Letter to the Editor

Racism and the Trayvon Martin case

Eugene Robinson [“Denied the right to be young”] and Richard Cohen [“Black-and-white reality”] had vastly different responses [op-ed, July 16] to the George Zimmerman fiasco. Mr. Robinson’s was a clear-eyed, tragic assessment of the irrefutable “stacked deck” that black boys face in the United States. Mr. Cohen’s was a myopic distortion that flirted with racism.

Mr. Robinson succinctly laid out the facts. Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, was profiled and presumed guilty by Mr. Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Mr. Zimmerman, who was armed, chose to follow the child against the recommendation of the police, triggering a physical altercation that ended with Mr. Martin shot dead.

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Ann Telnaes animation: The cowboy attitude of “stand your ground” laws.

Ann Telnaes animation: The cowboy attitude of “stand your ground” laws.

Mr. Cohen, in contrast, described Mr. Martin as “wearing a uniform we all recognize.” A hoodie? Black skin? Both? Conspicuously absent in this tragic altercation was a uniform all parties would have recognized — one worn by a police officer. And therein lies the problem. Mr. Zimmerman is not the law. He is not a police officer. But he was armed — with a handgun, a prejudice and very bad judgment. He profiled, he followed, he engaged. But, according to Mr. Cohen, we’re supposed to “understand why Zimmerman was suspicious.” That viewpoint is repugnant.

Mark Charles Heidinger, Alexandria

Eugene Robinson wrote: “Trayvon Martin was fighting more than George Zimmerman that night. He was up against prejudices as old as American history, and he never had a chance.” If anyone doubted the truth of these words, all he or she had to do was read Richard Cohen’s words right below. Mr. Cohen, as white people have been doing for hundreds of years, deflected attention from our own prejudices by telling us that fear and denigration of black boys and men are reasonable.

There is tragedy here — enough to sully our justice system with “stand your ground” laws that legalize killing an unarmed teenager, enough to instill terror in black youths and adults for walking to the store while black. And it is a tragedy that we white people refuse to admit that we enable racism and injustice by refusing to acknowledge that prejudice exists in our justice system and in ourselves.

Edith Williams, Columbia

Richard Cohen’s column overlooked a critical element of the race discussion: hypocrisy. Why is it “understandable” to profile a black youth but a “mindless” allegation to claim racism? Profiling children based on their skin color naturally leads to allegations of racism. Mr. Cohen would do well to add depth and context to his next op-ed.

Joshua Q. White, Washington

As justification for George Zimmerman’s supposed fear and pursuit of Trayvon Martin, Richard Cohen cited President Obama’s reference to his grandmother as “a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street.” The president’s grandmother may have crossed the street to avoid encountering men she feared, but to our knowledge she never pulled a gun or shot any of them. We are all entitled to our fears, rational or irrational, but they are not a license to kill.

Alfred Munzer, Washington

The black American response to George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict has been nonviolent. Nonviolence as a response to discrimination and repression has been part of the struggle of black Americans for 400 years, famously so 50 years ago.

Toward blacks, we hold a presumption of guilt that persists without regard to fact — a racist bewilderment that pervades society. Richard Cohen shared this confusion in his op-ed. How else to read his admission, “If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated,” which he included in his argument that race-based stop-and-frisk programs are good? How many more innocent black men will our society have to “violate” before they start behaving? None, but who takes note?

The nonviolence of black America is transparent to those who, like Mr. Cohen, look through it to focus on the few engaged in crime. This is the evil blindness behind discrimination — the false stereotype and ignorant prejudice — and why we continue to believe that a black boy with iced tea and candy must be up to no good and must be stopped.

Alan Howe, Arlington

Thank you to Richard Cohen for his fair-minded, courageous op-ed on the tragic George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case.

Steven R. Gerber, New York

Richard Cohen’s account of why George Zimmerman was justified in suspecting Trayvon Martin on sight before confronting and killing him was disheartening. His suggestion that Mr. Martin was “understandably suspected because he was black” is where the problem begins. We must acknowledge the deep racism in our country that leads to increased poverty, profiling and, ultimately, a higher level of crime attributed to young black men. How is this brokenness to be healed?

At the Sisters of Mercy, where I am a member of the leadership team, our missions include unmasking and addressing the underlying causes of and connections between social injustices such as racism and violence. Peace is clearly linked to economic, health and educational opportunities. Addressing these issues, not perpetuating stereotypes, is what will better our world.

Sister Anne Curtis, Silver Spring

Thanks to Eugene Robinson for sharing his thoughts, analysis and wisdom in “Denied the right to be young.” The tragic death of Trayvon Martin was disheartening. The verdict in the case was awful and ineffective. Mr. Robinson’s words of wisdom put this whole tragedy in perspective for everyone to see.

John F. Connelly Jr., Wilmington, Del.

 
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