The Assassination of Trayvon's Character

Demonizing the victim is the status quo in society's treatment of young black males.

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Trayvon Martin

Last month I wrote an article about the demonization of black men and was called everything but a child of God for my observation that our society is all too willing to demonize and vilify black men in a way that satisfies the dominant narrative of no-good black men circulating throughout our society. Perhaps folks wanted to shoot the messenger? Or perhaps they didn't like the examples that I used: Chris Brown and Bobby Brown?

Since that article ran, the demonization of black men has continued: the smearing of the late professor Derrick Bell's reputation (and from Andrew Breitbart's grave, no less) and the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose reputation is clearly being sullied by his shooter's defenders in order to take the focus off the real issue, which is why there has been no arrest in a case where it is known that the shooter, George Zimmerman, continued pursuing Martin, even after a police dispatcher had advised him to stop.

At any rate, the country is in an uproar over a case that could have been prevented, if only common sense had prevailed over preconceived notions of who and what someone is based on symbols (hoodies) and social constructions (race). Even though race is a social construction, racism is real, as evidenced by many incidents in our society, not just Martin's killing. (Oscar Grant, anyone?) As subterfuge, the same authorities who appear to have been negligent at best and callous at worst in protecting Trayvon as the incident was unfolding, and investigating his death after Zimmerman shot him, are now releasing information about Trayvon's prior bad behavior in school.

Surprise, surprise -- Trayvon is now being described as a troublemaker, in tandem with Zimmerman's account of the incident, in which Trayvon is painted as the aggressor and Zimmerman as a scared man who acted in self-defense. I don't know how scared you can be when you're packing a Kel-Tec 9mm handgun, but that's another article.

The narrative of the bad black boy who had it coming seems to be the status quo when young black males are the victims of crime. When white teens in trench coats massacre fellow high school students or murder a man like James Craig Anderson for being black, folks want to understand what went wrong with what should have been benevolent white boys by virtue of -- what exactly, I don't know.

Young white males are rarely inherently bad -- just "troubled." Even when a black teen like Trayvon is killed under the most precarious of circumstances, too many assume that he had to have done something to contribute to his death because, after all, black boys are inherently bad. (Gasp and swoon.)

Martin wasn't perfect; but is it OK for him to be killed because of that? There is a flaw in that line of reasoning.

I find it interesting that the same people in this country who are so willing to accept the image of young black boys as predators cannot wrap their minds around black boys as victims. Yes, black people can be victims, even when the perpetrator is of color. A scene depicting teenagers walking to the store to buy candy is as American as apple pie. Getting killed on the way home from the store isn't exactly part of that script.

Call me an apologist for "bad" black men or whatever you like, but the public assassination of Trayvon Martin's character after his suspicious death speaks volumes about how young black boys and men are perceived in our society. Because of this dynamic, among many others, events like this one will continue to occur. That is the real tragedy.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning news site the Burton Wire and chair of the department of communication and media studies at Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter.

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