A recent post making waves on Facebook comparing the Trayvon Martin murder to the murder of the girl Autumn Pasquale has troubled me. For the first time in years I’ve felt compelled to write something about it.
The loss of innocent life in any case is a tragedy, whether it’s Trayvon Martin or Autumn Pasquale. But the differences in media attention can be explained easily if you are willing to understand how the system (defined as “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network,” i.e. the media, the courts, the government, public opinion, bank loans, etc.) works in favor of some and against others. Justice too often goes unserved when black bodies and other bodies of color, their families and their communities are victimized, as they have been historically.
To begin, there is no system rigged against Autumn Pasquale. Not in a racial sense; in a gender sense we can have another discussion on another day regarding how the media portrays young white women as helpless damsels in distress who require protection from their masculine counterparts in this evil world. To be frank, was there any doubt that Autumn Pasquale’s family would get their justice? Did anyone think that the South Jersey police were going to let the brutal murder of an innocent white girl go unpunished? Everyone knew they would get their justice. There was simply no need for celebrities like Lil Jon or The Miami Heat to support her case.
Was there a rally of support from Fox News (or MSNBC for that matter) defending the boys who were convicted of killing this girl? No, there was not. Following the death of Autumn Pasquale there was no social media move to call her a “thug” where pictures of someone who was obviously not her were circulated. In fact, the response was different. Everyone of all ethnicities felt sorry for her. Following the death of Trayvon Martin, the media vulture Nancy Grace who so often rushes to condemn the killing of innocent white children (Caylee Anthony anyone?) had to be criticized into covering the Trayvon Martin case.
Autumn Pasquale had the system in her favor, and it still is today. After her death, a New York Times article wrote: “200 law enforcement officials and hundreds of local residents from this middle-class town of 8,000 distributed fliers with her image and combed its streets and fields and wooded areas looking for traces of her.” (1) Her community came out in support of her, just like Trayvon’s. I would argue that national media attention, although it wouldn’t have hurt her case, wasn’t needed. This was not a case that was going to be swept under a rug, and it wasn’t. In Trayvon Martin’s case the police had to be pushed by the African American community and their allies and it still took 44 days to make an arrest.
I understand that most white Americans know America is not fair. The reason the Fox News crowd – the Rush Limbaughs, the Ann Coulters of the world – want the argument to devolve into a simple, bantering black versus white argument is to keep the greater system at large from being put on trial. They are the very defenders of all privilege. They get their funding and support by reinforcing those privileges. As long as they muddy the water there will be no indictment of the economic, political and social system that we live under that keeps whole sections of the population underprivileged and underdeveloped so as to keep the other part, those who share some privilege, scared that they might fall into the same economic and social hole.
The chauvinism that exists within the white community with regard to socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion, national origin and gender is apparent. One hundred years ago, to be a newly arrived poor, Polish, Catholic, immigrant woman meant that you were not white. Simple as that. However, through time Italians, Poles, Irish, Jews and white LGBT people have all used their whiteness to assimilate into the American “melting pot” which implies that individuals are to come to America and forget their histories. One can also look at the racial storm that erupted over the Tsarnaev brothers and how these literally Caucasian young men were perceived as not being white by some. In my personal experience, despite my Spanish surname and Puerto Rican heritage, my mostly Caucasian features and education afford me privileges in my community of color.
I’d like to explore the reality of white privilege here but the brilliant Joy DeGruy, Ph.D., can explain it better than I can.
It is also worthwhile to examine the institutional biases faced by African American and Latino men in the criminal justice system, explored by Michelle Alexander, Ph.D, author of The New Jim Crow.
The movement for Trayvon was a call for justice which his loved ones have not received. There was no doubt that Autumn Pasquale wouldn’t get her justice. Would her attackers have even gotten away with a “stand your ground” case? Think honestly, would they have been arrested immediately? In terms of her murder being a hate crime I’d have to disagree. I don’t believe she was murdered because she was white. If she was, then I didn’t come across it and I stand corrected. However, I would make the argument that in the 21st century, in the first modern democratic republic at the height of human technological advancement which makes such bold claims as “All men are created equal” there should be no place for or tolerance of racism. To allow an institution like racism to exist is to do harm to the republic. I believe in hate crime legislation, as it is not okay to hate someone based on their identity, real or perceived and to do violence to them based on this reason. We know there is no biological basis for racial or ethnic inequality.
There are articles are out there that can be used to build an argument against me. I am well aware of this fact and it’s fine. But, instead of rushing to contradict what I have to say, stop and think about the idea that African-Americans and Latinos make up about a quarter of the country and the fact that we receive harsher penalties for crimes and face more discrimination than our white counterparts shows a racial bias. We have our marches and our protests (consisting of millions of white allies also) because we live in a system that is rigged against us. When you add up the Trayvon Martin’s, the Sean Bells, the Oscar Grants, the Amadou Diallos and now Marissa Alexander (go look her up now if you don’t know who she is) and the thousands of others, you are no longer dealing with isolated events, but with the status quo.
I’ve touched on white privilege and the New Jim Crow, and I’ve spoken to gender privilege and xenophobia. The inability to deal with these issues highlight the flaws of the white power structure that is set up to ensure white Americans do not notice their privilege. The inequality faced by people of color, the LGBT community, immigrants, women and even poor white men are symptoms of the damage wrought by American capitalism. The issues have been the American reality since the nation’s inception. This is an appeal for help. I am asking you that if almost one quarter of the American population (and I’m not even counting Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, Native Americans who have been on the receiving end of American racism for over 500 years, and other ethnic minorities) are telling you that they, (we) face these issues, what part of you doesn’t stop and consider what we have to say? Is it easier to just write off what a bunch of people of color have to say and just ignore them and go on than to stop and question your place in the United States of America? These issues are not going to go away until many more white Americans stand up and realize that for some people to be “under privileged” others by definition then have to be privileged. The deaths of both of these children were devastating to their families and communities. Autumn Pasquale deserved justice, the system ensured she got it. It did not do the same for Trayvon Martin.
Christian Alexis Perez received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a minor in Latin American Studies from New Jersey’s Kean University in 2006. In 2009, he received a master’s degree in International Relations and Comparative Politics from Kean University’s Nathan Weiss Graduate College. He has been a DSA member since 2006.