By now, the verdict in the case of the murder of Trayvon Martin has far outlived the 24-hour news cycle. However, it is clear that the movement for justice on behalf of all the other “Trayvon’s” in the United States has only begun. The “Dream Defenders” have taken up residence in the Florida state capital fighting for legislation that would repeal “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida. The acquittal of George Zimmerman demonstrates how the news media in this country—along with other forms of entertainment such as hip hop music, the film industry and television programming such as reality television--destroys and devalues Black life.
For example, who can forget “Boyz n the Hood”, the epic gangster saga released in 1991 that told the story of childhood friends growing up in the ghetto of Los Angeles? It has become a classic in Black cinema, a story that resonated with many who identified with the hardships brought to life on screen; others were just happy to see an all-Black movie cast. As compelling as “Boyz n the Hood”, “American Gangster”, or “Menace II Society” are as art, they demonstrate the reoccurring ways in which violence against Black males is normalized and even glorified in the media. The old stereotype of the ghetto living, financially struggling, drug slinging Black gangster has been consistently re-born through generations, warping and distorting the lens through which America chooses to see Black men.
How does this tie into Trayvon Martin’s death? In the months before and during the trial, America played judge and jury on whether or not George Zimmerman was a murderer who pursued an unarmed Black teenager because of his skin color and clothing choices. Some believed Trayvon Martin was a black, weed-smoking thug walking in the wrong neighborhood who was ultimately killed in self-defense. This is due in large part because conservative media outlets began to portray Trayvon as the stereotypical Black thug seen in movies like “Boyz n the Hood”. When we saw Trayvon’s face on the news, we were being told not to see him as a 17 year old unarmed boy who was someone’s child, but a violent Black thug one step away from obtaining full-fledged gangster status. This skewed portrayal reveals the thinly concealed fear of Black manhood that exists in America today. That, combined with a law that ignores the racial bias that still exists against Black people, is why George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering a teenage boy that he stalked and attacked.
One of the reasons Truth in Reality is focused on changing the depiction of Black people, especially women, on reality television is that these shows are affecting the perception of Black womanhood in this country. The majority of physically violent behavior on reality TV happens between women of color. What shows like “Cops” did to perpetuate fear and assumptions of criminality for Black men, reality TV is now doing to Black women - even those that would be considered affluent. By narrowing the depiction of Black people to violent stereotypes, America loses the ability to empathize with Black victims of violence.
It’s an injustice to grow up in a society that determines the value of your life based on how you dress, what kind of music you listen to, and the color of your skin. It is our hope that people can make the connection between Trayvon Martin’s tragic death and its relationship to stereotypes in the media, and use this as a teachable moment on the importance of media advocacy in the social justice movement. For at the end of the day, Truth in Reality isn’t just trying to change reality television’s depiction of Blackness and violence. We’re fighting to change our collective reality.