MLK Forum


Reflecting on race after the Martin case

In recognition of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., five Bluffton University faculty and staff members reflected Jan. 21 on the February 2012 death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; the trial of the accused killer, George Zimmerman; and how race still matters in America.

The forum featured a panel consisting of Dr. Julie DeGraw, vice president for student life and dean of students; Dr. Rudi Kauffman, assistant professor of restorative justice; Dr. Zachary Walton, assistant professor of communication; Jackie Wells, director of residence life; and Daryl Dowdy, director of multicultural affairs. Moderating was Dr. Crystal Sellers Battle, an assistant professor of music and chair of Bluffton's Damascus Road antiracism team.

Panel members shared their perspectives of Martin's murder and Zimmerman's trial based on their respective expertise.

The racially charged controversy began after Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Martin in what he claimed was self-defense on Feb. 26, 2012. The jury in Zimmerman's subsequent murder case acquitted him on July 13, 2013.

DeGraw said she feels that the nation's reaction to the murder of an African-American by a white, Hispanic male proves that race still causes conflict and is a hindrance to peace in the United States. "Race is still one of the lenses through which we view situations," she said.

But she didn't limit those lenses to race. If Zimmerman had shot a female, she argued, a controversy centered on gender bias and misogyny would have arisen.

Kauffman contrasted our senses of law and justice and provided a critique of Florida's stand-your-ground law, which allows a citizen to "meet force with force" when attacked.

"No matter what right you demand, it influences another person," he said. "To demand that a right exists or does not exist affects everybody." In this context, he explained, Zimmerman's right to use deadly force may have contributed to both the escalation and his eventual need to defend himself, resulting in Martin's death.

Kauffman suggested that race still matters in the context of violence, as do other attributes of identity, like gender and religious beliefs. "Race is absolutely part of our story," he said. "Everything that tells you about people is part of the story."

He also said that racism and racial profiling is particularly present in the criminal justice system. "What our legal system does is filter and filter, and at every step there is discrimination," he maintained. Various studies have shown, he said, that poor, black males are significantly more likely to be arrested, charged and prosecuted than wealthy, white females, for instance.

Walton, who analyzed media coverage of the controversy, believes that Martin's death nearly sank into obscurity instead of attracting nationwide coverage.

For more than a week after the shooting, only local news outlets covered the murder, Walton said. The story didn't take off, he added, until Martin's parents hired a lawyer, who drafted a public relations campaign. "Good Morning America" featured a story about the shooting on March 10—12 days after the confrontation.

Walton's concern does not rest with the coverage of Martin's death, but with all the similar cases that go unnoticed. "How many young, black men have faced similar fates, and their stories never draw substantial media coverage?" he asked.

Wells, also a Damascus Road team member, agreed with DeGraw that race is a source of conflict, whether we consciously think so or not. "As a white person who serves on a committee that works on undoing racism," she said, "I believe that institutions such as our own have a lot of work to do."

She suggested that it's easy for people to say they wouldn't commit a racist action in any situation, but that racial profiling is so ingrained as a societal norm that it is impossible to thoroughly assess not only Zimmerman, but ourselves as well.

"For me, it means acknowledging that I am in a privileged group," she said, referring to the concept of white privilege, which suggests that people of color are at a societal disadvantage. Although Martin's death was a tragedy, she said, it started a conversation that can lead to dismantling racism.

Dowdy, who shared his perspective as a black male as well as Bluffton's multicultural affairs director, is upset with what he called the media's insistence with bringing race to the forefront of the Zimmerman trial. "How many times during the case did we hear about a white person and a black person?" he asked.

"But how many times did we hear about two human beings' lives being ruined because of something like this?" Dowdy added, referring to the ongoing impact on Zimmerman as well as to Martin's death.

"Two human beings involved in a tragedy that ruined their lives, both their families' lives," he said. "We don't hear enough about that."

by Chay Reigle, public relations office