Just when you thought the Trayvon Martin case couldn’t get any more disturbing, Robert Zimmerman, Jr. tweets this:
Photo Credit: WZAK
On the left is an alleged photo of De’Marquise Elkins, one of two Georgia teenagers charged with shooting a baby in the face earlier in March. The other is Trayvon, the unarmed 17-year-old killed by Robert’s brother, George Zimmerman, last year.
This tweet encapsulates a widely held sentiment in American society: Young black men are dangerous, and how they present themselves visually can justify any number of fear-based reactions to them. But the root of this fear has little to do with baby deaths, hoodies, or raised middle fingers.
CNN’s Piers Morgan had a few when he interviewed Robert on March 28. He alluded to another tweet Zimmerman sent, which referred to the Elkins case and read: "Lib media shld ask if what these2 black teens did 2 a woman&baby is the reason ppl think blacks mightB risky.”
Robert defended his words by acknowledging their “controversy” and how they shouldn’t have been presented “in that way.” Then he ended by tacitly endorsing his brother’s murderous actions because, implicitly, Trayvon Martin was not the innocent kid the “liberal media” portrayed him to be.
So why did Trayvon deserve to be shot? Because his social media photos contained middle fingers and marijuana pipes? This is the crux of Robert’s argument: We’ve only seen the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the “real” Trayvon, whereas every aspect of George Zimmerman’s life has been deconstructed and villainized in the court of public opinion. It’s a “commentary on the liberal media.” How one portrays oneself, and alternately, how one is portrayed, determines how one should be treated.
But the fact is, Trayvon’s social media photos are as irrelevant to this murder case as a female victim’s choice of attire is to a rape case. Neither in any way justifies violence. George Zimmerman was afraid of Trayvon Martin for a simple reason: Trayvon was young, black, and hooded in a space where George believed “young, black, and hooded” didn’t belong. For these reasons alone, Trayvon was “risky.”
And despite Robert’s claims, this sense of “riskiness” isn’t rooted in anything black teenagers as a group have done. It’s because of who they are.
Conceptions of black males have been historically constructed according to economic convenience. Medieval Europeans viewed blacks as shrewd and powerful, but once the institution of slavery became economically viable in the Americas, blacks were recast as inherently subservient and intellectually inferior.
The point being, groups that threaten white male heterosexual supremacy are systematically de-humanized to maintain current power structures: women are cast as sex objects, gays as “unnatural,” Latinos as “alien,” blacks as “criminal.” The list goes on.
And because American society is rooted in a white supremacist hierarchy, these characterizations are firmly embedded in our psychology. As a result, whether consciously or unconsciously, we often conceive of them as true.
This is why it’s so easy for the Zimmerman brothers to fear young black men like Trayvon, and to justify violence against them. And this is why we need to better understand how and why our fears are constructed and maintained.