Then I left for Nigeria for a conference helping the state of Lagos develop plans for adapting to climate change. I quickly found that the news from the U.S. that consumed everyone’s attention was the injustice of the death of Trayvon Martin. Although most of the people I spoke with were Nigerians, I heard from colleagues from Benin, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa.
As professionals in science agencies, most had traveled to the U.S. or Europe or both and were well aware of racial profiling but having it result in a deadly shooting by a civilian walking around with a 9 mm semi-automatic concealed pistol was difficult for them to comprehend. Only in South Africa is the presence of guns as common as in the U.S.
If the killing was difficult to understand, the failure to arrest the killer and the defense of “stand your ground” was incomprehensible. The image of the U.S. as a civilized country where justice through the law was the general rule took a real beating.
When I told them that in Florida a judge makes the determination that “stand your ground” applies, rather than a jury, and that some judges in Florida have not let cases go to trial when a person has invoked self-defense to kill someone, they were incredulous.
With the news that a charge of second degree murder was filed and that George Zimmerman, the admitted killer, had been arrested, people rejoiced but the sobering fact is that a judge still has to approve the case going to a jury and that even if the judge in this case sent it to trial, unless the law is changed, another judge in a not so publicized case could rule differently.
They all hoped the US would seriously address racial profiling, as was brought home to me by my good friend, Dr. Mamaa Entsua Mensah, the deputy director of Ghana’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He told me the U.S. consulate routinely turns down tourist visa requests from young black African men, including her son, a recent high school graduate scheduled to begin university this fall. She wanted him to come to the U.S. to establish a record of going and returning to make it easier for him to get a student visa in the future. The consulate did not view his individual situation, in which it is highly unlikely that he will give up a university education and the comforts of an upper-middle-class home with both parents being senior professionals for life in the shadows as an undocumented alien.
But he is young black and male, just as Trayvon had been.
The world looked at President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as a sign of maturity of the U.S. But Trayvon Martin’s death reminded them that much is still the same and that we have more work to do.
Brad Brown is a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist. He continues to work as a consultant on African coastal and marine projects and scientific capacity development. He is also first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP.
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Brad Brown