Alan Boraas: Zimmerman, Martin came together in a clash of values

commentJuly 19, 2013 

Repeatedly we are told that Trayvon Martin's killing was not about race and racial profiling; neither, we are told, was it about stand your ground and guns. Perhaps, but it was about something, and the most likely context to understand the tragedy is as a confrontation of core values.

Core values motivate behavior in sometimes not so obvious ways. In this case the behavior that led to Martin's death pitted property versus respect.

George Zimmerman lived in a gated community, an enclave within Sanford, Florida called Retreat at Twin Lakes. Gated communities are a modern incarnation of Middle Ages walled cities. Then they protected the feudal "haves" from the "have not's" and that continued through the time of nation building. With the eventual emergence of American-style democracy a kind of leveling took place with the mobility afforded by individual capitalism and walled cities became tourist attractions.

Today gated communities are rapidly reappearing and reflect a disparity between wealth and poverty associated with corporate capitalism and disproportionate wealth. Mexico (think NAFTA) has the highest proportion per capita of gated communities which house the upper middle class keeping out the impoverished. The United States is next in number of gated communities and again reflects middle class enclaves keeping out the growing number of underclass and protecting one of the core values of capitalism, personal property.

Property is one of the foundations of identity in our materialist world. Clothes, cars, electronics, and neighborhood define who we are. A big screen TV or a fancy car are symbols of achievement, and if we are robbed we feel personally violated. To a poor kid with no hope of upward mobility your wealth is a sitting duck for access to the pleasures of life.

Sanford's Retreat at Twin Lakes was a multi-ethnic gated community so "race" as it is normally used is not the issue. Plenty of blacks, Hispanics, and others, as well as whites, espouse middle- and upper-middle class values. Apparently Trayvon Martin's father and girlfriend were among them; it was at her house that the teenager was staying. The community had seen a number of break-ins, ostensibly by young blacks, and so had formed a Community Watch organization to protect its property. George Zimmerman was chosen to head the community watch and would have felt a special responsibility to uphold its values. Zimmerman himself is a product of a middle-class background; his father was a white magistrate, his mother was from a wealthy family in Peru.

Trayvon Martin was a black high school teen from Miami where his mother lived. Young, restless, a little rebellious (as indicated by spraying W.T.F. graffiti) he may or may not have grown to espouse middle-class values and a house in the suburbs. As it was his world intersected with the city world of young black culture, and the dominant theme of that culture is respect. Respect as a core value involves an outward display of pride in self: a swagger, clothes and language of identity, and music of dominance. In another decade the song would have been Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," now it is Lil' Kim's "It's the key to life. Money, power, and respect. Whatchu' need in life. Money, power, and respect." One of the ultimate put-downs is to be disrespected. To be disrespected means you have to fight back, verbally or physically, to regain respect and reestablish your place in young black subculture.

So in what would become a cultural collision of enormous impact, the black teen was walking through a middle-class gated community sending a message that would be perfectly understood in Miami, Chicago, or Los Angeles but was massively misunderstood by the gatekeeper of the gated community. In Miami Martin would have been cool, chillin' and talkin' to his girlfriend on his cell phone. To Zimmerman, on the other hand, Martin was a potential threat to a part of the meaning of life in his gated community--property. Martin was innocently doing his thing, Zimmerman was zealously doing his perceived duty.

Martin took the ensuing confrontation as disrespect from Zimmerman and beat up the older man who outweighed him by 100 pounds. Had he not had a gun, Zimmerman would likely have come away with a broken nose and some lacerations, and Martin would have been sent back to Miami, respect in hand. But, of course, Zimmerman did have a gun and chose to use it and now another young black teen is dead in a killing that didn't have to happen.


Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

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