Opinion: Stereotypes rob blacks of identity

July 25, 2013


“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.” — Barack Obama

I am Trayvon Martin.

Distill it to its marrow, and that is what African-Americans have been telling other Americans since February 2012 when the unarmed teenager was stalked and killed by George Zimmerman, who, for no good reason, thought him suspicious. And it is essentially what President Obama said in an impromptu appearance in the White House press room last week.

We African-Americans see ourselves, our sons and grandsons, in this dead boy. And we hear no whisper of “there but for the grace of God,” but, rather, a nightmare scream of what could yet be, in a nation that would afterward slander them till it seemed they deserved what they got and more.

In pointedly including himself among our number, in testifying that even the most powerful man in the world once saw women clutch their purses when he got on an elevator, Obama committed an act of moral courage. It was all the more remarkable because it carried no political upside.

Not that everyone understood. “Trayvon Martin could have been me,” said the president, after which Sean Hannity, a grand wizard of the extreme right, professed confusion, wondering if by this, Obama meant he “smoked pot and he did a little blow.”

And so it goes.

That coarse attempt at wit pretty much emblematizes the behavior of many so-called conservatives since Zimmerman’s acquittal. They have redoubled their efforts to fashion a fairly ordinary teenager into some general purpose thug who somehow needed shooting, and his killer into some righteous street avenger who stalked him from justifiable fear because, “we all know” young black men are criminal.

“Young black men.” Not Trayvon Benjamin Martin, 17, son of Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. Because the first casualty of racism is individuality, the right to be your singular self.

This is what was stolen from Trayvon even before his life. It is stolen anew every time some pundit bloviates upon the perceived criminality of young black men to justify his killing. That perception is rooted more in stereotype and fear than actual fact, but put that aside and ask yourself this:

What man or woman among us would be willing to let the rest of us judge them based not upon who they are and what they have done, but solely upon our perceptions of people like them? There is, for instance, a perception that methamphetamine use is concentrated among white people in red states — in other words, Sean Hannity’s audience. May we treat all white people in red states accordingly? Will they go for that deal? Of course not.

Yet we daily crucify young black men upon that cross and pretend to moral righteousness in the doing. Trayvon is not the first victim. He’s not even the latest.

But he is the one whose death has made us cry, “Enough!”

There comes a time when people get tired. So said Martin Luther King in his first speech as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. From that fatigue grew a movement that reshaped America.

One hopes people are that tired again — and that it spurs a new movement to challenge not just laws, but attitudes so corroded and stained some of us cannot even muster compassion for the death of a blameless boy.

This is wrong. It is unworthy of decent people. And so, it cannot stand.

The thing the rest of the country may not fully appreciate is how deeply that loss of individuality cuts for African-Americans, how closely it binds us. So yes, of course Barack Obama is Trayvon Martin. And let there be no mistake:

I am Trayvon, too.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.


tomatogrower 3 years, 9 months ago

Did you ever think they were living down to the expectations that we have put on them? And lets remember that Pitts is a successful writer who has experienced this stereotype. He is an intelligent, moral man, so he overcame it, but some people will say "Hey, if I'm going to be treated like a criminal, I might as well be one." Also, for all the gangbangers living in the inner city, there are even more people just trying to make a living, raise a family, and live a life. But these people don't make the news, so those of you who do not live beyond your doors and computers, think all inner city blacks are bad people, when in reality, most people in the inner city are good people, just without the resources to fight the gangs. Oh, and Trayvon probably smoked some pot? How many white kids have smoked pot? Does that make them all thugs?

Mike Ford 3 years, 9 months ago

listen to the supporters of stereotyping talk this morning.

jonas_opines 3 years, 9 months ago

It is amazing how one case can produce so many different and opposing flawed narratives.

rtwngr 3 years, 9 months ago

Leonard Pitts, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Charles Rangel all would have the public believe that Trayvon Martin was followed by George Zimmerman and then shot to death. There is nothing inaccurate in that narrative. It is the truth. The problem is it is not the whole story. All of which we will never know. Is it possible that in the four minutes that George Zimmerman had lost sight of Trayvon Martin, Martin was observing him and deciding if he could handle him in a fight one on one? There was a confrontation and an altercation ensued. George Zimmerman came away with a broken nose and lacerations to the back of his head giving credence to his account that Martin had hit him, knocked him down, got on top of him and continued to beat him. Sadly we will never know the truth. What would be the outcry if Martin had beat Zimmerman into a coma or death? Would the race baiters be celebrating how this young man, who was stereotyped, defended himself by beating a man until he was dead? The problem is that it is easier to sell division and hatred. All of the people I mentioned at the beginning of this comment make a living off of racial divide.

jafs 3 years, 9 months ago

It's possible.

It's also possible that he was trying to evade him - after all, he was a strange person following Martin at night, and not a law enforcement officer.

Zimmerman should have followed the guidelines given to him by the police officer who worked with his neighborhood group, who told him that watch volunteers shouldn't follow or confront people. Then this wouldn't have happened.

rtwngr 3 years, 9 months ago

Jafs, I have no argument with the glaring facts that Zimmerman is stupid. No he should not have followed Martin. No he should not have emerged from his vehicle and confronted Martin. If he had not done these things, Martin would be alive today. Absolutely. The only point I am trying to make is that it is possible Martin made some bad choices too. That's it. The problem I have is that I heard Al Sharpton say that Trayvon Martin was stalked and killed. Although it might be "semantically" accurate, it isn't really an accurate description of what happened simply because Al Sharpton wasn't there and he doesn't know himself. People listen to him though and that makes it a dangerous narrative to perpetuate.

HootyWho 3 years, 9 months ago

Zimmerman started a chain of events that lead to the death of a young man, and it shouldn't have happened. everybody needs to remember Trayvon and hope it doesn't happen to their child, my son (who is black) lives in Lenexa, couple of years ago, he was stopped for having a burnt out headlight, he was pulled out of his car and patted down, he was in his work clothes, so obviously coming home from work. I got stopped many years ago for the same thing, and i wasn't pulled out of my car and guess what? i'm white

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