The unjust and tragic murder of Trayvon Martin reflects in microcosm many of the worst aspects of American society during this brutal, backward conservative era we inhabit. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in effect allows bourgeois whites, and those who have adopted their values, to indulge their worst fear-fantasies about blacks: since at least the 1970s, for many people the metonym/imago of young black men is that of the figure of a gang-banger ready to steal, kill, and rape. It is of course a vicious and false stereotype: it does not accurately describe the vast majority of black men, nor does it account for the fact that whites and other ethnic groups are members of gangs and can be violent too. Nonetheless, in our culture this threatening image is psychologically projected onto a whole race of people, fueling continued discrimination, paranoia, and authoritarian tendencies in law enforcement and the penal system, as well as the vigilante violence meted out by George Zimmerman upon Trayvon Martin. I suppose it ultimately goes back to antebellum Southern plantation owners’ secret terror of a slave uprising, in which they imagined oppressed black people would rise up and exact justice upon their white masters – a justice that the slave-owners believed would be swift, chaotic, and terrible because, to the white people’s minds, blacks were only slightly above animals and once free of white control would be let their violent passions run rampant. Stand Your Ground laws, which allow you to preemptively kill anyone when you just feel threatened, are, I think, psychologically based on, and reinforce, that irrational racist fear of out-of-control minorities. Of course, just to be clear, this is in fact irrational and paranoid, and not based on anything real, for black people are no more or less rational or irrational than anyone else. The predictable result of giving paranoid people the ability to shoot and kill anyone they are afraid of is tragedy -- both at the personal level, in the case of Treyvon Martin and his family, and at the social level, in the persistent marginalization and stereotyping of blacks.
Consider Geraldo Rivera's comments that Trayvon's clothing choice was to blame:
"But I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies,” Rivera insisted. “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”
When asked to clarify his remarks, Rivera said that he cautioned his own son against wearing hoodies. He explained, "When you, when you see a kid walking — Juliet — when you see a kid walking down the street, particularly a dark skinned kid like my son Cruz, who I constantly yelled at when he was going out wearing a damn hoodie or those pants around his ankles. Take that hood off, people look at you and they — what do they think? What’s the instant identification, what’s the instant association?"
There is an association, and it's a racist one, the paranoid image of the dark-skinned gang-banger. This clothing association with gangsterism is entirely arbitrary. I am a white male professional in my early 40's, a veteran and a community leader; I wear a suit to work. I have never been in a gang. And I also wear hoodies just like Trayvon - every time I go to the gym. I see white people wearing them all the time. It’s just a stupid stereotype; as Martin Luther King said, we should judge people by the content of their character. Rivera, and anyone else who cringes and thinks "Gangster! Danger!" when they see a dark-skinned person in a hoodie, are impulsively letting their thoughts run away with them. Rivera is letting himself be ruled by an arbitrary association, a racist stereotype which drives a paranoid emotional response. He should instead pause to check his impulsive thoughts, examine his evidence-free first impressions, and philosophically adjust them the way that a rational grown adult should. And that – impulsive, evidence-free mental associations – is really the heart of the conservative way of thinking in America today.
Conclusion: Stand Your Ground laws are based on irrational fear of dark-skinned people, and ought to be repealed nationwide. Note what a Stand Your Ground laws allow: preemptively attacking someone you fear and feel threatens you. Sound familiar? They are not our only such laws; some based on the same racist impulses have even bigger and more tragic effects, like the Patriot Act and Authorization for Use of Military Force, which allowed for pre-emptive war in Iraq against dark-skinned people. These should be repealed too. And we should also repeal the image of the minority gangster that fuels so much repressive paranoia in our society.