America after Trayvon Martin/ By Abby Biesman

Have the conditions for racial profiling changed? 

26 February 2012. Sanford, Florida. Neighborhood watch.  George Zimmerman. Nearby figure. Gray hoodie. Dark skin. Nerves. Nerves. Nerves.  9-1-1. Bang. Trayvon Martin was dead.

While this was not the shot heard around the world, United States citizens heard it loud and clear. The shot was followed by an uproar from American citizens, particularly from the black community. It surfaced stored fears concerning safety, violence, guns, and in particular racial profiling, the assumed judgment of character or demeanor based solely upon one’s race.

Profiling occurs on streets, in shopping centers, and essentially everywhere. It is learned in “ways that are hardly noticeable when you’re learning them,” according to Brandeis University’s Professor Kathleen Moran. The ongoing practice of profiling African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslim Arabs, and other groups is often carried out subconsciously, and is consequently a practice that is difficult to uproot – though the future may well bring significant positive changes.

The targets of racial profiling

For years, immigrants have been making the intensive trek between Mexico and the United States to improve their lives and live the American dream. The increasing number of immigrants has led to an increasingly growing number of undocumented citizens and workers, sparking debate on the effects of illegal immigration on the economy and the workforce,

Arizona, sitting on the Mexican border, has been home to many immigrants, much to the dismay of its government. To counter the growing undocumented immigrant population, in April 2010 Arizona passed the infamous SB1070 law, which essentially legalizes racial profiling, sparking a heated debated across the nation.  While many parts of the bill were overturned by the Supreme Court, upon arrest or detainment policemen may still request the papers of the culprit based on reasonable conjecture that he or she might be an illegal immigrant. In this scenario, reasonable conjecture derives from outer appearance, and therefore, essentially any Hispanic pulled over, arrested, or detained, legal or not, will likely be asked for their papers.

Muslims Arabs, too, are victims of racial profiling. Islamophobia, or the fear of Muslims, has gained much attention since the 9/11 attacks carried out by Muslim extremists. The Pew Research Center cites that a majority of Muslims believe it harder to live in America now than it was before 9/11. Muslims are commonly associated with terrorism and with jihad assaults. Not well known to society, extreme Islamism actually goes against the tenants of the religion, such as the ban on suicide.

Demonstrating the effects of Islamophobia is the controversy over the building of a mosque at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood. The Islamic center in the Lower East Side of Manhattan is intended to provide a valuable, convenient, and positive outlet, hosting both a community space and a prayer space for both Muslims and non-Muslims in this area of town.

The construction of an Islamic center in that location was accompanied by heated public debate. Time Magazine writer, Ishaan Tharoor, cited the opinion of former mayor Rudy Giuliani, that it would be a desecration to this ground if a Muslim center would be built here. Conversely, Tharoor also cited Mayor Bloomberg’s opinion that “we would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.” When the center was first proposed, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf suggested the name of the center to be the Cordoba House, as years ago, the Spanish city of Cordoba was the center where Muslims, Jews, and Christians peacefully interacted.  The building, known as Park51, opened despite the controversy and is meant to be a place for unity, rather than conflict.

Bringing tens of thousands of people out on the streets, the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is rightfully considered one of the most disputed and high profile cases of contemporary racial profiling in America. In April 2013, George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder by the state of Florida. The case went to court on June 10, with the selection of an all-female jury that was entirely white with the exception of one juror who was apparently of mixed origin.

The trial was tumultuous and lasted a month. Witnesses were called to the stand to testify about the case, to see if the tapes and recordings matched up to loved one’s voices, to testify of character. The forbidden topic was racial profiling. The defense argued that Trayvon Martin had attacked George Zimmerman. The prosecution contended that Zimmerman shot Martin upon an arbitrary basis, but it failed to meet its burden of proof. On 13 July 2013, Zimmerman was found to be not guilty of second-degree murder. The verdict led to even greater uproar, and passionate protests were held in large cities across the U.S., with churches and other community centers speaking up.

Protest in Union Square, New York, over Trayvon Martin case. Photographer: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons

Protest in Union Square, New York, over Trayvon Martin case. Photographer: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons

Where will America go?

Even though race was excluded from the trial, it is still a commonly held belief that Martin’s death was a result of racial profiling, and that had Martin not been a black teenager, Zimmerman might not have assumed a dangerous demeanor and shot his gun. Reverend Craig Robinson, a recent graduate of Yale University Divinity School and an intern at Charles Street African Methodist in Boston, Massachusetts, said that upon learning of the verdict he felt a “profound sadness.” What he thinks will be difficult is having to teach “children a very real history of the country… how to be safe and to know…that these are deep and long-suited systems of oppression which will not die just because of a Civil Rights Act or a deep gesture.”

New generations growing up in the U.S will grapple with deep-seated hatred, which has been passed down for years. Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center, claimed in a statement, that “George Zimmerman probably saw race the night of February 26, 2012, just like so many of us probably would have. Had he not, Trayvon probably would be alive today.” Reverend Craig Robinson believes “the greatest tragedy is that Trayvon could not speak.” He was portrayed as a “dangerous black man, and that’s why race is a part of this, if not blatantly.”

Step by step, racial profiling is changing, and dare one say, improving. After Arizona’s SB1070 bill passed, the American Civil Liberties Union created a racial profiling app in the state of Arizona, which allows people to report cases of racial profiling and to review their rights upon being pulled-over. This app is what one might consider a step in the right direction. While it will not cure the issue of racial profiling in itself, it will make the issue increasingly prevalent.

According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of Hispanic high school students in the class of 2011 continued on to college, while only 67% of Americans in that same class continued on to college. The statistic disproves the stereotype that college is more accessible to all-American students. The Pew Research Center also revealed that between 2007 and 2011 the number of unauthorized immigrants has decreased. While the mosque at Ground Zero was for so long a controversial issue, its opening hopefully may represent a change in America and its perspective.

The Wall Street Journal recently released a poll showing peoples’ slightly pessimistic attitude toward racial profiling following the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, however, there has been much activism to reverse this effect. Thousands of people took to the streets in solidarity with Martin and his family. Many are protesting Stand Your Ground Laws, which backed-up George Zimmerman and which allow people to practice self-defense within reason if confronted with a dangerous situation. While America seems to be in a rut, the wide spread activism may result in improving the situation and changing the way racial profiling is carried out. 

President Obama, who has personally experienced racial profiling, addressed this issue in his public response to the Zimmerman trial.  Obama paralleled his life to that of Trayvon Martin, reflecting on the experience of being a black man in America, being followed around in a department store simply because of his race, and seeing people guard their belongings simply because of his presumably dangerous character. Obama said he believes that now is the time that people need to come together to give African-American boys the confidence to know that they are not just a part but an integral part of society. He stated that he does not “want us to lose sight that things are getting better… Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.”

About ronitski