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Why White People Should Care About Trayvon Martin


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, spring has sprung, so a good greeting for today is not just, Happy Spring, but also Happy New Year if you celebrate the Persian holiday, Norouz. We'll find out more about it in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to spend a few more minutes today talking about Trayvon Martin. He is the Florida teen who was shot and killed while walking back to a friend's house in a gated community outside of Orlando. Neighborhood Watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who had been following the teen because Zimmerman decided he was suspicious, says he later shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense. But the teenager was unarmed, physically smaller than Zimmerman says, and his family says, in fear himself because he was being followed by a strange man.

911 tapes and witness accounts are also causing critics to question Zimmerman's self-defense claim, but authorities have not pressed charges, something that has outraged Martin's parents along with thousands of other people who have signed an online petition demanding an arrest in the case.

The U.S. Justice Department announced late last night it will open an investigation and a state attorney for the area has announced that he is sending the case to a grand jury.

And many have noted that, adding to the tensions around the case is the fact that Trayvon Martin is black and his killer, George Zimmerman, is a white Hispanic man. Our next guest says he feels it's important for white people to take note of this case. His name is Michael Skolnik. He is the editor-in-chief of Global Grind. That's a popular news and entertainment site founded by Russell Simmons, the entertainment and fashion mogul.

And Michael Skolnik is with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: Now, your piece is titled "White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious Like Trayvon Martin" and it starts by saying, I will never look suspicious to you, even if I have a black hoodie, a pair of jeans and white sneakers on. In fact, that's what I wore yesterday. I still will never look suspicious.

Why did you want to write this piece?

SKOLNIK: I wrote this piece because, you know, two weeks ago, there was an incredible movement to bring much needed attention to stopping and capturing Joseph Kony in Uganda. And what I saw during that movement was all of my white friends and all of my white colleagues tweeting about it and putting it on Facebook and talking about it - becoming this trending topic in a matter of minutes.

And when a young black man was killed in our country, Trayvon Martin, my white friends were quiet, eerily quiet. Nobody was talking about it and I saw Charles Blow's op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday, and I saw an op-ed in Washington Post by another great black writer, and I saw Melissa Perry-Harris' piece on MSNBC - and it was all black people talking about a black kid who was killed.

And I felt, as a white person, I will never - as I said in the piece - I will never look suspicious to you. I will never have to worry about a taxicab in New York City passing me by. I will never have to walk by a woman who grabs her purse as they walk by me. I will never have to pay for my food before the bill comes. And I will never have someone call 911 on me and say, he looks suspicious, no matter how baggy my jeans are, no matter how big my hoodie is, no matter how white my sneakers are.

And I felt the need, as a white American man who has been born into this nation as a privileged person, to speak up and to say that we've been quiet and we've been quiet for too long.

MARTIN: You know, I have to note that - and we said already that George Zimmerman is Latino. His family says he's not racist, but I want to just - and I just feel the need, just for fairness, to sort of point that out.

You know, some responses to your blog are interesting. One poster said he is white and he's been that kid walking through a suburban neighborhood in the dark at night and he says adults assume that it's teenagers - that any teen out late that night is essentially on drugs and up to no good. So it's not so much about race, as it's about age. What do you say to that?

SKOLNIK: Look, I think there's always been the argument - well, you know, he made it out of the 'hood, so therefore, everyone should be able to make it out. Or, you know, I got profiled, therefore, we all get profiled.

Let's be honest. We - Michel, you know this like I know this. We're not going to have a program in a week or so about a white teen who was shot because he was racially profiled. We're not going to talk about stop and frisk laws in New York City and white people who are stopped by the police and frisked because of no good reason. We're not going to talk about violence destroying a community, like it has in black America, in white communities across this country.

Sure, there are issues and there are incidents that have happened to white people. And I'm not talking about George Zimmerman in terms of his race. I'm talking about George Zimmerman in terms of - he said - we know for a fact, because we heard the 911 tapes. He said, he looks suspicious. If he's Latino, if he's white, if he's black, if he's Asian, it does not matter. The fact that we look at young black men as suspicious is wrong.

MARTIN: What is it that you would like friends to do, friends who care about this, people who are listening to you? What exactly would you like them to do?

SKOLNIK: A few things. Pay attention is the first thing. Know that the rights that you take for granted are worthless unless you fight for the rights of others. Know that, when Jews are - there's hate crimes against Jews. We can't just expect the Jews to stand up for themselves. We can stand up for the Jews. When Muslims are attacked in this country, we have to stand up for Muslims. When black people are attacked in this country, we've got to stand up for black people. When immigrants are attacked in this country, we've got to stand up for immigrants.

We can't just ask the black community to stand up for themselves in this moment. We've got to stand up with them. I am inspired by my generation. I am inspired by the fact that social media - you know, Trayvon Martin was not a top 20 Google search term until last night. Trayvon Martin was trending on Twitter this morning.

So my generation, in the spirit of our president, is desperately, desperately pushing for a post-racial America. We know it's aspirational. We know we're not there yet. We know, in reality, we are not there, but we are desperately pushing for a country where we look beyond race.

So, as a white person, as a black person, to my friends, to my colleagues, to my fellow white people - I challenge you. I challenge you to be honest about your privilege in this country, be honest about what you have. Have an honest conversation about the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, with your friends and your peers and your coworkers and your students and your family and get involved.

I respect what the congresswoman said. This can never happen and it should never happen again, but this will happen again unless we have these conversations, unless we start talking about why do we profile young black men in this country? What is it about them that scares us?

MARTIN: Final - Michael, we only have 30 seconds. I apologize, but what about Mr. Zimmerman's point that there had been many break-ins in the area and, to his knowledge, the people who did these were black and he had reasonable grounds to think that Trayvon Martin could have been a burglar?

SKOLNIK: The last thing that I would say to you, Michel - Trayvon Martin had a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. George Zimmerman had a nine millimeter semi-automatic weapon.

MARTIN: Michael Skolnik is the editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind.com. That's a popular news and entertainment site. It was founded by the entertainment and fashion mogul, Russell Simmons. He wrote a piece called "White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious Like Trayvon Martin" and he was with us from NPR West in Culver City.

Michael Skolnik, thanks for joining us.

SKOLNIK: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.