On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, as he returned from a nearby store where he had bought some snacks. Zimmerman, who says he shot Martin in self-defense, was arraigned on murder charges on April 12 in Sanford, Florida, after weeks of protest, leaks and speculation.
Because Martin was a young, unarmed black male, many people believe he was the tragic victim of racial profiling by an overzealous Zimmerman.
Racial profiling is a scourge for all minority communities, and this tragedy calls to mind the fatal altercation between a Seattle police officer and Native woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010. In both cases, the victim was confronted and killed by a man with a gun who thought he was protecting his community.
Arica Coleman, a professor of African American studies at the University of Delaware, is of both Native American and African American descent and knows well the constant threat posed by racial profiling. “Just being a woman of color makes me a target,” says Coleman, who then recounts a recent incident that—although it had a peaceful resolution—reinforces her point. “I was dressed in athletic wear, taking a walk through my nice, white suburban neighborhood with an exercise weight in each hand—I was not the only one walking with exercise weights—pumping my arms vigorously so as to get an optimal workout,” she says. “I turned my head and spotted a police cruiser slowly trailing me. When the officer flashed his lights I immediately stopped.”
After Coleman gave the police officer the hand weights and her address, she says he expressed surprise that she was a resident of the community. “He blurted out, ‘Oh, you live in this neighborhood,’?” she recalls. “With a wide smile I informed him that I had lived here for almost 20 years. His eyes widened when he heard that. I cracked a couple of jokes. We laughed, wished each other good day and I continued my walk, but I knew better than to believe that this was simply a case of curiosity; this was a case of ‘walking while being a person of color in a pristine white neighborhood,’” she says.
Coleman says racial profiling is something she and all people of color must live with and negotiate around nearly every day to avoid becoming a victim. “I am a woman of color and as such my very existence and value are defined in this society based on where I fit in the American racial hierarchy. Consequently, I am never viewed as a professor, but rather a black professor who thinks she’s Native American. As a female colleague from Trinidad once told me, ‘I did not know I was a black woman until I came to the U.S.’?”
Walter Lamar knows racial profiling from both sides of the lens. He is the president and chief executive officer of Lamar Associates, a company specializing in law enforcement, security and emergency preparedness. He is also a former FBI agent and served as the deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement.
Lamar says that although shooting deaths of both Martin and Williams were tragic, they were very different scenarios. He says Williams may have been killed because the officer was doing racial profiling, but it’s also plausible that the officer would have shot anybody—black, white or Native—holding a knife on a city street that day.
He says the Trayvon Martin case, however, is a completely different situation, and racial profiling was clearly a factor. He hastens to point out, though, that Zimmerman was not a trained law-enforcement officer, nor even a registered Neighborhood Watch volunteer. “He was just a yahoo with a 9mm pistol,” Lamar says. “The most dangerous person out there is a fool with a gun who has a hero complex.”
He adds that racial profiling is a serious problem in border towns near reservations. “There are going to be border-town police who don’t like Indians, and they are going to say ‘There is a carload of Indians—I bet somebody in that car is drunk and I’m going to pull them over.’?”
Lamar says that even though racial profiling is against the law, many people—cops and civilians—have prejudices, and those prejudices come into play every day. “What you have to do is have cultural awareness training and you have to acquaint officers with the Native way of life,” he says.
Coleman says that in light of recent events, comparisons of racial profiling in African American and Native American communities can—and should—be drawn:
“When it comes to people of color, we must justify our presence in the public arena when we are within our so-called designated spaces, i.e., segregated urban communities and reservations—which are over-policed. When African Americans and Native Americans dare venture outside of those spaces and into communities deemed to be off-limits, we are suspicious simply by virtue of our race and declared guilty of the crime of ‘walking while black’—Trayvon Martin—or ‘holding a knife while Indian’—Jonathan T. Williams.
“While African Americans have always experienced forced exclusion from the American mainstream and been denied equality with whites, Native Americans have always experienced forced inclusion, wherein mainstream America demands that Indians give up their race and culture to become honorary white people. African Americans are profiled based on the assumption that they do not belong; Native Americans are profiled based on their refusal to go along.”