Sunday, July 21, 2013

The soft bigotry of low expectations, Trayvon Martin edition

One thing that’s happening here, in the emerging narrative of Martin perceiving himself as being “stalked” that’s now developed, is a variant of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

This is what I mean (let’s call it the “bear in the woods” analogy):

If you’re hiking alone in the woods and you encounter a bear (substitute with another threatening predator, if needed to make the analogy work), and your life is threatened, you have the right to shoot to protect yourself, or your children, just as Zimmerman shot Martin to protect himself.

However, it’s better to avoid bears in the first place, by following available guidance, or avoid them perceiving you as a threat.

Was Trayvon Martin a “bear in the woods”?  To a certain degree, that fits the reaction from pundits, activists, and letters-to-the-editor writers.  Zimmerman shouldn’t have followed Martin, because that’s what provoked him/caused him to feel threatened.  If only Zimmerman had stayed in his car, none of this would have happened.   Zimmerman should have followed the dispatcher’s instructions.  Neighborhood watch programs should be conducted more professionally.  etc.

(Of course, there’s also a degree of disputing the course of events, and believing that Zimmerman and Martin fought each other, that Zimmerman had a chance to run that he didn’t take, etc.  But the majority of what I’ll call the pro-Martin crowd don’t seem to be arguing with these facts.)

And this might be great advice (though it ignores the fact that there had been a series of break-ins and Martin looked like he was “window-shopping” so Zimmerman had good reason to be concerned about his behavior).

But built into this advice is the assumption that a black teenage boy is pretty much just expected to react in the way that even Martin supporters seem to believe he did.  You can’t control such a kid or expect him to be responsible for his actions any more than you can control the bear in the woods, so just stay clear.  

Is this really the message we should be hearing?


  1. I'm been part of my community's neighborhood watch from time to time. Sometimes we follow people if we don't recognize them. Sometimes we get out of our cars. We must be looking for trouble (which, come to think of it, is EXACTLY what we're doing).

  2. If he was really that lacking in responsibility for his actions -- well, we have nice secure facilities for people who can't control themselves and are a danger to themselves or others. Just as we shoot or transport to wilderness bears that show up in heavily settled locations.

  3. You really should check ALL the facts before putting something out:

    1) The dispatcher didn't tell him to stay in the car. Quite the opposite. She was asking him questions like "What is he doing now" and "where is he going", which Z might have had to follow him to answer.

    The actual comment from 911 to Z was "You don't to follow him" LONG AFTER her got out of the car, and after T ran away. Z immediately said "OK" and, according to his testimony, headed to somewhere else so that he could meet with the polices, then was jumped.

    The tape of the 911 bears closer Z's testimony, in that after the "OK" he is heard saying that he's looking for a street sign so that he can tell the dispatcher exactly where he is to relay to the pol


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