The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has saturated media coverage in recent days, with some commentators calling it a case of a modern-day Emmett Till. Details have emerged that suggest his shooter, George Zimmerman, may have been motivated by racial stereotypes of young black men.
The debate over black male stereotypes, which has endured throughout America’s troubled racial history, often resurfaces when events like Trayvon’s death occur. While we still don’t know all the details about what occurred that fateful night when Zimmerman and Trayvon’s paths crossed, the tragic result of their encounter is felt by many black teens today.
“I kinda feel threatened too. Like what if this happens to me?,” said Kenneth Herrera, a 17-year-old student at the Bronx Academy of Letters in New York. Kenneth explained how Trayvon’s death struck him as “pure racism.”
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“You can’t make a law that changes how people think, and that’s the hard thing,” he said. Kenneth says that the difference between Florida and New York laws gives him some comfort, but policies like the controversial NYPD technique, “stop and frisk,” keep him on edge.
Last year, according to Kenneth, he and his friends walked a few blocks from school to a nearby pizza shop. He described the restaurant as a popular hangout for his classmates. He said everything was fine until a police car rolled up and the officers inside demanded the boys leave. When he asked why, he said they got out and began patting him and his friends down.
“One of the cops put me in handcuffs and said ‘say something again and we’ll take you to the precinct.’ I think police officers exploit their power and feel like they can stop whoever they want.”
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Imani Daniels, 17, is also a student at Letters. Sh said she gets most of her news from social media, mainly Instagram and Twitter. “I’ve just been hearing about it recently,” said Imani, about the Trayvon Martin case, “What I can’t understand is why George Zimmerman has not been arrested when the police told him not to pursue Trayvon.”
Kenneth interjected, “I feel like people who are not black are always given the benefit of the doubt.”
Students from the Bronx Academy of Letters went to New York’s Union Square Tuesday to protest inaction in Trayvon Martin’s case. The trip was coordinated by the school’s writer in residence Samantha Thornhill . One of the students who participated was 16-year-old Sanday Sacoh.
“To be there and see everyone from different races support the cause was amazing,” said Sanday, adding, “but the fact that this 17-year-old was killed for wearing a hoodie is horrible. The fact that the person who shot him isn’t in jail is even worse.” She and other students describe hoodies as a part of a young person’s wardrobe. “I was wearing a hoodie two weeks ago,” said Sanday. “That could have been me.”
Eric Chispe, 17, said he believes young people are often profiled, sometimes because of race, but as often because of attire. Eric said he wears black a lot and has multiple facial piercings. “I don’t think you should judge someone by the way they look,” he said.
But adults often do, according to Eric. He told us that meeting his friends’ parents often doesn’t go well because of the way he dresses, and that sometimes dealing with local police could go “either way.”
“Sometimes it’s good,” he said, “but sometimes it’s not. I try to stay away from them.”
Sanday hopes to be a journalist one day. She said she’s talked to many of her friends about the events surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death, and that many share her views.
“At first I was sad but then it made me angry,” she said, “This isn’t the first time this has happened. It’s kinda tiring to turn on the television and see the same thing over and over again.”