“I’m not saying that Martin deserved to be shot,” Massie says. “I’m also not saying he was a paragon of virtue. Indications are he was not singled out because he was black. He was singled out because he was there, Zimmerman was doing his job as a neighborhood watchperson, and he saw a stranger.”
Massie strenuously objects to any comparison between Till and Martin. Till, Massie says, died in “a different time.”
There certainly is no comparison between the killers, or the circumstances surrounding their actions: Two white men abducted the 14-year-old Till, pistol-whipped and shot him, then dumped him in a river with a weight barb-wired around his neck. Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is from Peru, identifies himself as Hispanic. He says he fired in self-defense because he was being viciously beaten by Martin.
Yet Martin, like Till, died at a pivotal moment in U.S. racial history.
The Brown v. Board of Education case desegregating American schools had just begun the march toward equal rights, but Till’s death signaled that the hardest battles had yet to be fought. Likewise, Martin died when a black man was leading the country for the first time.
But Raynard Jackson, a black conservative commentator, says the fact of a black president didn’t stop a black kid minding his own business from being considered a criminal.
“It was based on a mindset of prejudice and superiority: ‘Who are you to walk in my neighborhood?’” Jackson asserts.
Reams of scientific evidence and real-life experiences suggest such profiling is widespread, and millions of people can feel its truth in their bones. But in the case of George Zimmerman, who exhibited no previous racist behavior of record, it’s still nothing but an assumption and almost impossible to prove.
That’s another defining feature of today’s racial challenges: They’re much more subtle than in 1955, and thus often harder to discuss or quantify.
Darden’s own judgment tells him that race was a factor in Zimmerman placing Martin under suspicion: “It had to be. Race is a factor, a point of fact that people consider when they evaluate someone.”
For Massie, the significance of the Martin case is simple: Black males commit a disproportionate percentage of crimes. “What it shows,” he says, “is the continued predilection for misbehavior by so many young urban people, regardless of color.”
“The tragedy of Trayvon Martin is that, if as many of us believe he initiated this assault, he paid the ultimate price for a bad decision,” Massie says.
Trayvon Martin: victim or aggressor? George Zimmerman: racist or neighborhood protector? As with America in the Emmett Till era, much of today’s race problem rests on the fact that America can’t reach even a semblance of consensus on the problem.
“I think white America has one way of viewing race, because of their experiences, and American people of color have a very different perspective, because of their experiences,” says Powell, the activist.
“If we are to truly have one America, then we’ve got to talk and listen to each other,” he says, “and to understand that Trayvon Martin murder is an American tragedy, not a black tragedy.”