Thursday, July 18, 2013

Who killed Trayvon Martin? An honest discussion of race and crime

Earlier this week on July 16, Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the NAACP convention in Orlando in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. In the speech, Holder said that the “tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly – and openly – about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.” In truth, the national conversation about the killing of Trayvon Martin has been anything but honest. 

George Zimmerman admits that he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Even though Zimmerman pulled the trigger to fire the shot that ultimately killed Martin, he was not the only cause of Martin’s death. There seems to be plenty of blame to go around.

As noted in Examiner, Zimmerman, a registered Democrat, lived in a racially mixed neighborhood. In fact, Martin’s father’s girlfriend lived in the same neighborhood. It is unlikely that Zimmerman would have thought the mere presence of a black teenager would be alarming unless he was acting suspiciously. The Daily Caller reported in April 2012 that Zimmerman was one of few people in Sanford who pushed for justice in 2010 when the son of a white police officer beat a black man.

It seems likely that there is more to the case than the media narrative of a racist neighborhood watch captain killing an innocent black teenager. In many accidents, investigators point to a chain of events that lead up to the final incident. If any of the events that link together to cause the accident had not occurred the accident chain might have been broken. In the case of Trayvon Martin, there are several links in the chain.

The most obvious link in the chain is the string of burglaries that occurred in George Zimmerman’s neighborhood prior to his encounter with Trayvon Martin. According to CNN, there were at least eight burglaries within the previous 14 months. CNN notes that witnesses reported black males were responsible in three to four of the incidents while the other four had no witnesses or suspects. One resident said that George Zimmerman had called to alert police to a burglary in progress at his home on Feb. 2. Zimmerman’s call noted that the burglar in this case was also a black man.

According to the FBI, blacks represent 28 percent of arrests in the United States even though they make up only 13 percent of the population according to the Census Bureau. This means that they commit a disproportionate number of crimes compared to other demographic groups. Half of all murder arrests and more than half of robbery arrests are blacks. Thirty-one percent of burglary arrests are blacks. The statistics are even higher for juvenile arrests. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks are “disproportionately represented among both homicide victims and offenders.”

None of this means that every black person should be automatically suspected of criminal behavior. However, it does show that if a black teenager is acting strangely and looking into houses as Zimmerman alleges, investigating further is not unreasonable. The very purpose for the existence of a neighborhood watch is to be alert for suspicious activity regardless of race.

The question is why crime and incarceration rates among blacks are so much higher than their share of the total population. The answer can likely be found in the destruction of the black family. Data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that 67 percent of black children live in single-parent households. This is a far greater rate than for other races. Seventy-two percent of black children are born to unwed mothers according to NBC News.

The link between single-parent families and risky behaviors of children is well established. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, especially when the absent parent is the father, children are much more likely to become sexually active, use drugs, and have increased risk of juvenile delinquency.

The underlying truths represented by these statistics may have shaped Trayvon Martin’s young life. Martin’s step-mother, Alicia Stanley, raised him for 14 years until she and Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, divorced. Trayvon apparently changed after the divorce. In a CNN interview, Stanley said that he wasn’t a “thug” and that language like “creepy-ass cracker” was not used their home. Stanley said that she did not believe that race was a factor in the shooting.

Nevertheless, New York Times reported that, after the shooting, pictures and text messages found on Trayvon’s cell phone included guns, drugs, fighting and the fact that he had been kicked out of his mother’s house. One picture apparently shows Martin smoking marijuana, which has been shown to cause aggression, anxiety and paranoia. The Daily Mail reports that Trayvon was suspended from school three times in the months before his death. Reasons for the suspensions were possession of a burglary tool and jewelry, truancy, and possession of marijuana paraphernalia. Twitter messages refer to Trayvon hitting a bus driver. (Martin’s complete tweets can be viewed here.) ABC News also reported that Martin’s autopsy showed THC, the drug found in marijuana, in his blood.

In one eerily prescient exchange of text messages, reported in the Miami Herald, a friend asked Trayvon “so you just turning into a lil hoodlum [?]” and then warned “Boy don’t get one planted in ya chest.” Three months later, Trayvon was dead.

There were many links in the chain that led to Trayvon Martin’s death. George Zimmerman’s ill-considered decision to follow the teen is only the most obvious. Directly related to Zimmerman’s paranoia was the spate of burglaries that local police either could not or would not solve. The “broken windows” theory of policing holds that prosecution of small crimes can prevent larger, more violent crimes. In this case, if the police had solved the string of burglaries, they might have prevented an assault and killing. Likewise, if Trayvon’s parents and school administrators had reacted more strongly to the warning signs in his academic career, he might have been “scared straight.”

The biggest and most difficult link to break is the destruction of the black family. Trayvon Martin’s problems may have stemmed from the divorce of his father and step-mother. Like many children of divorce, Martin seems to have begun having trouble at school, become involved with drugs, and finally graduated to violence. Eyewitness testimony, reported by ABC News, supports Zimmerman’s story that he was pinned by Martin and screamed for help. If Martin had returned to his father’s girlfriend’s home rather than turning to confront Zimmerman, regardless of who threw the first punch, he would be alive today. His anger, resulting from anger at his parents’ divorce and compounded by drug use, may have played a role in his decision not to walk away.

Bill Cosby is one of the few black leaders who is willing to speak frankly about the problems facing the black community. In a 2011 interview with the Christian Post, Cosby decried the rise in single-parent families and the “media that romanticizes criminal behavior, things that a person will say against women, profanity, being gangster, having multiple children with multiple men and women and not wanting to is prevalent.”

The way to prevent more Trayvon Martins is not banning stand-your-ground laws, guns or hoodies. Preventing the deaths of more young black men and women starts with repairing the damage to the black family, a much more difficult task than demonizing George Zimmerman. Perhaps that is why so many choose to ignore the problem.

Originally published as Atlanta Conservative Examiner

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