Trayvon death reveals ugliness

Pointless, needless, ugly, racist, out of line, justified – all words swirling around the tragic death of a Florida teen.

Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was black, was returning from a trip to a convenience store when George Zimmerman, a community watch captain, became suspicious of the hooded teen. Against police advice, Zimmerman followed the teen and two had a confrontation. Martin, unarmed, was shot in the chest and died.

The details of what the altercation looked like and if Martin attacked Zimmerman are both still murky. Zimmerman claims Martin attacked him from behind, punched his face and pounded his head into the pavement. Some witnesses claim Zimmerman confronted Martin.

Regardless, the shooting raises some disturbing questions.

Why is a black male in a hooded sweatshirt inherently suspicious in America? I am not saying that Zimmerman is a passionate racist who hates and fears blacks. I think that deep down many Americans are afraid of blacks. My guess that part of it is from consuming sensationalist news media, television shows, movies, music that often portrays the black male as scary, dangerous and a criminal.

It seems the culturally identification of blacks as being dangerous is affection our actions. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that in a video game simulation, people have a much easier time recognizing threats and shooting subjects when they are black. People are also more likely to shoot unarmed blacks, mistaking them for threats.

And that is not a defense of Zimmerman’s behavior. It is a disturbing wake up call to tell us that there is an ugly, deep, subconscious prejudice driving people to do stupid things.

The problem is amplified by another. Americans are not just terrified of blacks, but are terrified in general. Our post 9-11 world seems filled with bombings, shootings, death, destruction and murder. Part of this is because of the invention of 24-hour news cycle that is constantly pumping fear into the hearts of Americans. It’s the reason people feel they need a neighborhood watch, guns in their home, alarm systems and resumes from babysitters.

But there isn’t more violent crimes. In fact, according to the New York Times, the violent crime rate has plummeted to its lowest point in nearly forty years. The odds of being murdered or robbed are less than half of what they were in the early 1990s. But people are more afraid than ever about some new drug their kids will take, predators snatching their kids or hooded figures threatening them on the street.

We shouldn’t even need to be talking about this case. Zimmerman should have listened to the dispatcher who told him not to follow Martin. He had no right to bother him. The police would have showed up and shown Zimmerman the Skittles, and this would have been an embarrassing case of subconscious, racist paranoia. Instead we have a dead teen. Ridiculous.

If anything good comes out of this, it will be the desire to answer some disturbing questions: Why are Americans so terrified of blacks? Why are Americans so terrified in general? Is it wise to have a gun at your hip 24/7?