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Race, research, and justice: Why Trayvon Martin matters to me

Randall F. Clemens

Some of my most vivid memories as a high school teacher are of police. Police cars patrolled the neighborhood. They parked in front of the school and at nearby intersections. In school, police officers walked the hallways. Out of school, they walked the streets. 

Police were ever-present in the neighborhood. That is the context in which my students lived. What does it do to a teenager to be under constant surveillance? What effect does being guilty until proven innocent have on a human being? 

As a teacher and researcher, I have been fortunate to interact with thousands of amazing African American and Latino/a men and women. As a result, my life has been have enriched beyond measure. My experiences have also allowed me to address my own biases and stereotypes and question how I have benefited from white privilege and how I reproduce it. After all, growing up in a suburb of Washington D.C., rarely did I see a police car patrolling my neighborhood.

I am a white male who conducts research with African American and Latino teenagers. That is not a footnote to what I do; it is the topic sentence. Certainly, in terms of trustworthiness of research, I have to consider how my race, class, gender, and age affect the data I gather. Does a 17-year-old black male respond differently to me than someone of a different race or class? 

Considering the research that I produce, I have a social responsibility to ensure that my interpretations and representations do not perpetuate stereotypes or injustices. How is what I write different than, what Robin D. G. Kelley calls, the “ghetto ethnographies” of the 1960s?

These are not incidental questions and, given the history of race relations in the United States, they are important to ask and answer, even if asking is uncomfortable and the answers are unclear.

I write today as someone who mourns the loss of Trayvon Martin and hopes his family finds peace. 

I write because race relations in the United States are complicated, and we need to talk about them more often, more candidly, and more respectfully. 

I write because Trayvon reminds me of my own brother, who was shot and murdered a week after his sixteenth birthday. Due to a lack of evidence, the police never apprehended the murderer even though most knew who committed the act. No other event has influenced my life more. Everyday, I wonder what David thought about during his last moments and, as my graduation and wedding approach, I miss him even more. 

Finally, I write because, unlike Trayvon Martin, my brother was presumed innocent. 

Why, even in death, do select groups including the media continue the prejudiced criminalization of African American males?

Justice for Trayvon