Research Insights, Emotions and the Case of Trayvon Martin

When I pulled together a panel of speakers to discuss the case of Trayvon Martin for IAAR’s second fall program, I hadn’t banked on the event being as intense and rich as it turned out to be. I wanted scholars who may never have written analytically on Martin to bring their research insights on a variety of substantive issues and theoretical questions to bear on the case. But, the take away was that research insights are not decoupled from visceral reaction and emotion. As a cultural anthropologist I knew this truism all too well thanks to work by people like Ruth Behar who talks of an anthropology that “breaks your heart.” But, I had never seen that truism play out in an event space, certainly not as intensively as it did on this particular Thursday evening. And so, as we heard about and discussed complex theoretical categories like social structure, historical process, constructions of race and discrimination, it became clear that the panelists and audience members in the room (students and faculty alike) felt the weightiness of applying those categories to the fraught case of Trayvon Martin’s death. Performing the analytical work and critical thinking together – in what a friend termed an “honest space” – was arduous, productive and riveting.

UNC English professor James Coleman started and startled, the event by demonstrating the construction of race as he read a passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved set in the period of slavery. The passage referenced a black character’s assertion about white’s notions of blacks as jungle animal predators, a jungle –ironically– of whites’ own making. Historian Blair Kelley followed up discussing Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, 2 boys separated by more than five decades but connected by their blackness, youthful innocence (both went out to buy candy) and receipt of social and physical assaults when profiled as suspicious and “out of place.” When Kelley concluded that race is illogical, the point was well-demonstrated. Psychology professor Eleanor Seaton, the only one whose recent research has addressed directly the Martin case, passionately talked about the young black males she studies disassociating from Martin and surprisingly claiming they could not end up like him because they are “good boys.” And, Karolyn Tyson rounded out the discussion saying that, as she knows from her sociological work on schools, it is within the fabric of social structures that racial ideologies are not only entrenched but enacted in such a way that they contour and limit the possibilities of some while opening options for others. How else could it be that Trayvon Martin was under suspicion for walking in his own neighborhood and George Zimmerman was not detained by the police –following Martin’s death admittedly at Zimmerman’s hands– for so long?

I was tasked with facilitating discussion after these short but powerful presentations and yet, initially, all I could manage to utter was “whew!” in a room where there was dead silence. But, as discussion and questions emerged there was momentum and eagerness that were propelled, I believe, by emotional investment. The audience and panelists grappled with what I might boil down to a simple question: where do we go from here? If (as each of the panelists drove home in their own analytical way) Trayvon’s killing was not only possible but likely (a likelihood given social structures, social constructions and the repetition of history and a likelihood that Blair Kelley stressed she “mourns”), can black American youth process that heavy thesis enough so that they can relate to Trayvon Martin and embrace the slogan “I am Trayvon”? Can parental teachings be enough to shield black children from that likelihood — that is, the likelihood of the deadly consequences of racial profiling? Are cross-racial or intra-racial discussions about white privilege and constructions of race a fruitful direction for fostering social change? If we bring research-based knowledge about the impact of racialized institutions and constructions into broader public arenas, will the likelihood be lessened that another black kid walking back from the store will be deemed a threat in need of containment or death?

For further exploration of these sorts of questions and information on scholarly discussions and analyses of the Trayvon Martin case see our compiled bibliographical list.