Florida’s Racist Past Helped Kill Trayvon

The state's black history provides clues to why George Zimmerman confronted the unarmed teen.

A memorial to Trayvon Martin (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The journey of Trayvon followed a pattern that is woven into Florida’s racist past. Independent actions of black people are often perceived as threatening to white people. When provoked, the expected reaction of black people is to submit, and any defensive action is perceived as a legitimate threat, which becomes the basis of “self-defense” for white people and “justifiable homicide” against black people.

Trayvon was not only a victim of murder; he was also a victim of a 10-day suspension from school, which severely disrupted his education and displaced him from his community. Many argue that Trayvon’s drug paraphernalia, not the system, was responsible for the suspensions. However, no 10-day suspension is reasonable. Studies show that white kids use more drugs than black kids but rarely are subject to these lengthy suspensions. The racial differences in the way that schools handle drug experimentation and aggressive behaviors between black and white kids mirrors racial differences in the criminal justice system. 

Trayvon was the victim of Florida school curricula that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, systematically omits classes in high school that are required for college. Orange County Public Schools in Florida (38 percent) and Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida (57 percent) have the lowest percent of schools that offer Algebra II in high schools with the highest black and Latino enrollment. Hillsborough County Public Schools also has the greatest racial disparity, because it offers Algebra II to 100 percent of students in schools with the lowest percent of black and Latino students. Incidentally, Florida’s two flagship universities, University of Florida and Florida State University, require four units of math with one year of math beyond Algebra II. 

Trayvon was a victim of a school system that compounds inefficiencies in their schools with hyper-testing. The exit exam for reading comprehension introduced in Florida’s public schools was so inept that a student who earned Advanced Placement credit and a school board member with two master’s degrees failed the exam, yet the exam was used to prevent countless black children from graduating. With these problems in education, it is no wonder that nearly 25 percent of black children in Florida are at least one grade level behind by the time they reach the ninth grade (the third worst state in the nation), which I derived from my original analysis of the American Community Survey using the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series.

Today, Florida has vestiges of racial hostility and racial inequalities produced by a legacy of opposition to black social advancement. However, Florida is an important state to black America. With its diverse population, historically black universities and high rates of civic engagement, Florida has the potential to advance a progressive black agenda.

Two hundred years ago black people built colonies in Florida, and the U.S. military came to kill them.  One hundred years ago black people built communities in Florida, and angry white mobs came to kill them. One year ago, a black teenager was just trying to live in Florida, and a hostile white vigilante came to kill him. The criminal case against George Zimmerman was not the first battle lost, nor the last battle we will fight in battleground Florida.

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor at The Root. He can be contacted at itoldson@howard.edu. Follow him on Twitter.