Parallels Between the Cases of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and the Black Male College Experience
Although we, the members of the Pan African Network (PAN), respect the decision of the jurors in the Zimmerman and Dunn trials, we are concerned about the implications of these decisions for Blacks in America, members of ACPA – College Student Educators International, and students and colleagues on our campuses. We believe a racial climate that criminalizes Blackness and stigmatizes Black males’ encounters with the judicial system plays a major role in creating an atmosphere where the mass incarceration and murder of Black men continues to be an acceptable practice. The circumstances leading up to the altercation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, subsequent death of Martin, and the slow response to investigate and prosecute Mr. Zimmerman were reflective of America’s perpetuated fear of Black bodies. Lock-step with the Zimmerman case is the unfortunate death of Jordan Davis, a seventeen-year-old who was shot and killed by Michael Dunn for playing his music too loudly. We also believe the insidious portrayals of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in the media were racially motivated and consistent with the narrative often construed about Black men as “thugs,” “deviants,” and “degenerates.” These conceptions about Black men are harmful and negatively impact their experiences within the American judicial and educational systems, as well as society at large. On the heels of the Zimmerman and Dunn verdicts, we explore the implications of these rulings for Black males on college campuses across America. Using imagery, facts from the case, and a critical lens, we examine the impact of racism on the Black male experience. Additionally, we provide recommendations on the role that current events play on college campuses and ways to facilitate dialogue.
Race and Racism in America
In the 21st century, “the problem of the color line” (DuBois, 1903, p. 9) still prevails through the systemic treatment of Black Americans. This was evidenced throughout the Zimmerman and Dunn trials, though many contended that race did not play a role in either case. Yet, semblances of racialized narratives on the appearance, behaviors, and actions of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, (and other Black males) surfaced. Martin was first targeted by Zimmerman as an outsider and “suspect” in the gated community of Sanford, Florida. Later, he was portrayed as an assailant by the defense, and at times, by the media. Jordan Davis was murdered by Dunn at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida after an argument ensued over loud “thug” music playing from within a parked SUV. It took the jury over 30 hours to deliberate, wherein Dunn was charged for three counts of attempted murder and a count for firing into an occupied vehicle, but not for the actual murder of Davis. In both situations, these young men were confronted and killed by their aggressors, who chose to involve firearms rather than the authorities.
According to Smith, Allen, and Danley (2007a), Black men living within the context of the United States are often assumed guilty of criminal offenses because of the aberrant pathologies that society has attributed to their outward appearance. The implications of these typographies extend to the experiences of Black male collegians attending predominantly White institutions (PWIs) (Smith, et al., 2007a; Smith, Yosso, & Solórzano, 2007b; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitzgerald, & Bylsma, 2003). For instance, Smith and colleagues (2007a) uncovered racialized forms of treatment initiated by law enforcement at PWIs. The Black males in the study were asked to unnecessarily provide identification in study spaces, questioned about their whereabouts in public campus areas, and wrongfully identified for involvement in criminal activities. These experiences are demeaning and humiliating, and they contribute to an atmosphere suggesting that Black men do not belong in educational spaces. Some laypeople and scholars contend that we live in a post-racial, color-blind society, evidenced by the election of an African American president (Wise, 2010). However, even President Barack Obama admits to having experienced negative racial interactions with non-Blacks (Cooper, 2013a). Thus, the portrayal of Trayvon Martin during the Zimmerman trial and Jordan Davis during the Dunn trial remind us that much has not changed regarding stereotypical Black male imagery, where Black men are frequently depicted as deviants (Harris-Perry, 2011).
Throughout the Zimmerman trial, the predominantly White, female jury was comprised of mothers, but it appears that they found it difficult to visualize Trayvon Martin as one of their own children. Images of his gold teeth and recreational drug use appeared in stark contrast to their children and outweighed his status as the victim. Some suggest the defense deliberately showed these pictures of Martin to construct a narrative that distanced him and his culture from the jury. Similarly, Davis and his three friends were painted as belligerent and violent. While the teens’ behaviors were demeaning and disrespectful, the Dunn case ended in a mistrial because verbal accosting from Black men is widely perceived as threatening in the United States.
Such tactics have been used to perpetuate the common belief that Black men are “thugs” and are naturally deviant. These stereotypes permeate the fabric of race relations in the academy and uphold cultural deficit theories in education literature, which result in discriminatory practices in academic settings (Hughes, 2010). Until recently, much of the literature concerning Black college men was written from the lens of cultural deficit models (Hughes, 2010). These publications often cite daunting statistics that provide an unfavorable, undesirable profile of Black male students in comparison to the positive attributes associated with their White male counterparts (Carey, 2004; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Strayhorn, 2008).
Rap and Hoodies: Symbols of Deviance
Literature suggests that Davis’ preferred genre of music, Martin’s attire, and the alleged behaviors of both teens were perceived differently because of their race, and that racial profiling is a prevalent phenomenon in American culture (Smith, Allen, & Danley, 2007b). Though people of all races and ethnicities may experience racial profiling, reports of racial profiling among Black American populations are significantly greater that other races (Alexander, 2012). Black Americans experience a disproportionate number of traffic stops and “stop and frisk” encounters with police officers and, in many cases where a crime has not been committed, Black Americans become suspects of criminal activity solely because of their race (Alexander, 2012). It was in this manner that Dunn confronted Davis and his friends for playing loud rap music, which symbolized their deviance and requirement for control (Kinner, 2014). In this same vein, Zimmerman assumed Martin was “up to no good” and that Martin required monitoring within their gated community.
Factors that were used to justify the deaths of Davis and Martin were their attire and selection of music on the evenings of each respective shooting. Martin was wearing a hoodie, and the hood covered his head to protect him from the rain. Davis was initially confronted by Dunn for playing rap music. Many student affairs professionals may have observed that rap and “hoodies” are often the musical and wardrobe choices of both American and international college students. It is very common to see students on our college campuses wearing hoodies embroidered with the names, mascots, and/or symbols of our institutions. However, in the case of Martin, this attire was perceived as “thug wear” and “gangsta style clothing,” which justified Zimmerman’s suspicion. Rap music is often heard blaring throughout residence halls, in vehicles driving across campus, and at campus events. However, what separates Black youth and college students choosing to consume rap music is access and privilege. Still, even on college campuses, Black students are still perceived as threats, and are often targets of prejudicial treatment and harassment (Fries-Britt & Turner, 2002).
As a result of Martin’s death, several media outlets have engaged in dialogue surrounding the demarcation of clothing and music as a sign of deviance. For example, Geraldo Rivera warned Black and Latino parents to prohibit their children from wearing hoodies (Fung, 2012). Additionally, on a recent episode of Anderson Cooper 360, Christy Oglesby–a Black mother–stated that she asked her son if he wanted to be perceived as a “suspect or a prospect” when selecting his attire for the day (Cooper, 2013b). In agreement with her comments, many of the audience members applauded. In the face of these anecdotal snapshots of conversations on race and justice, we challenge the criminalization of the hoodie and other forms of urban attire. It is our belief that stereotypical perceptions of Blacks influenced how Martin and Davis were represented throughout the trial, and due to their unfortunate deaths, they were unable to present a counter-narrative that could distinguish them from these stereotypes.
The Debasement of Black Males on College Campuses
Perhaps in consequence to the aforementioned studies, Black male students encounter more racially-motivated adversity than their female counterparts and other people of color (Dancey & Brown, 2008; Kunjufu, 1986). In higher education, Black men are often the victims of racial profiling, hyper-surveillance, Black misandry, and other forms of gendered racism (Smith et al., 2007a; Smith et al., 2007b). These encounters negatively shape the interactions Black male collegians have with faculty, staff, and students at PWIs. For instance, Harper (2009) employed the term “niggering” to describe the diminished expectations of African American male college students. Unfortunately, these lowered expectations shared by faculty, staff, and students position Black male collegians to be stigmatized as ‘dumb jocks’, unfit affirmative action recipients, unprepared, and ‘at-risk’ (Dancy & Brown, 2008; Harper, 2009; Smith et al., 2007a; Smith et al., 2007b; Solórzano et al., 2000).
Black males must often ‘prove themselves’ in the classroom to earn the respect of their peers and professors in ways that are dissimilar to their White counterparts (Moore, Madison-Colmore, & Smith, 2003). Still, they may be excluded from study groups or lack access to special academic opportunities (Moore et al., 2003). Numerous studies indicate that American colleges and universities continue to struggle with campus climate and race relations issues (Harper, 2009; Smith et al., 2007a; Solóranzo et al., 2000). Consistent exposure to a seemingly unsafe campus environment and acts of microaggression are psychologically traumatizing, and must be addressed if we desire to create supportive environments for all students (Picca & Feagin, 2007).
The shooting deaths of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin have ignited necessary discourse and calls for political action. As we understand the complexities associated with issues of race, equity, and social justice, we provide the following recommendations as action steps for supporting Black constituents of colleges and universities. These recommendations outline how attention to these national incidents and our work as educators can shape the political and educational landscape of the United States. We offer a brief listing of approaches that educators can implement in supporting students, peers, and their own individual learning.
Educate on Bias and Social Justice Issues, and Challenge Privilege as it Pertains to Various Social Identities
In capitalizing on examples of injustice and using them as teachable moments, our students and staff will be better equipped to facilitate change. One way that educators can connect current events with the lived experiences of their students is through the use of intergroup dialogues. Intergroup dialogues are a sustained, face-to-face facilitated learning experience, which gathers students from various social identity groups to discuss their commonalities and differences to work towards justice and equality (Lopez & Zúñiga, 2010). Intergroup dialogues allow for a platform to hear and acknowledge counter-narratives, engage in leadership development, and challenge power and privilege. Moreover, White students are often afforded the opportunity to explore their racial identity, enhance their knowledge of critical racial issues, and engage in the process of becoming allies (Yeung, Spanierman, & Landrum-Brown, 2013). It is important to note that it takes a skilled, informed facilitator to successfully navigate the complexity of critical dialogue. We encourage prospective facilitators to consider attending the Social Justice Training Institute, the Pre-Conference Institute on Diversity and Teaching Social Justice available through the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, or reviewing Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007) in preparation for their work as professional allies and as aids in personal and professional development.
Focus on Positive Examples of Successful Black Males to Supersede Stereotypes
These tragedies emphasized the reality that many Americans continue to perceive Black male youth as common agents of criminal activity (Alexander, 2012; Cooper, 2013b; Fung, 2012; Perry, 2011). Unfortunately, these perceptions lead to implicit bias and low expectations among people of color in the college setting. Educators play a major role in positively affecting Black male completion rates and in developing inclusive campus communities that undergird their success. It is important that college student educators combat stereotyping and prevailing deficit approaches to educating and supporting Black male college students by highlighting indicators for successful matriculation. Black males are not a monolithic group (Harper & Nichols, 2008); however, supportive relationships positively contribute to African American male success in college (Strayhorn, 2008). By using positive psychological approaches to create individual and institutional systems of support, Black male matriculation is achievable (Fries-Britt & Turner, 2002).
Provide Platforms for Civic Engagement and Leadership for Social Change
In cities across the country, people of various ages, cultures, and backgrounds banned together in protest of the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, which gained the attention of President Obama and the Justice Department. Many of these efforts were led by young people, demonstrating that youth have the power to influence societal change and social movements. Youth have established a lengthy history in leading social movements, and their capacity to positively influence change has transcended into contemporary contexts. For example, the 2008 presidential voting block saw the largest youth movement in years (CIRCLE, 2010). Activism by young people aged 18-24 during the election and more recently, in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, demonstrates their ability to successfully affect change through civic engagement.
Learning Reconsidered (ACPA & NASPA, 2004) highlights civic engagement as a universal learning outcome. College student educators are responsible for challenging and supporting students to remain civically engaged beyond the wake of tragic events or the four-year cycle of national elections. Educators must encourage students to participate in sustained engagement with their institutions, state and local governments, and communities. It is through sustained engagement that they will begin to see the change that they seek on and off campus.
Reconsider Institutional Practices and Policies that Negatively Impact Black Males
Most educators, administrators, governmental officials, and companies agree that the benefits of diversity (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000; Fries-Britt & Turner, 2002; Harper, 2009; Hurtado, 1994). As such, educators and administrators must pay close attention to institutional practices and policies that negatively impact people of color in order to provide a support system for student retention while changing the campus climate (Fries-Britt & Turner, 2002; Harper, 2009; Hurtado, 1994; Smith et al., 2007a). Becoming stewards of policies and practice that work to protect and increase the diversity of our colleges and universities should be a priority among all executive administrators. Additionally, procedures used to institute diversity, such as affirmative action, have been misrepresented as a form of ‘reverse discrimination’ when research demonstrates that these policies benefit all members of the campus community (Ancis et al., 2000; Hurtado, 1994; Solórzano et al., 2000). Affirmative action assists colleges and universities in remaining dedicated to the ideals of equal opportunity and access for all.
As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Powell explained, we have “a compelling educational interest” to ensure that policies like affirmative action continue to influence the numerical representation of underrepresented student, staff, and faculty populations on college campuses (University of California v. Bakke, 1978). It is important that college student educators familiarize themselves and others about the history of affirmative action policies, as well as the positive influence affirmative action has had on collegiate contexts. Similarly, careful attention to institutional campus climate must take priority in retaining the voices of underrepresented populations. Several bodies of research have discussed the negative impact of microaggressions on people of color in institutions of higher learning (Ancis et al., 2000; Hurtado, 1994; Solórzano et al., 2000). While freedom of speech is a First Amendment right, bias and non-inclusiveness by students, faculty, and administrators has a damaging effect on underrepresented student populations and the academic environment as a whole. By investigating and developing codes of conduct that provide focus on restorative practice and community education, institutions can foster learning and dialogue in a holistic educational environment.
Continue Personal Awareness and Education
Accomplishing the aforementioned recommendations may be difficult, particularly if we fail to take inventory of our own strengths (knowledge and skills) and areas of development (biases and gaps in knowledge base). By learning about our own biases and triggers, we can develop self-awareness and become armed with the ability to make abstract concepts and anecdotes more tangible with added personal experience. By forming a greater understanding of our limitations, we can begin to connect how they influence our decision-making, the ways we treat others, the ways we work, and how we effect students in a global community. Educating ourselves on social justice and critical theory concepts provides us with knowledge, language, and skills necessary to combat implicit bias, non-inclusive behavior and instances of oppression that often impact campus climate and student success for underrepresented groups.
As college student educators, it is important to understand the experiences of students and how our actions influence the campus climate. We must work tirelessly to end racial biases on our campuses and within our communities in an effort to prevent tragedies, such as the passing of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, from reoccurring. The Pan African Network challenges the legislative and criminal justice systems to institute policies that will prevent bias from impending upon the justice of murder victims. We also encourage faculty and staff to implement the recommendations we have set forth in shaping the political and educational landscape of our campus communities. As members of the Pan African Network and ACPA – College Student Educators International, we are charged with changing the discourse and conceptions of Black males on college campuses and within society. Please join us in our efforts to create safe learning environments for all college students.
- How do Black male collegians make meaning of, and negotiate, their racial identity within their institutional context (e.g., Predominantly White Institution, HBCU, liberal arts, highly selective)? How do these processes and experiences impact holistic student development for students?
- How do the negative images and media portrayals of Black males in society complicate the racial identity development for Black male collegians?
- How can the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis be used to generate dialogue on college campuses about dominant narratives and counter-narratives of Black males and their role in shaping racial climate for Black male collegians?
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About the Authors
Tonisha B. Lane is a fourth year doctoral students in the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) program and research assistant for the Neighborhoods at Michigan State University. Her research interests include access and equity in higher education and students of color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
Please e-mail inquiries to Tonisha B. Lane.
Charles T. Stephens, M.A. is in his third year in student affairs administration after working for three years in corporate for a Fortune 500 company. He currently is working as a Residence Hall Coordinator for Saint Louis University and serves as a mentor for the African American Male Scholars program at his institution.
Please e-mail inquiries to Charles T. Stephens.
Jonathan A. McElderry serves as the Director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri. He holds a B.S. from George Mason University, M.Ed from Ohio University, and is currently a third year doctoral student in the ELPA program at the University of Missouri. In addition, he is the Chair of the PAN African Network for the American College Personnel Association.
Please e-mail inquiries to Jonathan A. McElderry.
Shawna M. Patterson has sustained eight years of student affairs administration experience within the functional areas of residence life and multicultural services in the Big 10 sector. She has served multiple roles on projects centered upon improving the experiences of faculty, staff, and students of color on predominantly White campuses. Currently, Shawna is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at Florida State University, with a focus on critical theory, social justice, and student of color identity development. Shawna is also a Dean in College Houses and Academic Services at the University of Pennsylvania.
Please e-mail inquiries to Shawna M. Patterson.
Janel Alleyne is a Hall Coordinator at the University of Missouri. She has been in the field for 6 years. Originally from Brooklyn New York, Janel earned a Bachelor of Business in Technology Management from SUNY Canton and her Masters Degree in Organizational Performance and Leadership from SUNY Potsdam.
Please e-mail inquiries to Janel Alleyne.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.