "We are all Trayvon Martin" t-shirt is a sign that political activism is headed in a direction that takes the complexity of prejudice into account.

Trayvon Martin has joined the litany of names from Medgar Evers to Mathew Shephard, the countless nameless, and the cases like the Steubenville rape that throw into stark relief the bigotry and social injustice of our culture. But Trayvon Martin is not just a symbol for young men of color whose deaths go unremarked, the verdicts that go unremarked, and the racism and sexism that go unremarked. We are not all Trayvon Martin, and he was not all men of color by virtue of his own experience of privilege rendered so invisible by American racism. But all of our lives are made poorer by the injustices perpetrated on those whom we are not.