The youth study center, philadelphia, PA.| photo by ezra Wolfe

We Love Them Anyway: The Second Chance Trayvon Martin Never Got

Understanding Youth, Race, and Forgiveness

In the first week of George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, we were all exposed to the clumsiness of his attorney, Don West. First he literally opened with an off-putting knock knock joke — for which he later sort of apologized. West then capped off the week by again apologizing — this time for his daughter Molly’s Instagram posted on Thursday of his selfie taken on Monday with his two daughters as they enjoyed ice cream cones after a long day in the courtroom.

Of course, as happens so often with embarrassing face plants in social media, it wasn’t the content but the context as Molly captioned the photo with, “We beat stupidity celebration cones [emoticons] #zimmerman #defense #dadkilledit.” The context was, of course, that the photo was not posted on Monday — the day of his infamous knock knock joke — but on Thursday after the second day of a contentious cross-examination of Trayvon’s friend, Rachel Jeantel — a young women who will have to spend her life living with the fear she heard in Trayvon’s voice as he tried to elude the paranoid and armed George Zimmerman. It didn’t take much to conclude that sweet, little Molly was implying that Rachel was the “stupidity” that her dad had beaten and killed.

Naturally, despite desperate attempts at deletions of photos, the Instagram went viral. By Friday, Don West had to again apologize, by saying, “As a parent, we’re not always proud of things our children do, but we love them anyway, and then we move on.”

In other words, let’s forgive Molly because kids do stupid things. Turn that over in your head for a moment. Molly West did something clumsy and insensitive but most won’t think it was the end of the world. As West said, the collective “we” will quickly move on. Trayvon Martin just bought some Skittles and was walking through his neighborhood to get back home. Maybe he did turn around to find out who was following him. Perhaps that was a lapse in judgment when the better option would have been to get home as quickly as he could and lock the door. But he can’t move on. He is now dead. He gave his life up to a man who carried a pathological fear of African American males… a man who incessantly called the police — even once calling in a four foot tall African American boy, perhaps seven years old, with a skinny build… a man who trolled the neighborhood with a hidden handgun waiting for the moment when he could take his twisted view of the world into his own hands.

George Zimmerman’s view may be twisted, but it isn’t unique. Where Molly West’s behavior will be written off as a childish indiscretion from which she will quickly bounce back, Rachel Jeantel was vilified across cable news and social media as uncouth, unsophisticated and, of course, illiterate. She was placed into a predetermined stereotype of what a young black woman is supposed to serve. Had she been anything else, the adjectives across the airwaves would have been “surprising” and, of course, “well-spoken.”

What happened to Rachel, what happened to Trayvon, is something which is all too common in the criminal justice system and America at large — blacks are rarely given the benefit of the doubt. I saw it often in the courtroom. A young black man who dares protest too much or has poor eye contact is seen as recalcitrant and less likely to be found truthful. Study after study shows that African American youth are more likely to be denied probation, more likely to be sent to institutions like the old Youth Study Center in Philadelphia pictured above, and more likely to be tried as adults than their white counterparts for similar crimes.

Young white offenders — often from more well off backgrounds — have attorneys and families who successfully play the “it will ruin his opportunities if you punish him too severely, your honor” gambit. It is assumed that the black offender, regardless of economic background, has limited to no opportunities at all and thus is less likely to be given the coveted second chance by judges and prosecutors.

Outside the criminal justice system the same thinking prevails. In California schools, “willful defiance” is an offense punishable by suspension. It is a catch-all provision for not taking a hat off, not turning off a cellphone or backtalking. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), African-Americans made up nine percent of the student population in the 2010-2011 school year, but were given twenty-six percent of all suspensions. In the 2011-2012 school year, “defiance” was the reason for forty-eight percent of 710,000 suspensions throughout California. Thankfully, LAUSD’s board, recognizing its use as a race-based cudgel, recently moved to end the use of defiance as a cause for suspension — but not without controversy. How this plays in the larger culture is easy to see with Trayvon Martin. There was nothing particularly unique about his behavior — he went to school, he skipped some classes, he smoked some pot and listened to hip hop. You see that with white, black and brown kids across the country. Trayvon, though, like so many of his black peers, was elevated to a deadly threat.

Imagine that Rachel Jeantel finished her tiring day in court with a refreshing ice cream cone that she wished to share with the world, so she put on her Instagram: “We beat stupidity celebration cones [emoticons] #zimmerman #justicefortrayvon #ikilledit.” Would society say, “We love them anyway, and then we move on”? Please.

Until civic society becomes willing to acknowledge and dismantle racial disparities not just in outcome, but in practice, the Trayvons and the Rachels of black America will continue to be treated as objects of fear and derision. All the while, the Molly Wests will enjoy their ice creams without a care in the world while their daddies apologize for their transgressions. After all, they will always get a second chance.