Connie Rice: Trayvon Martin Case Reveals Struggle For African-Americans
The shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida triggered public outrage and discussions about racial relations in America. Connie Rice, the co-founder and co-director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles, shared her thoughts in an interview with Neon Tommy.
Neon Tommy: What does it say about race relations in the U.S. today that shootings like this still happen?
Connie Rice: I don’t know what it shows. I am going to wait for the investigation. But if you try to understand the outrage, it’s about millions of African-American men who have been stopped [by authorities] during the year for no reason. They constantly worry about whether the police will stop their sons when they move to a new area. It’s connected to the long history that still shadows us today and the suspicion that black men still meet. Some people have raised the horrific Emmett Till [killing] that happened in 1955 and compared it to Trayvon Martin's case, but I think that the two were quite different. The country’s reaction is different. Everybody is saying the little boy should not have died, even Republican candidates. The president is saying there should be an investigation to determine whether prosecution would be proper. You have an African-American president who was just saying yesterday, “If I had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.” The time is quite different.
We have made a lot of progress, but still we have not gotten over the subliminal and unconscious fear of what it suggests. There could be an investigation that shows something unexpected at this point. But if the investigation shows the little boy was shot for no reason and we have a vigilante who was just looking for reasons to find suspicion on the little black boy, that would tell us we have more work to do to understand the racial fear. You don’t have to be overtly racist to have your action dictated by fear of another race, which often triggers an overreaction, sometimes including a shooting.
NT: How would you evaluate the public outrage that has come in response to the shooting, prompting federal investigation?
CR: For the African-American community, this is not just one child that got shot down. It is feeling the pain of this kind of killing for hundreds of years. While this killing may be connotatively different, the community develops a kind of psychology that triggers the same reaction as you had with Emmett Till when it is subjected to this kind of subjection, oppression and police force in the past that has not been justified. They can’t help it because they still find themselves under the same kind of attack.
For other communities, the case of this particular child, who carried a bag of Skittles coming from the store to his father’s place, is just heartbreaking. You see Caucasions, Asians, Latinos at the rally saying they want an investigation and don’t want this “Stand Your Ground” law to be an excuse for an unjustified shooting.
The fact that this shooting hasn’t been politicized is significant. It may end up disintegrating into that, but people are focused on the important things, such as why there wasn’t evidence collected, which determines whether prosecution is needed. They should have done a number of things that they didn’t do, such as examine the shooter to see if he suffered any injury that could support the claim of self-defense. Remember, self-defense is not an argument for not arresting someone. It is a legal defense that you make as a defendant in trial, and is not something that police get to decide. If you have someone who kills another person, you have to take them in and start the investigation. I think people are right to be focused on the investigation.
NT: What should people do next—both public figures and average citizens?
CR: Keep the pressure up. What you want is dignified support of the parents who I think are carrying this with incredible grace. For example, the parents say they don’t want any violence, but justice and the case to be investigated. We need to follow the parents’ example and hear their request. We need to make sure that the officials, law enforcement involved and elected officials follow through and carry out the process for the main investigation.
We also need to have civil and calm discussions about the significance of unconscious fear of African-American boys and raise the public awareness about all the policies that single out black males and sometimes Latino males for unwarranted stop, scrutiny, pat downs, you name it. These children are always under suspicion without probable cause. I am not talking about the ones that are in gangs. I am talking about the average kids who are constantly stopped. We want communication and need to question why.
NT: Why did it take the world three weeks to find out about this particular case? What does that tell us?
CR: It happened in a small town. I guess the parents were probably in such shock that they were trying to figure out what was going to happen. After a few days, they realized that the guy was not getting arrested. Then they started ringing the alarm with the media. Social media has tremendous impact. This happens all the time, even if this case caught on not because of a videotape. Once it hit social media and the national media, it took off. Many killings like this don’t catch. This one happened to.
I don’t want to sound like this is where we were with Emmett Till. As I said before, the context, the animus, the public reaction, time and sensibility are all different. But what we are seeing is like an echo of those problems, the remainder of the work we have to do. We’ve come a very long way, and we are in a place that my grandparents never thought they would see in the United States. But we also have a very long way to go. That’s not a bad thing. It’s good that we can react this way.
NT: How will a case like this impact American society in terms of race relation?
CR: It’s already causing conversations that haven’t happened before. Listen to the radio shows, listen to the webcasts and so forth. I just want us to make sure that we use this tragedy to understand what’s left to do. The United States needs to understand that this isn’t an isolated shooting, but a shooting that’s a part of a pattern and we need to understand why and not be afraid of what it means.
Reach staff reporter Shako Liu here.