As the new academic year has begun, we thought it important to post a blog regarding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American boy who was shot by George Zimmerman, a 30-year-old man who has identified himself as Hispanic but who the police referred to as White (for more about race and ethnicity in this case, see Gamboa 2012). The details of the case have been widely reported (CNN 2013): Martin lived in Miami Gardens, FL, but was visiting his father in Sanford, FL. He was walking back to his father’s house in the rain after going to a convenience store to buy some Skittles and an iced tea; Zimmerman called police to report Martin as looking “suspicious” and was told by the police department to stay in his car and not follow Martin. Zimmerman decided to follow Martin anyway and confronted him; an altercation ensued, and Zimmerman shot Martin, who was unarmed. The killing resulted in a trial of Zimmerman for 2nd degree murder. Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder.
How can the application of a feminist sociological imagination enhance our understanding of Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin and the “not guilty” verdict? We recommend beginning, like we do throughout Investigating Gender, by exploring what “murder” means and in what contexts. In general, 2nd degree murder refers to a killing that was unplanned but there are variations across jurisdictions (FindLaw 2013). For instance, in Florida where Zimmerman was found not guilty, 2nd degree murder means a killer exhibits a“depraved” mind with no regard for human life (FindLaw 2013). In contrast in Florida, voluntary manslaughter in an intentional act committed in a heightened emotional state (FindLaw 2013). Whether or not someone is legally defined as a murderer is closely tied to how murder is defined.
How might we think about gender? As we discuss in the textbook in Chapter 9: Interpersonal Violence, males are much more likely than females to be the perpetrators and victims of crime. Even though males are more likely than females to be victims, embedded in concepts of masculinity is the idea that men have the ability to inflict violence and that men who are unfamiliar are particularly volatile.
When we bring an intersectional perspective to this situation, we can see that both age and race are important considerations in addition to gender. As we saw in the analysis of Michael’s vignette in Chapter 2: Bodies, men are often seen as naturally powerful and viewed as at the height of their physical prowess as youth. How likely is it that an unfamiliar woman of any age walking in the neighborhood would be viewed as “suspicious?”
As you saw in Chapter 9: Interpersonal Violence and in Chapter 2: Bodies (see p. 41), when we add race to our analysis, African-American young men have long been and remain framed as inherently dangerous because of their presumed hyper(hetero)sexuality and violent tendencies. In what ways did this assumption of young African-American males as dangerous enter into the courtroom? For instance, what was the purpose of Zimmerman’s attorneys repeatedly showing the jury a picture of Trayvon Martin shirtless (Legum 2013)? What was the effect of the defense attorney’s argument that Trayvon Martin “armed himself with concrete” (Bogado 2013)? How might race have informed the defense attorneys’ decision to produce and show the jury a partially fictitious and inaccurate animation portraying Martin hitting Zimmerman with his left hand despite the fact that Martin was right-handed and there was no evidence that he had hit Zimmerman with his left hand (Bogado 2013)? In what ways was Trayvon Martin often the one on trial in the courtroom as well as in public discussions? How did defense attorneys and the media portray Trayvon Martin as a dangerous young African-American male?
As we discussed in Chapter 9 on Interpersonal Violence, the image of dangerous African-American males and the murder of African-American men has a long history in the US; a history which continues and places Trayvon Martin’s murder in a social context. As prominent race scholar Robin D. G. Kelley (2013) points out:
In 2012 alone, police officers, security guards or vigilantes took the lives of 136 unarmed black men and women — at least twenty-five of whom were killed by vigilantes. In ten of the [vigilante] incidents,the killers were not charged with a crime, and most of those who were charged either escaped conviction or accepted reduced charges in exchange for a guilty plea.
Although many have argued that Zimmerman’s murder of Martin was clearly racially motivated (see, for example, the articles cited in this blog), in order to fully understand the significance of his killing and the result of Zimmerman’s trial, a feminist sociological imagination helps us understand that the labeling of Trayvon Martin’s death as a killing rather than a murder was the result of a gendered and sexualized racism that frames African-American boys and men as inherently dangerous.