Monday marked one month since Trayvon Martin was murdered. As protests demanding justice for Martin continue to spread like wildfire, George Zimmerman, his murderer, is desperately scrambling to build his defense.
Zimmerman insists that Martin knocked him to the ground, leaving him with a bloody nose, grass-stained clothes, and no option to defend himself but shoot. Zimmerman’s supporters are also delighted to learn that Martin was suspended from school last month because an empty plastic baggie that contained marijuana residue was found in his book bag. They will manipulate this information to portray Martin as a dangerous drug-using teenager and justify Zimmerman’s suspicion of him.
Martin’s suspension from school is entirely irrelevant to the case, and allowing it to influence our judgment is tantamount to criminalizing the victim. It will also perpetuate the deep-rooted racism that stereotypes young African American men as drug offenders. Already Geraldo Rivera’s abhorrent comments blaming Martin’s hoodie for his death reflect unsubstantiated prejudices against African American youth.
The empty marijuana baggie in Martin’s book bag takes the demonizing narrative one step further and feeds into societal prejudices that young African American males are predisposed to crime in the form of drug use.
The fact that Martin’s suspension has made national news at all reveals the extent and depth of racial profiling that pervades American society. As Jonathan Capehart’s opinion eloquently reveals, African American males must bear an unfair burden of suspicion simply because of the color of their skin. Martin was the victim of this suspicion, and it cost him his life.
Zimmerman’s supporters want to believe that the young African American boy in a hoodie used drugs and was a threat to society. They want a narrative that legitimizes Zimmerman’s suspicion and claim to self defense, and will use Martin’s school record to bolster their case. But we cannot allow this new information to let us forget the facts that we already know: that Martin was unarmed and Zimmerman was explicitly told not to follow him. As the investigation goes forward, it is critical that we distinguish between what constitutes evidence and the tangential information that gets picked up along the way.
Martin’s parents are rightfully outraged: "They've killed my son and now they're trying to kill his reputation," said his mother. Conflating Martin’s school records with his murder goes far beyond Martin’s reputation: it exposes the extent to which African American youth are criminalized in American society. Trayvon Martin is already the victim of devastating injustice. At the very least, his case deserves an investigation that is not influenced by racial prejudice.