Trayvon Martin’s Death and What it Says About Race, Privilege, and Homicide

Posted on March 21, 2012 by


Trayvon Martin’s death is inextricably bound up in his age, his hoodie, and his race. An older white woman, even in a hoodie, would not have been a likely target for George Zimmerman. But Trayvon, in his youth, his masculinity, and his racial identity as an African-American, fulfilled the stereotype of the unknown criminal offender.

While we most often think of white privilege – that unearned assumption of benign intent and general positive regard – as a function of white behavior, it is important to recognize that white privilege, and its opposite, is an activity of those of other racial and ethnic identities as well. It was Jesse Jackson who famously said,  “I hate to admit it, but I have reached a stage in my life that if I am walking down a dark street late at night and I see that the person behind me is white, I subconsciously feel relieved.”

Despite the fact that African-Americans comprise about 12.6% of the population, they account for about half of homicides.

When the homicide victim data are separated by both race and sex, Black males exceed all other categories by far. Black men have more reason than any other demographic category to fear death by homicide.

Racially based crime fears are common. Criminologists have long said that talking about the problem of crime is a code for talking about problems of race. Yet, most crimes are intraracial, meaning they are committed by and against people of the same race.

If only Trayvon Martin had been white, it might have saved his life. The Justice Department is right to open a civil rights  investigation into Martin’s homicide.

Please note that the data used to create the tables in this post include only those cases in which the variables in question are known. You can find the original tables here and here. 2010 Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data collected by the FBI are the most recent available, but are also representative of homicide data over the last several years.