On Trayvon Martin: The U.S. School System’s Criminalization of Black Youth


Eye on Culture

The efforts to defend George Zimmerman by disparaging and demonizing Trayvon Martin have become commonplace. The three-headed monster of the Sanford Police Department, Zimmerman’s attorney (and surrogates) and Fox News continue to push a narrative that seeks to justify Zimmerman’s actions. At the center of their distortions, distractions and lies has been an effort to paint Trayvon Martin as a “criminal,” as a “thug” and as a “menace” – as America’s nightmare: “young, black and don’t give a f*ck.”

Citing manufactured pictures and suspensions, like Geraldo’s reference to hoodies, the “blame the black kid” defense is intent on justifying his murder by substantiating Zimmerman’s fear and suspicion. Michelle Goldberg asked, “Why Conservatives Are Smearing Trayvon Martin’s Reputation,” concluding that “Conservatives are focusing on Trayvon’s tweets, appearance, school suspension over marijuana traces, and the hoodie he was wearing to blame him for his own death – and to show that his killing had nothing to do with racism.” These efforts have led to a shift in the media coverage and hyper emphasis on Martin’s demeanor, background, and behavior. According to Goldberg, “The media was flooded with the news, if one could call it that, that Martin was once suspended from school for possession of a plastic baggie with marijuana residue on it.”

For example, a story in the Orlando Sentinel took the lead in the character assassination, giving voice to defend Zimmerman by assassinating the character of Martin with its emphasis on most-recent school suspension: “[H]e had been suspended from school in Miami after being found with an empty marijuana baggie. Miami schools have a zero-tolerance policy for drug possession.” Likewise, a Miami Herald piece on Trayvon Martin provided a context to understand the shooting:

As thousands of people gathered here to demand an arrest in the Trayvon Martin case, a more complicated portrait began to emerge of a teenager whose problems at school ranged from getting spotted defacing lockers to getting caught with a marijuana baggie and women’s jewelry.
The Miami Gardens teen who has become a national symbol of racial injustice was suspended three times, and had a spotty school record that his family’s attorneys say is irrelevant to the facts that led up to his being gunned down on Feb. 26.

The focus on his suspension is particularly revealing not only in Trayvon’s case, but also in the larger fabric of American racism. For the defenders of Zimmerman and much of the media, the reports of multiple suspensions, of a connection to an “empty marijuana bag,” are evidence that at best Trayvon was “complicated” and at worst he was a “thug” who therefore deserved to be killed.

While telling us nothing about Trayvon Martin and his murder, his suspensions do reveal the ways that profiling and his criminalization began long before Zimmerman. While white students are more likely to be in possession of drugs and possess guns while at schools, black and Latino youth are far more likely to face punishment. According to the Department of Education, black students are 3.5 times more likely to face either suspension or expulsion that their white peers. In Chicago, although whites account for 10 percent of students, they are only 3 percent of suspensions. Compare this to African Americans, who represent 42 percent of Chicago students, but 76 percent of suspensions. In Los Angeles, while only 9 percent of students, black students account for over 25% of suspensions.

“Disciplinary policies are racially profiling African American students,” notes Marqueece Harris-Dawson, an activist in Los Angeles. “It is not that African American students are lazy, unmotivated or not smart. These students are being pushed out of schools.” This is the same assumption that led George Zimmerman to follow and ultimately shoot Trayvon Martin; the same ideologies that imagined Martin as threatening, suspicious, and dangerous requiring discipline and punishment contributed to his suspension from school just as it played a role in his untimely death. In other words, his multiple suspensions are proof in that ways that race matters in material ways, which unfortunately became all too clear on February 26.

Black youth are demonized, denied access to a worthwhile educational experience, and funneled from locked down schools to places of incarceration all while the likes of Zimmerman guard gated communities from the intrusion of the unwanted. “Fed by widespread stereotypical images of black youth as superpredators and black culture as the culture of criminality, minority youth face not only a criminal justice system that increasingly harasses and humiliates them but also a larger society that increasingly undercuts their chances for a living wage, quality jobs, essential services, and decent schools,” writes Henry Giroux. “Within such a context, the possibility of treating young people of color with respect, dignity, and support vanishes.” The systemic efforts to vanish black youth includes suspensions and expulsions, incarceration and even death.

Amid his defenders are also a group that is increasingly depicting both Zimmerman and the police force as “bad apples.” As often the case, a large percentage of those condemning Zimmerman and the police are doing so by imagining them as corrupting influences within an otherwise fair, just, and colorblind system. Yet, the murder of Trayvon Martin illustrates that beyond the bad apples, the barrel, the tree, the orchard, and the farm are all rotten. From the criminal justice system to the school system, from popular culture to the political realm, black youth are consistently depicted as social pariahs deserving discipline and punishment. His death and his continued criminalization are a mere extension of a culture that denies black youth with respect and dignity, that treats blacks youth as unwanted and threatening. It is thus important to talk about the bad apples, but not lose sight of fact that the barrel, tree, orchard, and farm will continue to produce these injustices until we address the root problem. Rotten at its core!


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris

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