The Trayvon Martin Case: A Case for Race?

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The Trayvon Martin case is back in the national news. The other night, an African American pastor posed the question to a group of people: why has the Trayvon Martin case captured the American public’s eye? Tragedies like this happen all the time. Why did this one shoot America in the face on the evening news?

In reflecting upon his question, I thought back on other high profile cases that raised questions about race: celebrity trials involving OJ Simpson and Kobe Bryant respectively and the late Rodney King. No doubt, each case was different, but each case attracted national attention. One of the striking features of this case is that an African American youth was shot to death by a Hispanic American man, who claimed he shot him in self-defense. In the Rodney King beating, captured live on camera, there was no way in the world that the police officers beat him to a pulp in self-defense. For some at least, this case is not so clear cut. And yet, why did Zimmerman—a community watch volunteer—pursue Martin, even when the 911 operator told him to stop? Was he racially profiling Martin?

It will be a long time coming before our country ever gets to the point of not considering race as a contributing factor to whether someone is charged as innocent or guilty. Remember how split the nation was over the Simpson trial? Was OJ innocent or guilty of killing his ex-wife and her friend? It seemed to many that people responded along black and white lines [For example, it has been reported that according to an ABC poll, 77% of white Americans believed Simpson was guilty;  according to the same poll, 72% of black Americans believed Simpson was innocent; see J. Chidley, “The Simpson Jury Faces the Race Factor,” Maclean’s 108(41) (1995, October), 69-70]. Whether or not race contributed to Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin, race is still part of the conversation. We can’t avoid it.

America goes on trial as Martin and Zimmerman go on trial. Can our justice system right the racial wrongs of the past? No. Can we keep race out of the courtroom and out of people’s minds as a contributing factor in such shootings and trials? No. But can we at least learn from the trial that racialization—how race shapes us as a nation in a variety of complex dimensions—will not die with Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman or the rest of us? Unlike people, racial suspicions and considerations live on long after people shoot them down.

The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins will be hosting a forum to discuss the matters of race raised by the Trayvon Martin case. Please join us for this important dialogue on Saturday, June 15 from 1 – 5pm at Irvington Covenant Church (4003 NE Grand Ave. in Portland).

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • http://www.ethnicembraceusa.net Brian Considine

    “77% of white Americans believed Simpson was guilty; according to the same poll, 72% of black Americans believed Simpson was innocent.” It is interesting that this divide was so large when the evidence against OJ became so demonstratively clear. I remember watching the white Bronco going down the highway before OJ’s arrest and saying to the TV, “say it ain’t so, OJ!” I was certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until there was no doubt, except to a group of jurors. But what does it say about the sociology of a “race” (a word I detest BTW based on Galatians 3:28) that this divide exists against the facts? Certainly a complex question against the margins of historical ethnic sociology and strife. But we must move beyond this complexity into the simplicity of Christ. With God all things are possible.

    • Joshua

      One of the things that irks me, even today, is when people make reference to the O.J. Simpson case in a condescending fashion towards blacks, implying that we were too blinded by race to see his guilt.

      As easy as it is to imply that blacks were blinded by race, it oversimplifies how much the media made this a racial circus, and how much the proceedings emotionally affected its viewers.

      More importantly, it fails to consider that blacks have seen, heard, or experienced a lion’s share of stories regarding corrupt cops, systemic racism, and gross injustices against our people, and that much of our upbringing was mired in constant distrust of the authorities, especially the police. I was in elementary school when the O.J. Simpson case raged across the media, pushing all of the racial buttons, and I remember one of the key witnesses in the trial (Mark Fuhrman) taking the Fifth Amendment when he was questioned on whether he had ever planted evidence.

      It also dismisses, I believe, the fact that blacks are human too, and got caught up in the emotions of the case, yet in different ways. Many blacks reacted strongly to the Trayvon Martin case because, no matter how you slice it, most of us know a boy that looks like him … and all he did was wear and hoodie and walk in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong man calling himself “neighborhood watch”.

      Also, as easy as it is to say something to the effect of, ‘I wish blacks would stop being caught up in race and just trust in God/Christ’, it (1) fails to consider the significant self-conscious struggles that many blacks deal with, it (2) fails to see those struggles as normal human reactions when one has been used to a history of injustices, and (3) it fails to consider that many of the offenders call themselves Christians.

      Sure, we’re not enslaved anymore and for the most part, we don’t deal with overt, hostile racism. But the echoes of America’s racist history still exist, and it’s a decidedly human struggle to keep one’s composure and unbiased sensibilities in the face of them.

  • Dave

    By the way, isn’t it about time for another black male to be in the news? At first it was reported that one of the bombing suspects had dark skin. Since he disappointed I suspect the media are hard at work, hoping to come up with something.

    It’s gotta include pretty white women or black males or the news cycles start to drag.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/8601342@N03/ Gregory Peterson

    As near as I can tell, for what this is worth, “race” is a much abused social construct with a lot of long discredited scientific baggage (like homosexuality.)

    The characteristics are chosen as being racial characteristics, and even racists scientists could never establish how many “races” there are, or can be…then there is the use of “race” in establishing an oppressor caste (though you don’t need to invent “race” for that, do you?)

  • http://ourgirlsclub.blogspot.com/ Ginny Bain Allen

    How eceedingly sad it is that had Trayvon been rightfully detained for the crimes he had committed, he would have been safely tucked out of harm’s way at the time of his death, and, therefore, alive today! Thanks to some idiotic program that was in place, at that time in his city, he no longer has life.

  • White Male

    Zimmerman should be in Jail, for Murder – why did Zimmerman—a community watch volunteer—pursue Martin, even when the 911 operator told him to stop? Was he racially profiling Martin? Now a young man is dead and Zimmerman , is not brhind Bars ! ! ! ! What is wrong with this case ? Its a no brainer , Zimmerman
    should be dead……..Many blacks reacted strongly to the Trayvon Martin case because, no matter how you slice it, most of us know a boy that looks like him … and all he did was wear and hoodie and walk in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong man calling himself “neighborhood watch”.

  • http://ourgirlsclub.blogspot.com/ Ginny Bain Allen

    What happened to the six comments that had been posted here, Paul?

    • pmetzger

      @Ginny, Patheos is migrating to a new commenting system and those comments (along with a few others) are temporarily hibernating in cyberspace. They should be back up soon.

  • AndyBinGA

    “And yet, why did Zimmerman—a community watch volunteer—pursue Martin, even when the 911 operator told him to stop?”

    This is a lie.

    From the call released by the Sanford Police:

    At 2:07, Zimmerman tells the dispatcher, “He’s running.”

    At 2:09, you can hear a car door open and an alarm begins
    that is undoubtedly the “door open, keys in ignition” warning on Zimmerman’s
    truck.

    At 2:13, you can clearly hear the car door slamming shut.

    At 2:17, Zimmerman’s voice wobbles and he starts breathing
    heavily into the phone, indicating that he has started running.

    At 2:22, without any prompting other than the aforementioned
    noises and breathing, the dispatcher asks “Are you following him?” to which
    Zimmerman responds, “Yeah.”

    At 2:26, the dispatcher says, “Okay, we don’t need you to do
    that,” to which Zimmerman responds, “Okay.”

    Zimmerman proceeds to give the dispatcher his name. Then he
    says, “He ran.”

    Zimmerman can still be heard breathing into the phone until
    about 2:39, at which point the heavy breathing stops entirely, a mere 13
    seconds after the dispatcher asked him to stop following. A very calm and
    collected Zimmerman then proceeds to give the dispatcher his own information,
    directions and a description of his location for another 1 minute and 33
    seconds.

    The difference between someone running while on the phone
    and not running can be heard quite clearly, and I encourage readers to listen
    for themselves.

    There’s another reason to believe that Zimmerman stopped
    following Martin: After he gives the dispatcher his personal address, at 3:35,
    he says, “Oh crap, I don’t want to give that all out. I don’t know where this
    kid is,” meaning he is worried Martin might hear where he lives. If Zimmerman
    doesn’t even know where Martin is, would it even be possible for him to still
    be following Martin at this point? Would it even be possible for him to have
    continued following Martin after hanging up the phone — a full two minutes
    after he first got out of his car and a minute and a half after.

    During this time Trayvon made it back to the place he was
    staying at which was 70 yards from the fight scene. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfVTM8sqz4k about 9:19

    This means it was Trayvon who came back 70 yards and stalked and attacked George.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AmericanXzero Paul Zerovnik

    ” And yet, why did Zimmerman—a community watch volunteer—pursue Martin,
    even when the 911 operator told him to stop? Was he racially profiling
    Martin?” here is a better question,why did martin brutally ambush and assault Zimmerman? why would you not want Zimmerman to defend himself? also it was the attorneys on martins family’s behalf in conjunction with the media that turned this into race. nuff said.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bill.walker.1272 Bill Walker

      you all need to get over it , it is not illegal to follow someone .

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.walker.1272 Bill Walker

    Why is it that ever time a black person gets shot by a white person it all about race.If the blacks in this country our ever to consider equal they need to stop asking for all this special laws and treatment. Remeber that all men our cretated equal then why do we special laws for black , maybe thety are telling the world that they our not equal! George will walk free and the martins will be sued and she will have to get a real job instead of living off her dead son.

  • Poopshoot

    Unless the writer of this article was a witness to what happened, there is no evidence that Zimmerman continued to pursue Trayvon after the 911 operator(who is not a police officer) said “We don’t need you to do that!” Zimmerman was not instructed to “STOP.” Zimmerman said “OK.” The first 911 call came within a minute of Zimmermans call ended.. How much “persuit” took place in a minute? George may have been walking back to his truck. I love how the people commenting and the people writing these stories create a picture of what happened, when they were not there to see what actually took place.. There was a struggle/fight and someone was shot.. Ones dead, and one has injuries.. The struggle happened after the phone call ended, so we do not know who instigated the fight.. At one point in the phone call George says Trayvon “was coming towards me.” Who is then in pursuit?


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