Trayvon and Beyond

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The reaction that followed the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial is filling screens and pages all over the country. Much of the media attention has focused on the who-won/who-lost analysis, as if the killing of Trayvon Martin and the prosecution of George Zimmerman were a contest.

Now, days after, as the discussions wane along with the media’s interest, the opinion leaders are dwelling on post-game analysis: prosecution mistakes and defense triumphs. Absent from most of these reviews is consideration of the larger context that facilitated a teenage boy dying on the wet grass of a gated community in Sanford, Florida on a rainy February night.

The judge disallowed race and racism from consideration in the trial, although race and racism permeated every aspect of it. It was as if the lawyers were obliged to debate the sinking of the Titanic without mentioning the ocean or water.

While the influences and cultural attitudes that contributed to Trayvon Martin’s death were missing from the courtroom, they need to be understood and addressed by us. To put it another way, what laws led to the death of Trayvon Martin? What attitudes in the culture inspired those laws? What accounts for the egregious racial disparities only extremists dispute? And why does anyone presume that the people of the United States have evolved into a post-racial society?

For perspective, we checked in with Tim Wise, the subject of the new MEF film White Like Me, along with Princeton University’s Imani Perry and Umass Amherst’s Nilanjana Dasgupta, who are also featured in the film.

The interviews were recorded via Skype and Google and consequently the video quality is variable. The messages, however, are clear and provocative.

In this clip, Imani Perry, professor of African American studies at Princeton, describes the cumulative effect these incidents, such as the killing of Trayvon Martin and others, have on the collective psyches of the African American community:

“How can we make a society where the body you’re born into doesn’t predict so much in your life?”

Tim Wise reacts to the assertions made by defenders of Zimmerman suggesting he couldn’t possibly be influenced by race because he has black friends, dated an African American girl and mentored black children:

“…to believe that being close to black folks somehow insulates you from a charge of racism would be like heterosexual men saying, ‘I can’t be sexist. I date women. I’m married to one.”

UMass psychology professor Nilanjana Dasgupta explains further how someone can react with “implicit bias” while believing they are devoid of racism:

“It is a racial stereotype, even if the person at that moment doesn’t think of it as race.”

Check back here throughout the week for more of our conversations with Imani Perry, Nilanjana Dasgupta & Tim Wise.
Production assistance provided by Sophia Chen.