The Trouble with Suspicion and Racial Profiling

‘These assholes. They always get away.’ These were some of George Zimmerman’s last words before he decided-against the advice of a police dispatcher- to follow Trayvon Martin because he looked like, ‘he was upto no good.’

Zimmerman met Martin with a loaded gun. Martin was confronted by Zimmerman, who failed to identify himself as a member of the neighbourhood watch, with nothing more than his mobile phone, a packet of Skittles and a can of iced tea. A confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin ensued culminating in Zimmerman firing two shots, one which ended up piercing Martin’s lung and ended up lodged in his heart. Another senseless death. Another mother and father left childless. Again, no one held accountable.

The irony of this case, is that the, ‘Stand your ground law,’ that played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal could also be used to justify how Martin responded to Zimmerman. This law states that if an individual feels threatened they can use lethal force for protection. An armed stranger was following Martin. Martin himself was not armed. Who then posed a greater danger to whom?

The case is particularly contentious as it raises a number of important, uncomfortable questions that have to be dealt with if Americans are to avert another tragedy. The case raises pertinent questions about race relations in America, in particular the relationship ethnic minorities have with law enforcement. To say that law enforcement is colour blind, is to ignore the cold hard facts in an era where racial profiling is commonplace.

In a paper for the ‘Journal for Social Action in Counselling and Psychology,’ Lyubanksy states that when police are faced with statistics indicating racial bias, they often state, ‘that racial discrepancies reflect group differences in unlawful behaviour.’ However, research has shown that in reality the relationship between race and crime isn’t as clear-cut.

Ayres and Borowsky found that frisked African Americans were 42.3% less likely to be found with a weapon on them than frisked Caucasians. Such statistics highlight the fallacies associated with racial profiling, a policy, which runs the risk of alienating entire communities. Research has shown that African American males often rank more highly than Caucasians in their distrust of the police (page 73). These findings are unsurprising considering it is ethnic minorities that bear the brunt of legal suspicion.

Trayvon Martin was failed twice by the law. He was failed by the man who took his life whose job it was to protect him. He was failed by the legal system that acquitted his killer. Whilst this verdict was disheartening, it is unlikely to be surprising to the majority of Americans.

One needn’t look too far back into America’s history to find cases similar to Trayvon Martin’s. Men whose lives have been cut short but no one held culpable.

Amadou Diallo was shot at 41 times by four officers from the NYPD who were all armed and in plain clothes. He was hit 19 times, his internal organs eviscerated by the assault. His crime? The four officers claimed he had been acting, ‘suspiciously,’ and supposedly resembled a serial rapist in the neighbourhood. An arrest made later, revealed that the only resemblance between the two was their skin colour. Diallo was unarmed and all four police officers were acquitted.

Diallo was killed in 1999. Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. So many years have passed, yet we need to ask ourselves just what has changed. The lapse in time between the two cases highlights how little society has evolved. America, as Obama has stated is still not a, ‘‘post racial society.’’

It is important that whilst these are all issues that have to be considered, the human element of these cases should be the driving force behind their consideration. The Martins no longer have their son. They will never know the person he would have grown up to be. Their grandchildren will forever be unknown to them. During the trial, Mr Martin was asked why he had repeatedly listened to the 911 recording in which the gun shot that killed his son could be heard. He responded, ‘I was trying to understand why he got out of his car and chased my son.’

That suspicion is deemed a sufficient justification to ending the lives of countless men in such a ruthless manner is something that requires dire reflection from all of us irrespective of gender, race or creed. As Jelani Cobb eloquently states, ‘Almost all of us are Trayvon Martin to someone else.’