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Trayvon Martin Reminds Us of the Power behind Stereotyping

Josh Ernst

Opinions Editor

On Feb. 26, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot while walking down the street. The reason? His killer, a 28-year-old man named George Zimmerman, self-appointed head of the neighborhood watch, decided that Martin looked suspicious, so he disobeyed police orders to stay in his vehicle, confronted Martin and after an alleged altercation shot and killed the unarmed teenager. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, the police took him at his word and he walked away.

In March, the story of Martin’s death swept the nation as social media and various news outlets picked up the story. The accusations of a racially-fueled killing spread rapidly, as did calls for the arrest and investigation of Zimmerman. The story has become one of the leading hot-button topics in the country. President Obama recently spoke out in support of Martin’s family. Online petitions calling for a federal investigation gained hundreds of thousands of signatures. Celebrities across the nation spoke up in support of Martin. The shooting has sparked a national debate on race as the court of public opinion decried Zimmerman’s actions were racially motivated.

The hoopla and attention this case has gotten in the media make it easy to get swept up in the drama of it all. It’s easy to make a snap judgment, to claim to know what happened and to accuse the shooter of a hate crime. But as I watch the case unfold, I have to remind myself to step back and try to look objectively at this sad situation.

The details of the shooting are still murky. Some facts seem to be fairly well established. Martin left his stepfather’s girlfriend’s house to purchase a snack. As he walked through a light rain, he put the hood of his sweatshirt up. On his way back from the store, with nothing in his pockets but a package of Skittles and a can of iced tea, Zimmerman decided that Martin looked suspicious, called 911 and began to follow Martin, even after the police dispatcher told him not to. At some point, Zimmerman exited his vehicle and approached Martin. It is at this point that the details get murky. There was an altercation of some kind, and neighbors heard a scuffle, cries for help and then a gunshot. When police arrived, Martin was dead. Two weeks later, the accusations of racism started coming.

I will be the first to say that I do not know the details of what happened on the night of Feb. 26. Regardless of what happened, I also believe the shooting and killing of a 17-year-old, unarmed kid is wrong. I do believe that Zimmerman is culpable in Martin’s death. I cannot answer the charges of racism, although it does seem likely. But the biggest lesson I’m learning from this episode is the dangers of stereotyping.

It seems apparent that Zimmerman stereotyped Martin. He saw a young man in a dark hoodie walking through his neighborhood. Zimmerman made the decision that this was worthy of a 911 call. I cannot say whether or not Zimmerman’s actions were also fueled by the fact that Martin was African-American. On the tapes of his 911 calls, Zimmerman does appear to use a racial epithet, which does lend credence to the idea of a racially-motivated crime. But the situation is slightly more complex than this.

Early reports indicated that Zimmerman was white. But his heritage is actually much more diverse. His father was white and his mother was Hispanic. Zimmerman’s family claims he grew up in a very diverse family and never showed any signs of racism. The court of public opinion was quick to paint the picture of white man shooting a black youth and getting away with it.

But this line of reasoning is a dangerous one. By deciding immediately that they knew Zimmerman’s intentions, those who are quick to cry racism are falling into the same error as Zimmerman. They are immediately assuming that they know what this man was thinking. And while the evidence seems to point to a racially-fueled crime, it is still not totally clear. Stereotyping led to one tragedy. We need to be careful to not let the feelings of grief and outrage take over reason and to not let the court of public opinion hang a man before he has a fair trial.

At the end of the day, I believe Zimmerman to be responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death. He disobeyed police orders and continued to follow Martin and confronted him. Regardless of Martin’s reaction to this, shooting and killing an unarmed kid is reprehensible. He was 17, a senior in high school. He was not a perfect human being. Martin had been suspended from school when he was killed. But the fact remains that a kid was gunned down in the street one night merely for being stereotyped. And whether it was his clothing, the color of his skin or being in the wrong place at the wrong time doesn’t really matter to me. For whatever reason, Trayvon Martin was stereotyped and this led to his death.

Josh Ernst may be reached at jernst@springfieldcollege.edu

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