Xenophobia: "So You Too Are Trayvon"

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The issue is beyond race and Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law. George Zimmerman’s fear of Trayvon Martin led to murder and his acquittal. Since fear for his life, even if unreasonable, allowed Zimmerman to walk free. Then, what of other fear-based prejudices?

Last year, in Jacksonville, FL, Jordan Davis, 17, African-American, and unarmed, was killed in a mall parking lot, while sitting in his car. Michael David Dunn, 46, White, claims Davis pointed a shotgun after Dunn told Davis to turn down his music. Dunn shot his 9mm into Davis’ car and sped away. Now charged with first degree murder, Dunn relies on Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law, pleading self-defense. His trial begins in September.

A few days ago, in Escambia, FL, Roy Middleton, 60, African-American, and unarmed, was searching his mother’s car for cigarettes when police approached, guns drawn. Police began firing even after Middleton complied with requests to put up his hands. Middleton survived a barrage of shots fired at close range. Although police suspected Middleton of trying to steal the car they have yet to explain why they shot him.  

Last week, in Milwaukee, WI, John Henry Spooner, 77, White, was given a life sentence for the murder of Darius Simmons, 13, African-American, and unarmed. Darius was shot by his neighbor after Spooner accused Darius of robbing his home. When Darius, who had been at school that day, denied the theft Spooner shot the boy in the chest and again in the back.

Pointing to a high rate of crimes against Black people by other Blacks is a ready response to these Society-on-Black crimes. Crimes by Blacks on other Black people is an important but separate issue. It is separate because all crimes are primarily intra-racial. This is so among Whites, Latinos, and Asians.

Poverty-ridden communities, no matter their race, will have high crime rates.

Inter-racial crimes, specifically White-on-Black murders, have a long history in America. This Trayvon/Zimmerman verdict is about acquitting a man who committed murder based on an irrational fear of a Black boy. Taken in its best light this Zimmerman illogic implies if it scares you than there is a legal right to shoot it. Such a result allows anyone to shoot the object of their fears, even irrational fear, without question or consequences.

Irrational fears from aliens to zombies could support a murder acquittal. Consider those who fear that lower-class woman wearing an NRA t-shirt driving a dented pick-up truck. If there is a confrontation over a parking space, barking dog, or grocery price she is likely armed and dangerous. It could be your life or hers unless you shoot first. 

Men on motorcycles riding a roaring hog with long hair and leather jackets may raise fear in the mom driving a minivan. If this motorcycle-riding free spirit is not wearing a helmet then they could be considered reckless, trouble-makers. Why wait to know if he is asking directions; shoot first. A jury will understand. 

To some, men with beards can be frightening. Beards or mustaches can be considered suspicious and a sign of an untrustworthy character. Rarely seen on television, bearded men are not allowed in power positions like Wall Street, politics, television news, or business. Therefore, bearded men may require fatal force in any confrontation. 

As with Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, certain attire can induce fear. Women shielded by hijabs or scarves. Jewish men wearing yarmulkes. Rastafarian, Nazirite and Sikh men who could frighten anyone unaware their religious law forbids haircuts. Of course, frightening people include anyone possibly resembling a Muslim, in any manner, whatsoever.

Black men, under this fear test, should arm themselves against unwarranted attacks by fear mongering Zimmerman-types obsessed with delusions of African male prowess or cowered by unsubstantiated racial prejudices. It will not stop there. Zimmerman’s acquittal means summary annihilation. Soon, fear-laden fatalities will not be limited to unarmed Black teenagers.

Black people in America are like the canary in the coal mine, says Harvard Professor Lani Guinier. A sick canary predicts deadly trouble in the mine below. The fate of African-Americans can reveal the future of others in America. Soon, everyone is Trayvon.

White men with tattoos become Trayvon. Tourists speaking a foreign language. An inter-racial group of students. Drivers of trucks bearing confederate flags. The homeless. Drunk neighbors. Tall people. Weight-lifters. Catholic priests. Playground bullies. Gays. Vegetarians. Nudists. Bossy relatives. The disabled. Outliers of any kind.  

When Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a 20th century activist and journalist, studied the lynching of Black men she discovered European immigrants were also among the over 4,000 lynched men, women, and children. Today, irrational fear has led to 9mm lynchings.

Diversity is America’s greatest strength. If xenophobia – a fear of outsiders – remains a rationale for murder then this nation has no future. We are all strangers to someone.


Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and a writer covering the U.S. Supreme Court as well as major legal issues.



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