Structural injustice still exists

Martin killing proves society is not free of structural racial prejudice.

Eric Best

Last month in Sanford City, Fla., a 17-year-old African-American, Trayvon Martin, was walking in a gated community back home after purchasing a bag of Skittles and can of iced tea at a nearby Seven-Eleven. Clad in a hooded sweatshirt, he went out to buy a snack. A Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, saw Martin and suspected the latter of criminal activity. A confrontation occurred during which Zimmerman shot and killed the teen. Although Martin was unarmed and had a 110 pound weight disadvantage, the 28-year-old Zimmerman claimed self-defense and never was arrested or charged with a crime.

In our country’s founding, when most of our founding fathers owned slaves, racial prejudice was written explicitly into state and federal law. Hundreds of years later, after several movements progressing toward human rights, we still deal with racial discrimination, in indirect and individual ways, everyday. This is not to say the U.S. has a unique history with race relations, but as a nation which champions equality, it is in our best interest to work past structural racism as much as possible.

Martin’s death is not, as many journalists commented following his death, “a reminder of racism in America” though. For African-Americans and most people of color, racism, xenophobia and discrimination are common parts of daily life; they needed no reminder. Martin’s death, however, was a wake-up call to the nation for structural racism, in this case taking the form of law enforcement who believed Zimmerman had acted in self-defense.

Relations between people of color and law enforcement have been a dark part of America’s past and present. In fact, John McWhorter, an African-American columnist with the New York Daily News stated, “police brutality and insensitivity against blacks remain, as I have often argued, the main obstacle to racial healing in this country. I analogize it to a chimney left standing amid the smoking ruins of a house. No one sees the chimney as evidence that the fire never happened. Yet we can’t rebuild till we get that chimney torn down.”

Structural racism is particularly difficult to fight because it is ingrained in the laws and regulations of society. One would have trouble pointing at the racism in the Castle Doctrine, but in this case, the law has aided the murder of an innocent civilian. Such legislation has been passed in many states since 2005, though Mark Dayton vetoed a similar bill earlier this month. These laws are inherently problematic because they allow people like Zimmerman to take the law into their own hands, or in this case, go far beyond it. Also, such laws backwardly place the burden on prosecutors to prove that using deadly force was not done in self-defense.

Thus, Martin’s death and aftermath was a mixture of two problematic instances of structural racism. The first was a law, the “Stand Your Ground” legislation that has led to legal sanction for justice to be “served” through a misguided vigilante rather than through an unbiased government. Though the Department of Justice has taken notice of the Martin case, Zimmerman, someone without a “squeaky record” as reported by police, has been able to escape punishment so far. The second was a system of law enforcement that failed to serve justice.

In this case it seems we cannot look to law enforcement or even the law for true justice. Justice requires holding Zimmerman accountable for his actions. It was not Martin’s behavior or his hooded sweatshirt that led to his death, it was misguided judgment based on racial prejudice. Trayvon Martin’s death is a tragedy for everyone involved — one that can be remembered at the One Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin event at 6 p.m. on Thursday in Northrop Plaza.

 

Eric Best welcomes comments at

[email protected]