The Color of Suspicion: Historical Racial Bias and Trayvon Martin

The ongoing investigation on the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has gained worldwide attention and an immeasurable outcry for justice.

President Obama spoke in personal terms on Martin’s behalf, referring to the slain teenager like a son of his own. Both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton delivered speeches to packed church congregations in Martin’s home state, declaring that a new battle in the fight for civil rights had begun. Martin’s parents and hundreds of protestors participated in the “Million Hoodie March” in New York City, a commemoration to Trayvon’s casual attire the night he was fatally shot. Even professional athletes like LeBron James have taken a stand.

From a surface level, the Trayvon Martin case tells the story of a malicious murder–an unarmed, black teenager followed, confronted and killed by a gun-wielding neighbor. Look below the surface and the case unveils a timeless anomaly about race, prejudice, discrimination, hate crimes and racial profiling in America. George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who deemed Martin a suspicious character by the teenager’s attire, is not the first person to have a preconceived idea about young black men. This is also not the first time in history where a black man received unjust punishment for the color of his skin.

According to the 2006 Justice Department figures, one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated. On August 28th, 1955, Emmett Till was brutally beaten and murdered for flirtatiously whistling at a white women. Recently, 20-year-old Bo Morrison was shot and killed in Slinger, Wisconsin by a white man who suspected the teen of suspicious behavior. Morrison, who was fleeing from police at a house party, hid on the man’s porch. He was completely unarmed. In each of these cases, the punishment was death. For others, it may be a lifetime of non-stop profiling and prejudice. Geraldo Rivera sparked much outrage after telling Fox news that being a kid of color in America is a risk and that there are instant “gangster” associations made with minorities and hooded sweatshirts.

At what point will a young black man be able to fearlessly walk down the street without the risk of bias “associations” that plague this country?  Right now, the answer seems unclear. Suspicious behavior should not have a race or color. Howard University Students for Justice group produced a video asking viewers to check their biases against black men by asking, “Do I look suspicious to you?”

As long as differences continue to exist between us, prejudice and bias thoughts might never fully be eliminated from society. The key is accepting these differences as neither right, wrong, good nor bad. These differences are unique and innate fabrics of our human species and ultimately should be praised and respected. Eliminating stereotypes and associations (African-American and criminal, teenagers and violence, minorities and hoodies) and fighting for justice may be the first step in having an equal, hate-free world.

Shelby Lewis is Communications and Technology Specialist and Student Life Intern majoring in Broadcast Journalism. 

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