Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

November 19, 2015

Trayvon Martin: an Example of Identity Not Always Being Ours To Define

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 10:41 am
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Oh man, I wrote this 3 years ago and thought it had been published out but found it in our drafts. It’s interesting to discover it again considering all that has been in the news since 2012.  Some things just don’t change.  Hopefully the current uprising of the #blacklivesmatter movement can have an impact to end things like this:


In case anyone hasn’t heard about the Trayvon Martin shooting, let me begin by summarizing the events that occurred between February and June 2012.  The full details as they are public can be found here.  On February 26th, 2012 17 year old Trayvon Martin was visiting his father’s girlfriend’s home in an upscale gated community.  That night he decided to walk to a nearby convenience store.  On his way back from the convenience store he was shot and killed by a resident of the neighborhood, George Zimmerman, who took it upon himself to routinely patrol the neighborhood.  Since January 2011 Zimmerman had called police 46 times to report “suspicious” activity.  Initially, Zimmerman was not charged with a crime because a law called Stand Your Ground passed in Florida in 2005.  Here  is an explanation of the law as described in this New York Times article (the full NYT article can be found here):

The law, called Stand Your Ground, is one of 21 such laws around the country, many of them passed within the last few years. In Florida, it was pushed heavily by the National Rifle Association but opposed vigorously by law enforcement officers.

It gives the benefit of the doubt to a person who claims self-defense, regardless of whether the killing takes place on a street, in a car or in a bar — not just in one’s home, the standard cited in more restrictive laws. In Florida, if people believe that they are in imminent danger of being killed or badly injured, they do not have to retreat, even if it would seem reasonable to do so. They have the right to “stand their ground” and protect themselves.

According to Zimmerman’s testimony, Trayvon attacked him from behind and he shot the teenager in self defense.   Despite the teen being over 80 pounds lighter than Zimmerman, Zimmerman felt he had to use deadly force to protect himself.  The police state Zimmerman was not taken into custody because they could not find evidence to challenge he was acting in self defense.  Since the original incident, however, several pieces of evidence suggest otherwise. First is Zimmerman’s own 911 tape.  In the tape Zimmerman reports there is a “suspicious” person walking in the neighborhood.  He gives a description of the kid.  The 911 dispatcher is heard asking if he was following the person and when Zimmerman says “yes” the dispatcher is heard telling Zimmerman “We don’t need you to do that.”  In a second 911 call from one of the neighborhood residents you can hear someone repeatedly screaming for “help”.  Then you hear a gunshot and the screaming stops.  In a third 911 call another neighbor describes witnessing the dead body of Trayvon.  She says there was a man with his hands up saying he shot the person on the floor.  She describes how the person calling for help was shot by the gunman.  Some people say they thought it was Zimmerman calling for help.  Even Trayvon’s parents initially did not agree on who they thought was calling for help on the tape, but after hearing it again both parents state it was their son.  Zimmerman claims he was the one calling for help.  Another piece of evidence that has come out comes from a phone call Trayvon was on leading up to the shooting.  Trayvon was talking to his girlfriend who is also 17.  Here is their interaction as described in the New York Times article listed above:

A lawyer for Trayvon’s parents, Benjamin Crump, said at a news conference on Tuesday that Trayvon was speaking to his girlfriend on his cellphone minutes before he was shot, telling her that a man was following him as he walked home.

Trayvon told his girlfriend he was being confronted, Mr. Crump said. She told him to run, and he said he would “walk fast.” Trayvon was headed to the home of his father’s girlfriend after a visit to a convenience store, carrying Skittles and a can of iced tea.

Trayvon asked, “Why are you following me?” Mr. Crump said. The girl then heard a faraway voice ask, “What are you doing around here?” Mr. Crump added. Then Trayvon’s voice falls away.

After police arrived and searched Trayvon’s body they only found a bag of Skittles and a can of Ice Tea.  Trayvon, a well liked teen, has no criminal record.  As his mother explained in a CBS article, Trayvon had a respect not fear of police as his grandfather is a retired Miami police officer.

Months after the initial shooting, after a national outcry, a new investigation was conducted to see if there was enough evidence to press charges against Zimmerman after all.  The investigation concluded that there was enough evidence to indict Zimmerman on second degree murder charges.  It is unclear if this would have ever happened if there hadn’t been such a national outcry for a full investigation.  He was initially released on bail after being indicted.  Soon after, though, it was found that he and his wife had lied about their financial status and his flight risk – factors that are taken into account to decide if someone is allowed to be released on bail or not.  It was found that Zimmerman and his wife lied about more than $200,000 of money they raised for his legal defense after the public outcry about the shooting.  They also lied about a passport Zimmerman had denied having access to.  Based on this information Zimmerman was asked to turn himself back in to the police in June and his wife was arrested on perjury charges.

This blog is all about defining our own identity but as I follow this case closely I am reminded that we can define ourselves however we want, but that doesn’t mean others see us how we see ourselves.  I am reminded of an incident that occurred when I was about 19 or 20 years,  a sophomore in college.  It was early on a spring day, the warmest morning we had seen that season yet.  I walked out of my dorm room in an unusually good mood and was walking – almost skipping – to the dining hall for a quick breakfast before my first class of the day.  As I walked clutching my bookbag on my back I noticed two elderly white women walking towards me on the sidewalk.  I planted a smile on my face and prepared to wish them a good morning when I noticed them noticing me walking towards them.  They quickly grasped one another, clutched their purses, and arched around me so as not to have to walk past me on the sidewalk.  They could not pass on my right as there was a busy street full of cars (in other words it was bright day light and we were surrounded by people) so they arched way to my left and walked through calf high decorative foliage so as not to walk within touching distance of me.  I cannot tell you how this situation shook me inside.  The reality of the matter was they looked ridiculous.  I was a young woman who people often mistook for a 15 year old.  I would have barely weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet.  On top of that I am actually a nice person who has literally helped an old woman cross the street.  However, to these two old women I was perceived as a threat.

Speaking to different types of people I am aware that unfortunately this is not an unusual experience for young black men living in the U.S.  I myself have been and have had friends followed in stores by security.  If I am in a car in a rural area and we stop to ask for directions or make a purchase there have been times where there was a discussion of who would be the least “intimidating” looking person to go talk to the store clerk so as not to create unnecessary problems for ourselves.  As a graduate student in a multicultural counseling class I listened as a young white female stated that she would be more afraid if she was walking at night and a black man was coming towards her on the same sidewalk than if it were a white male.  I guess she is unfamiliar with the research that shows that person on person crime more often is enacted like on like – in other words black on black or white on white.

It is no secret that to this day there is a negatively biased view of black people in America than there is on white people in America.  In the early 2000s a study out of the Universtiy of Chicago and the Massachusets Institute of Technology found that people with white sounding names were twice as likely to be called for a job interview as compared to an applicant with the same qualifications but with a black sounding name.   Other researchers are now exploring if immigrant sounding names, Latino sounding names, and Muslim sounding names experience the same type of discrimination.

More relevant to the Trayvon Martin situation, implicit bias came into the news in 2005 when psychologists studied if people were more or less likely to shoot an unarmed black male than an unarmed white male.  The October 2011 edition of Police Chief Magazine describes the study like this:

In 2005, researchers E. Ashby Plant and B. Michelle Peruche conducted a study utilizing 50 certified police patrol officers who participated in computer-simulated “shoot—don’t shoot” scenarios.20 Although the officers were predominantly white males, the cohort also involved female, black, Native American, and Hispanic officers. During the test, pictures of faces with either a gun or a neutral object superimposed over each were shown in various positions on a screen. If the suspect and a gun were pictured, the officers were to shoot. If the suspect and some other object were pictured (for example, a wallet, a cellphone, and so on), the officers were to chose the “don’t shoot” option. The “suspects” pictured were both black and white college-age males.

The results of the study showed that some “officers were initially more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects.”21 These stereotype-consistent behaviors also had emerged among a community sample of both black and white participants in a prior study.22 On a more promising note, however, the researchers found that “after extensive exposure [for example, repeated trials] to the program, the officers were able to eliminate this bias.”23 To that end, although both citizens and officers showed an implicit bias toward the unarmed black suspects, the results were not inevitable, and it appeared that proper training may improve overall accuracy in decisions to shoot. The researchers cautioned, however, that there is currently no evidence to show that the elimination of bias during computer simulation will necessarily transfer to decisions made by officers in the field.

In 2009, Correll et al. conducted a similar study on shooter bias. This study, however, utilized more officers (237) with a greater diversity of background (for example, patrol, investigators, SWAT, traffic, and so on) than the previous study. Further, Correll et al. utilized 127 civilians for comparison as well as a sampling of college students. Each group contained a mix of males, females, whites, blacks, Latinos, and other minorities. Like the 2005 study, the officer group was predominantly white; however, the civilian example contained many more ethnic minority members.24

The results of the Correll et al. study revealed that police officers were far less influenced by racial bias than the civilians.

(As a side note: Want to know if you have implicit biases?  Check out this Harvard website and explore if you may have implicit biases that you were unaware of around race, ability/disability, skin color, religion, sexuality, age, gender, and other controversial topics that people claim not to discriminate by.)

Though many Americans perceive us (Eritreans and Ethiopians) as “black” many of our generation and especially our parents generation do not identify as black.  However, if you’ve hung around a young Ethi/Eri teenager lately you will see that many embrace black and/or hip hop culture.  One thing I have learned through the Trayvon Martin case is that many black parents try to prepare their black sons for the discrimination that exists;  Discrimination that could cost an innocent black man or boy his life.  In an NPR interview that aired March 22, 2012 writer Donna Britt explains how she has had “the talk” with her two sons, Justin and Darrell Britt-Gibson on multiple occasions since they were about 12.  In her words, “The talk is what many black parents have with their sons – and daughters, but more, probably more often, their sons. It’s a preparatory explanation and a warning, to let them know what’s out there for them. You know, when they shift from the adorableness of childhood into, you know, their early preteen and teen years, where they can perceived as dangerous, as threatening, as things that most of them really aren’t.”

She described talking to her boys about how to behave extra cooperatively if a police officer approaches them.  She talked about telling her track runner son not to run in neighborhoods to avoid being perceived as “suspicious” by neighbors or police.  She talks to her boys about not putting their hands in their waist bands so people do not think they have a gun.  In the interview her sons talk about watching their white friends being disrespectful to police officers and getting nervous that this could lead to problems for them just because they are there.

As I think about our young people, I cannot imagine many of our parents teaching their children these things.  In fact, I hear more about parents from our community telling their children that they are the same as anyone out there in America.  But this is a self defined identity, there are many in America who would see us as less than whether due to our ethnicity, our race, or our immigrant status.   Mrs. Britt warns her sons because her own brother was shot and killed by a police officer under “suspicious” circumstances.  She has a personal experience to speak from when she says the world does not always see us as equals.  She has a very clear understanding of what it means to be Black in America.  By not identifying as “black”, parents in our communities may not realize they themselves or their children could be at risk.  Many Ethiopian parents do not like to talk about racism because they feel it is used as a crutch by African Americans.  Research has shown that racism and race based discrimination exists in a wide variety of ways in this country.  Parents think that by not teaching children about this dark side of the country they are helping their children get further.  Could these parents instead be putting their children at risk?


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