The country is buzzing with talk about racial profiling since the acquittal Saturday of George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. Here in Madison, 19-year-old Marshaun Hall says while he doesn’t feel particularly unsafe as a young, African-American man, he is aware of heightened scrutiny.
“I do feel a tension in the air that a white person might feel unsafe in my presence,” Hall says. “If I walk around at night, I’m cautious in what I do to make sure they feel comfortable. I shouldn’t have to do that.”
While a student at West High School, Hall helped organize a hoodie sit-in in support of Martin’s family. Now a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he watched with interest for the verdict in the Zimmerman trial.
“It was as if we didn’t value Trayvon Martin’s life enough to get a guilty verdict,” Hall says, despite what he believes was the evident racial profiling involved in Zimmerman’s decision to pursue a black teenager he considered “suspicious.” The implication that minorities are not as valued as whites extends beyond the criminal justice system, Hall argues.
“I love Madison, but even here, there is an undertone of segregation between people,” he says. “I see it every day.”
Michelle Robinson agrees and feels the discussion about justice and race kindled by the Martin trial is as relevant in a community like Madison, which sees itself as progressive on issues of race, as anywhere.
“We don’t see the Trayvon Martin verdict as separate from other forms of racial oppression,” Robinson says. “We don’t see the verdict as about biased jurors, although there may be some who were biased. The point is structural racism and how it is embedded in our lives.”
Robinson, a graduate student in sociology at UW-Madison, worked with civil rights groups Freedom Inc. and the Madison chapter of the International Socialist Organization to organize a rally and vigil around issues raised by the Martin case. About 300 people rallied Sunday at the Capitol and about one-third that number participated in a vigil that followed at Penn Park on the city’s south side, says Robinson.
“We’re trying to create a sustained, organized, community-based grassroots movement dealing with oppression in Dane County,” she says.
As for the reach of racial oppression into liberal, affluent Dane County, concern over the disparate experience of minority city residents compared to white ones has led the past two mayors to speak of “two Madisons.” And the mainstream advocacy organization, Wisconsin Council for Children and Families, this year launched the Race to Equity program to counter ”profound and persistent” disparities in quality of life between races in Dane County, where 75 percent of African-American children live in poverty and African-American males are more than 20 times more likely to be convicted and incarcerated than white men.
Robinson said organizers of Sunday's rally and their allies are trying to humanize statistics to change perceptions. “We’re trying to paint a picture of life for blacks in Madison,” she says.
Martin’s killing has many African-American parents coping with renewed fears about their sons’ safety. One columnist wrote of her anguish to protect her son from being another Trayvon Martin, or Amadou Diallo, or Emmett Till, tracing back nearly six decades of sensational racial killings in America.
Hall says that while his mother never tied cautions about his behavior to race, “she did her best to raise me to be a man of intelligence and integrity. She pushed the importance of education and making myself presentable.”
Sagging pants and other teenage behavior carries a bigger stigma for black kids than white ones, he says. “People say they’re acting black, but they’re acting like teenagers.”
The complexities of race and justice are not restricted to states in the South. Racial profiling is an issue in a Wisconsin homicide of a black teenager that many observers are comparing to the Trayvon Martin killing. A Milwaukee jury Wednesday delivered a guilty verdict in the homicide of 13-year-old Darius Simmons last year after a trial that featured a video of the fatal shooting.
Vincent Stepney-Willis was a high school classmate of Hall’s who is now a student at Lakeland College in Sheboygan. He can look back to his own experiences, like being tailed so persistently by a sales clerk in a Madison shoe store that he turned around and walked out, for evidence of the role of race in public persona. But Stepney-Willis says the intense focus on race in the Zimmerman trial obscured the fact that Martin was an innocent teen minding his own business when he was shot and killed.
He says he and his friends talk about race issues and work through their demeanor and accomplishments to undo bias inherent in the culture. ”We’re trying to reconstruct those stereotypes and make a difference in the world.”
“I feel like we are all Trayvon Martin,” says 16-year-old Jervon Walker, a student at Middleton High School, echoing a meme that swept social media in the aftermath of the verdict. “You’re going to the store and you take off your hoodie so no one accuses you of stealing.”
His mother tells him to pull up his pants and mind his manners, he says, “but I already know what I need to do to survive in this world.”
Walker says he thinks the discussions coming out of the Trayvon Martin case may actually change things. “Some people will learn from it. Other people who want to keep their same way will do what they want to do. But I think most people will benefit from it.”