“He’s a Black Male . . . Something Is Wrong With Him!” The Role of Race in the Stand Your Ground Debate

BY D. MARVIN JONES, 68 U. Miami L. Rev. 1025 (2014).

Introduction: George Zimmerman claimed to know quite a lot about Trayvon Martin. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman tells the 911 operator. “He’s just staring, looking at all the houses. Now he’s coming toward me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. Something’s wrong with him.”

Zimmerman described Martin as wearing a hoodie and sweatpants or jeans. He continues: “He’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is. Can we get an officer over here?” “These assholes. They always get away,” he says to the operator.

But Zimmerman had never met Trayvon Martin. The only information he had about the seventeen-year-old was that he was wearing a hoodie and he was black. Zimmerman also had his observations about this black youth walking home: “He’s just staring, looking at all the houses.” Thus Martin had a combination of appearance and innocent behavior. Based on nothing more than this, Zimmerman “knew” that Trayvon posed some kind of imminent danger. “I don’t know what his deal is. Can we get an officer over here?” Zimmerman goes on to refer to Trayvon as an “‘asshole.’” This reflects both a moral judgment and a high level of hostility. What made Trayvon suspicious? What made him an “ass—hole?” When he says, “these assholes always gets away,” what explains this tacit hostility?

Zimmerman is exhibiting a set of racial assumptions. To see that racism is involved, one need only ask what would have happened instead if Justin Beiber had strolled through the Sanford neighborhood. Would Zimmerman have pursued him, confronted him, and later shot him? This, in my view, is racism. But it is not just black and white. Race has become intersectional.

A. Racial Profiling in the Twenty-First Century: From Bigger Thomas to Urban Thug

In the novel Native Son, Bigger Thomas brutally murders two whites. According to one account, “a cordon of five thousand police, augmented by more than three hundred volunteers, was immediately] thrown around the Black Belt.” Soon “[s]everal hundred Negroes resembling Bigger Thomas were rounded up from South Side ‘hotspots’; they are being held for investigation.” One commentator has noted that this scene means that “[f]or everyone who is white, all African Americans are somehow linked to Bigger Thomas.”

Similarly, Patricia Hill Collins writes: The controlling image of Black men as criminals or as deviant beings encapsulates this perception of Black men as inherently violent and/or hyper-heterosexual . . . . [T]his representation is more often applied to poor and working class men than to their more affluent counterparts, but all Black men are under suspicion of criminal activity or breaking rules of some sort.

This undifferentiated racial fear of black men drove racial violence in the form of lynching, particularly in cases like that of Emmett Till, a young man who was lynched because he “wolf-whistled” at a white woman. This linkage between images of “brutish” black men and racial fear describes the problem of black men during the era of segregation and the early civil rights era. As Collins notes, this fear is still there.

But by the 1980s, this racial stereotyping had been given a sociological justification. Ed Koch, a former mayor of New York City, stated the following: Today, most whites, myself included, would feel very uncomfortable in a totally black neighborhood, particularly at night. So the fear is not irrational. . . .  In New York City, [57%] of those in prison are black and [35%] Hispanic. According to Department of Justice statistics, [45%] of violent crimes are committed by black males . . . .

In the twenty-first century, the problem of profiling is no longer a simple question of black and white. Just as Justin Beiber might have traveled home from the 7-Eleven safely, so too, I believe, would have a well-dressed black youth in polished loafers, cotton Dockers, an Izod Lacoste shirt, and a sweater around his neck. Culturally, he would have fit in. If Trayvon did not fit in, it was because race has become more complicated. Racial identity is more fluid, more of a spectrum than two poles in space. In the post civil rights era, the color line has faded. Barack Obama is a second-term president. Deval Patrick is Governor of Massachusetts. Eric Holder is Attorney General. Black police officers are commonplace in major urban areas. These black police officers—like those on our screens in television shows like The Wire—do not inspire fear. But Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth iconically dressed as he was, did. The same moral panic, which once targeted all blacks, has refocused on black males in urban areas with saggy pants and hoodies. . . . Full Article.

Recommended Citation: D. Marvin Jones, “He’s a Black Male . . . Something Is Wrong With Him!” The Role of Race of the Stand Your Ground Debate, 68 U. Miami L. Rev. 1025 (2014).

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