What are the cognitive contortions required to render logical the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin? First, we must believe that black men are menacing, criminal, and violent. Second, we must believe that the criminality of black men is inherent—that their criminality is inside them, permanent, unchanging, in their makeup, even in their DNA. Third, because we believe that black men are criminals, their preconceived guilt frames their every action; in other words, they must be guilty of something. Maybe this particular black man didn’t commit this particular crime but he—or others like him—have committed other crimes and so let’s punish him now to stop his criminal trajectory. Finally, we must assume that black youth are black men and that black children do not merit the sympathetic or protective impulses we are supposed to have for children. These racist assumptions in combination provide the cognitive framework we utilize to criminalize African American boys and men. A teenager armed only with iced tea and candy becomes a menacing black man, on the path toward a life of crime, who even at 17 is irredeemable. This unarmed youth is uniquely different and more dangerous than a man holding a gun, and we should get him now before he gets us.
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