Commentary: Lessons From the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Stereotypes that are more or less self-perpetuated led to a connection which caused George Zimmerman to suspect Trayvon erroneously.

Posted: 07/18/2013 10:00 AM EDT

As a Black conservative, I am torn. I am hesitant to wield accusations of racism; however, I am not sure that if the situation had been the polar opposite – that if George Zimmerman got lost in an African-American neighborhood and Trayvon Martin went out with his gun to “check it out” — we would have gotten the same set of reactions from law enforcement and the prosecution. 

We will never know for sure how race played a role in the actions of Zimmerman that night. I strongly believe the jury reached the proper verdict because the state failed to provide the proper amount of evidence to convict him (innocent and not guilty are not the same), but the racial undertones surrounding the case cannot be denied. 

I do not always agree with Attorney General Eric Holder, but his remarks that we need “to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised” are undeniable. He also said that we must understand why negative “generalities and stereotypes” are connected to the African-American male.

This is where the important but difficult conversation must center. Those who believe race played a role in Zimmerman’s actions must either prove that his racism drove him (no evidence exists to prove that) or these “generalities and stereotypes” drove him. 

It is easy to cast accusations of overt racism, but I believe that these “generalities and stereotypes” are far more prevalent in today’s society. 

I understand that we were institutionally considered inferior in some form from the time the first slave ships arrived in Virginia in 1620 to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. You cannot erase 345 years of oppression in 48. Non African-Americans must respect that reality, but that alone does not address why the life of the African-American male is being marginalized in today’s society. It is easy to blame it on KKK-style racism, but is it generally unaccepted racists in Northern Arkansas that are causing society to subconsciously fear the African-American male? 

Our society has defined African-American males as violent, womanizing and voluntarily uneducated. The saddest part is that we are generally complicit. This connection has become deeply ingrained in our society. Consider that the first song by an African-American hip hop group to win an Oscar for Best Original Song discussed a “pimp” who has a “couple girl[s] workin’ on the changes for me” that when “you pay the right price, they’ll … do you” and who is also “duckin’ dodgin’ bullets every day.” Instead of rejection, this song won a prize as elite as an Oscar showing that a) subconsciously associating the African-American male to violent street life is strongly entrenched in all areas of our society and b) we as a people are too silent on this issue. 

Three-6 Mafia is not alone as the entertainment industry is full of such examples. Who has more say in defining the African-American male as someone who should be feared, some overt racist from Northern Arkansas, where the KKK has its headquarters, or an African-American rap group with international exposure?

Why focus on the former and forgive the latter?

Hughey Newsome is a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 Black leadership network and a member of the MoveOnUp.org Black political network.  He is presently employed as a private sector business consultant.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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