Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Teaching Trayvon Martin

Anger. Frustration. Sadness. Disbelief. These are just some of the emotions I felt on Sunday morning when I woke to an NPR story explaining that George Zimmerman was found not guilty on all counts in the Trayvon Martin murder case. The fact that the "Stand Your Ground" law permitted a man to follow and then murder an unarmed teenager seems to be the epitome of injustice. This, of course, was framed by the role of race in our legal system. I continue to ask myself, "If George Zimmerman was Black and Trayvon Martin was White, would the proceedings have reached the same conclusion?" 

The verdict immediately made me think about history. It evoked my memories of 1992 and the Rodney King beating trial and subsequent LA Riots. It reminded me of the group chants I saw on television proclaiming, "Is this America, or South Africa?" It made me think of all those times I have taught about the Emmett Till murder. In both trials, the injustice was as much a problem of individual racism, as it was systematic racism and flawed law (the law in 1955 Mississippi did not allow people of color to serve on juries and the law in 1992 California law favored use of force by police officers). In searching the Internet, I found Ta-Nehisi Coates's poignant discussion of the Trayvon Martin murder case, where he reflects not only the "Stand Your Ground" law, but also the criminalization of the victim, Trayvon Martin, in the media. 

Continuing to reflect on the verdict, I thought about my experiences as someone who lives in a racially and economic diverse place (the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston) and the reality that many of teenagers I routinely pass by in the street or the children of my friends or neighbors could have been Trayvon Martin. As a former high school teacher at a diverse school, Trayvon Martin could have been one of my students. However, many White Americans do not see Trayvon Martin as someone they could have known. They live in places where they have limited chances to meet Black teenagers. With schools becoming increasingly segregated and the racial and economic segregation of our neighborhoods persisting, we have a serious problem with racial division. This racial division allows a Black teenager walking through a White neighborhood to seem suspicious. At a recent Roxbury vigil for Trayvon Martin, one of the speakers raised the point that the protest we were participating in was important, but it would not be until we see vigils for Trayvon Martin in the White communities of the area, in the Wellesley's and the Newton's, that will we know progress is being made.

As teachers, and especially social studies teachers, we must take moments of injustice like these and turn it into opportunities to teach for justice. Whether we teach in a diverse or racially segregated context, we should be having our students examine the Trayvon Martin case, question the current racial and economic segregation of the United States, and analyze the media coverage and state gun laws. We should allow our classrooms to be a place for our students to reflect, but also have constructive conversations on the meaning of the trial and the role of race in U.S. history. We should allow our students to examine the similarities and differences between the Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till murders. We should ask if the reaction to the Rodney King trial verdict and the Trayvon Martin verdict are equally justifiable? If we do this, then then we are beginning the necessary conversations that will help our nation work closer toward racial justice.


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