On February 26, a 17-year-old black youth named Trayvon Martin was walking at night in an area where he had every right to be. A self-appointed captain of the neighborhood watch named George Zimmerman found the unarmed Trayvon “suspicious” even though the youth was not engaged in criminal activity and none has since been alleged.
Zimmerman tailed Trayvon, calling the 911 operator as he did. The operator advised him to stop following the youth. From this point, versions differ but two facts remain constant: Minutes later Trayvon lay on the pavement, dead from a gun shot wound; and Zimmerman admits to shooting him.
Was it self-defense? Confusion and contradictory accounts obscure the answer. Zimmerman was taken into custody by the police but not arrested, even though the lead investigator reportedly wanted to charge him with manslaughter. Instead, he was released after the state attorney’s office found insufficient evidence to proceed.
The American public has been in a state of shock and outrage over details of Trayvon’s death, with overwhelming sympathy pouring out toward his parents. The incident may well explode into a full-blown police scandal. If it does, then it will be because the average American is not willing to tolerate a biased system of justice in which blacks are discounted. Overwhelmingly, the modern American will not tolerate racism against blacks.
The opposite message is being broadcast by the mainstream media and an array of ambitious policymakers who seem to be using Trayvon’s death for their own ends. From the outset, both have branded the incident as “racial.”
The media wants the blockbuster ratings that come from an outraged and captivated audience. The easiest way to achieve this is to present a clean and sensational narrative that pits a villain against a victim. They find this in a narrative of white-on-black violence — a white man senselessly killing a black teenager.
Meanwhile, politicians and policymakers reiterate the message of racist America, with even President Obama joining in. On March 30, Obama stated to the press, “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” — that is, he would look black.
It is extremely unusual for a president to make a personal comment about an act of violence, especially when no charges have been laid. For example, Obama has not even responded to the murder of two white British men in Florida, although the case has been tried and the parents of one young victim have written to him three times to request condolences.
Obama’s praise for the Department of Justice’s involvement in the Trayvon Martin case also points to his belief that the death was a hate crime; straightforward murder is a state matter. Thus, Obama seems to add the weight of his voice to those screaming out that Trayvon’s death was a racially motivated attack on black youth.
Those voices include the Baptist minister Al Sharpton, who wears the hats of both media personality and policymaker, as a commentator for MSNBC and a leader in various black-rights causes. Sharpton has demanded the immediate arrest of Zimmerman. If this is not forthcoming, then he calls for an escalation of civil disobedience and economic sanctions against Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon died.
The black civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson has called Trayvon a “martyr,” and attached political agendas to the young man’s death, such as a call for “Trayvon Martin voter-registration rallies.”
As Spiked magazine contributor Nathalie Rothschild commented, “Martin is being turned into a martyr for disparate causes — from voter registration drives to election campaigns, from anti-capitalist protests to anti-gun activism — in order to lend them moral credence.”
There are at least two questions to be asked of the depiction of Trayvon’s death as the result of rampant racism. First, is it true? Second, even if accurate, is the depiction aimed at solving a problem or at exacerbating it?
Was Trayvon’s death racially based?
There is not enough information for even an educated guess as to whether or not Trayvon’s death was linked to his race.
But, certainly, the mainstream-media coverage has revolved around race. They would have you believe that the racial basis is established fact; Trayvon was killed because he was black. But, from the outset, the media has skewed the presentation of evidence in order to broadcast a more compelling and sensational story. In this, they have done a disservice to Trayvon, because people who look beneath the surface of shoddy reports are less likely to take any real evidence of racism seriously.
Consider NBC’s treatment of Zimmerman’s call to the police in which he reported a “suspicious” youth. NBC’s edited version has Zimmerman saying: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” The unedited version runs as follows:
Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”
911 operator: “Okay. And this guy, is he white black or Hispanic?”
Zimmerman: “He looks black.”
There is a world of difference in the racial content of these two versions. In the first one, Zimmerman says Trayvon is “up to no good” assumedly because he “looks black.” In the second one, he says Trayvon is “up to no good” because he is wandering in the rain. Only in response to a direct question does Zimmerman mention Trayvon’s race. The police introduce that subject. Equally, the only mention of a “hoodie” comes in response to a direct question from the 911 operator, “Did you see what he was wearing?”
Another indication of media bias is the photos that are usually broadcast or reprinted. The most used photo of Trayvon shows a fresh-faced, smiling youngster who is 13 or 14 years-old. More recent photos that show Trayvon with gold teeth and an aggressive attitude toward the camera are comparatively difficult to find. By contrast, the most used photo of Zimmerman is a 2005 police mugshot in which he appears to be angry. Poynter, a site devoted to responsible journalism, states,
The contrast — the two photos are often published side by side — has led to criticism that news media have tilted the story in favor of the 17-year-old victim and against the 28-year-old man who shot him.
“The images used are clearly prejudicial to both men,” said Kenny Irby, Poynter’s senior faculty for visual journalism and diversity. “If those are the repeating images, then we continually reinforce prejudice and negative emotions. We never get to appreciate the life experience or further context of either individual.”
Yet another indication of bias is the inaccurate reporting of how often Zimmerman called the police to report black people walking in his neighborhood. On March 17, the Miami Herald ran the following headline and subtitle, “Shooter of Trayvon Martin a habitual caller to cops. At the focal point of a shooting scandal: a mild-mannered neighbor who fixated on crime and focused on young, black males.”
The article stated, “Zimmerman called police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011 to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents.” This works out to an average of more than one call to the police every ten days. The widely repeated figure makes Zimmerman appear to be an unbalanced man.
When a log of calls was published by the Daily Beast, however, it was discovered that the reported calls went back to 2004 — that is, they occurred over eight years instead of one.
Moreover, many of the calls were not made to 911 but to a police non-emergency number, because they concerned minor issues such as loud parties or potholes. Of the 46 reported calls, 16 were about suspicious activity, with the last two being about Trayvon. Of the 14 non-Trayvon calls about suspicious activity, 8 made no mention of race. This account of Zimmerman’s phone reports may indicate overzealousness as a member of the neighborhood watch, but it does not point to psychological instability or racism.
There is one particularly odd and egregious inaccuracy in the mainstream media’s reporting of this incident. The shooting was widely interpreted early on as a white man killing a black youth. But Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic or white Hispanic. Why, then, did so many in the media choose a more polarizing racial manner in which to describe Zimmerman? The question answers itself.
The inaccuracies of mainstream media reports scroll on and on, with the errors all pointing a damning finger of racism at Zimmerman. And perhaps he is a racist. But that conclusion cannot be reached on the flawed or falsified evidence provided.
If Zimmerman is racist, is America as well?
If Zimmerman is proven to be a racist, then what does it say about the zeitgeist of America? Absolutely nothing at all. Nathalie Rothschild of Spiked observed,
Martin was unlucky to cross paths with a seemingly paranoid neighbourhood-watch captain, but at least it is comforting that his murder has shocked the nation. It shows that the killing of black people is anathema to, and not typical of, contemporary American society.
The attempt to portray Zimmerman’s alleged racism as a typical and endemic part of the American psyche is not merely unjustified but profoundly dangerous. A few days ago, the first rap song devoted to Trayvon appeared on YouTube (it has since been removed by the user). According to the Blaze, “All Black in My Hoodie,” by Zoeja Jean calls for race riots and suggests blacks should be “strapped with them A-K-K.”
Everyone needs to stop and sort out the facts from the hysteria. This is a daunting task, because the hysteria is far louder than the scant, uncontested facts that have emerged so far. But it must be done. America is heading into a long, hot summer. Every time a sensationalistic broadcaster pumps up the Trayvon story, American streets become a bit more dangerous for every race.
Every time an ambitious policymaker or politician throws down the “race card,” the summer becomes a little hotter. Such people are playing a game of brinkmanship in which the lives of innocent bystanders may be at stake.