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Why the Trayvon Martin case isn't exclusively 'a black story'

At a protest demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, March 19, 2012
At a protest demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, March 19, 2012
Photo by werthmedia/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The Atlantic's James Fallows has a short, incisive piece on why he's going to be writing about the case of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teenager shot to death in Florida last month by a neighborhood watch captain in a Florida gated community.

The boy had been on his way back to a family friend's home after purchasing Skittles and iced tea from a nearby convenience store. A recently released 911 tape indicates that the admitted shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, pursued the boy because he deemed him "real suspicious."

Fallows writes about how "since I have no special standing to talk about police activity, crime stories, or anything involving Florida, this is a subject I would normally leave alone." But:

Here's why I think it is worth making an exception and talking about something outside "my" realm. The Trayvon Martin case involves the shooting of a young black man by a young white man, and the failure of the white-run Southern police department to take any action against the killer. The more evidence comes out, the less defensible and more bigoted the police department's attitude seems. Ta-Nehisi Coates has done a very effective job of following this case -- but since he is the only black "Voice" on the Atlantic's site, and since many (though not all) of the leading writers about the case elsewhere also have been black, leaving it to him could give the impression that we think of this as a "black" story.

My feeling is the same as when I wrote about the Troy Davis execution last fall: this case is obviously about race, and is important on those grounds. Race relations are after all the original and ongoing tension in U.S. history.

It's an argument that resonates on this blog. Trayvon was not an immigrant or child of immigrants, like many of the people whose stories are featured on this site. But the broader circumstances that led up to his death were, in many ways, similar to those leading up to the deaths of others whose lives were far different from his.

Young black men are disproportionately victims of racial profiling. But the racial and ethnic tension that leads to profiling exists on an equal opportunity basis, and can have equally fatal results. Take, for example, the death of Pakistani immigrant Waqar Hasan, shot on September 15, 2001 by a man who wanted "revenge" for the 9/11 attacks. Or that of Babir Singh Sohdi, an Indian Sikh immigrant murdered in Mesa, Arizona on the same day, for the same reasons.

It can be argued that these deaths took place during an exceptional period, but they're just a couple of examples. Behind all of these deaths, Trayvon's included, is an underlying similarity: The victims fit a profile, at least in their killers' minds.

Zimmerman's fate has yet to be decided. He has said he acted in self-defense (though the 911 tape suggests otherwise) and hasn't been arrested, though there are calls for a federal investigation. (Update: The federal Department of Justice has announced that it will investigate the shooting.) And Zimmerman's father told the Orlando Sentinel that his son is not racist, as has been implied in some reports, but that he "is Hispanic and grew up in a multiracial family."

Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but that's another subject.

In any case, the Martin case is more universal than it may seem on its face. As Fallows points out, it's by no means exclusively a "black" story. Expect to see more on it here in the days to come.