From Trayvon Martin Hoodies to Shaima Alawadi Hijabs: Who is Responsible for Hate in America?

It’s been a month since the fatal shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African American boy who was walking home from a convenience store with skittles and an iced tea. His crime? Being black, male, and wearing a hoodie — looking “suspicious” in an upscale, gated Florida neighborhood.

And then a few days ago, we heard about (or maybe we didn't) the beating death of Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old mother of five. She was a Muslim Iraqi immigrant who had only recently moved into the neighborhood in which she was murdered in California. Having been repeatedly clubbed with a tire iron, her 17-year old daughter found her in the dining room of their home with a note by her side: “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” Her crime? Having the courage to wear a Hijab in a society where Muslims are openly vilified for the crimes of others.

Trayvon and Shaima were both murdered in cold blood. Why? Because Trayvon, a black kid in a hoodie, and Shaima, a Middle Eastern woman in a hijab, both fit archetypes indicted by American society as foreign, dangerous, and evil. And rather than take the time to learn what either of these victims were up to — Trayvon getting a quick snack during halftime, or Shaima raising an upstanding American family — their assailants assumed them into the roles society teaches about them, everyday.

George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s confessed murder, as well as the despicable person who took Shaima’s life are certainly hateful people who should be punished to the fullest extent of the law for their crimes. But the shame of these murders doesn’t stop with them. Rather, these despicable acts represent only the tip of an iceberg of racism, xenophobia, and hate, the base of which is founded upon some of American society’s most trusted institutions.

Our news media has a long history of profiteering on symbols, like hoodies and hijabs, by teaching us that they should elicit fear, contempt, and hatred.

Every night the country over, for example, nightly news programs hammer into our collective conscious that young black men are inherent criminals — they’ll mug you, break into your house, or murder you if you’re not careful. Images of young black men in hoodies are branded into our minds while their victims share horrific accounts of their exploits.

Larger media outlets, like Fox News, specialize in prosecuting Islam and Muslims. Nightly, these corporations seer images of Muslim women covered from head to toe, or thick-bearded Arab men in army fatigues and shalwar kamis with piercing stares into our minds as “Islamic war chants” play in the background and talking heads blare on about the dangers of the “Islamist” threat.

Government institutions are also complicit. Their choices confirm the types of reactions we’re supposed to have to these symbols and the people they represent.

Rather than investing in the education and success of black men in America, for example, our government has chosen instead to invest in locking them up — after all, young black men are dangerous, right? Needless to say, there are more black men in jail then there are in college. In difficult economic times, government financial decisions have become all the more indicative of their stances on black America — budget cuts debated in local and federal governments around the country threaten the financial future of programs disproportionately relied on by poor blacks.

And our military spends billions of dollars yearly to “fight terrorism” around the world. It’s created the circumstances whereby we can watch — like some sort of spectator sport — good-guy American G.I.’s who look like our neighbors and co-workers fighting the same foreign bearded Arab men we’ve been taught to despise on Fox News. And when it captures one of these ruffians, he’s openly thrown into a jail cell in Guantanamo with no hope for a fair trial. After all, these people are clearly evil; why would they deserve recourse to justice?

The troubling murders of Trayvon and Shaima have re-opened the public conversation about hate crimes in American society. Vexingly, though, this conversation has focused almost solely on particularities of the individual cases themselves — on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, or the push to prosecute George Zimmerman, for example. Yet while that wayward law or Zimmerman’s perplexing freedom are important and need to be rectified, we’re missing the main culprit.

More offensive and unjust is the unfettered messaging from some of our country’s most trusted institutions that continues to create the climate of fear, suspicion and hatred that ultimately led to these tragic murders. If we are serious about preventing the next hate crime, deconstructing and eliminating the onslaught against racial, class, or religious symbols in our media discourse and our government’s actions must be a priority.

That, or America will continue to be a dangerous place for black kids buying candy at halftime, or Muslim women waiting for their kids to come home from school.

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Abdulrahman El-Sayed

Dr. Abdulrahman M El-Sayed is a social epidemiologist and physician-in-training at Columbia University. He is also a Fellow at Demos, a non-partisan public policy center in New York. His commentary, which has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, the Huffington Post, and the Spotlight on Poverty, engages conversations about healthy policy questions in the US and globally, with a particular focus on disease prevention in light of health trends.

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