The senseless killing of Trayvon Martin and the not-guilty verdict handed down in the case against George Zimmerman send troubling signals about race, justice, and gun violence in America and give fresh urgency to an important agenda for nonprofits and foundations.
America may never see justice for Trayvon Martin, who clearly did nothing that would justify losing his life. But it is up to us in the nonprofit world to find ways to do all we can to counter negative stereotypes in the media and elsewhere that lead people like Mr. Zimmerman to assume a young black man in a hoodie is a criminal. That is a challenge that all nonprofit media organizations, youth groups, and civil-liberties organizations must embrace with new vigor.
Perhaps more important, nonprofits need to work to overturn new laws intended to expand the rights of individuals to claim they are acting in self-defense when they resort to shooting someone in the neighborhood rather than simply retreating from conflict.
These “stand your ground” laws are in part the product of strong lobbying from two nonprofits, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Rifle Association, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive investigative reporting organization. Twenty-six states have now passed such measures.
It’s time for more nonprofit leaders and others to join Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, who said after the Zimmerman acquittal, “We will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state.”
That may be too controversial a stance for many nonprofits that don’t want to get involved in political advocacy. But America’s nonprofits and foundations can contribute in other important ways, especially by expanding programs that support positive youth development and push the media to stop caricaturing young people as thugs.
It’s particularly important to hear youngsters in their own voices, through award-winning media organizations like Youth Radio, an Oakland, Calif., organization that produces content heard nationwide on public radio programs.
In a report the organization produced for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Myles Bess, an 18-year-old, offers a sobering perspective: “My Grannie’s warnings have a deeper meaning now. They weren’t just about rules—like looking both ways before I cross the street or not talking to strangers. She was telling me I’m a target.”
Some foundations have already contributed to major efforts to correct the record about the history of racial profiling among teenagers. An especially important contribution comes from the Atlantic Philanthropies, which financed The Central Park Five, a documentary by Ken Burns.
The film masterfully explores how an incident a quarter-century ago is one reason many Americans thought George Zimmerman was justified in pointing his gun at Trayvon Martin.
The film starts in 1989, when the New York police arrested five African-American and Hispanic teenage boys they said committed a brutal rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park. An entire city became drunk with rage and paranoia, calling for their conviction and even demanding the death penalty.
But as Mr. Burns demonstrates, the police and prosecutors coerced the naïve teenagers to sign false confessions. The true perpetrator of the horrific crime, an adult by the name of Matias Reyes, later admitted that he had raped and beaten the victim, a fact that was corroborated by DNA evidence.
The District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau, ultimately vacated the convictions of all five of the accused. But their vindication came too late, after all of them had served terms of seven years or more in prison.
Beyond the tragic impact on the lives of the men who were falsely accused of a crime, the Central Park jogger case helped to escalate the rhetoric regarding the antisocial behavior of inner-city teenagers, who were described as animals, a wolf pack engaged in a spree of violence called “wilding.”
The lurid and sustained media coverage of the case helped to spawn a new theory in criminology and sociology: the emergence of a fast-growing group of teenagers called superpredators who couldn’t be controlled without ever-harsher criminal penalties and larger prisons.
The theory of a burgeoning horde of superpredators—heartless, cold-blooded and ultraviolent—was quickly debunked. And the growth in youth crime predicted from 1995 to 2010 proved to be illusory, as youth crime rates declined by 24 percent from 1980 to 2010, after peaking in 1996.
But the power of the myth is a key reason that for the past two decades, youth groups and civil-liberties organizations—and the foundations that support them—have been forced to devote so much of their time to fighting the problems that result from false stereotypes.
In New York City, for example, the police department’s “stop and frisk” policies have been applied excessively in minority neighborhoods, subjecting African-Americans and Latino youth disproportionately to arbitrary searches.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, in recent years, more than half a million New Yorkers have been searched by police annually, and the breakdowns have been roughly the same each year: nearly 90 percent of all those stopped are black or Latino, approximately half are under 24, and about 90 percent are totally innocent.
The NYCLU has created a special campaign to show young people what they should do in case they are stopped by police, encouraging them to remain silent and to decline to consent to be searched voluntarily.
The civil-liberties advocates caution people that they should not obstruct or run from the police, nor engage in disrespectful speech, all of which might lead to arrest. Over all, the campaign is designed to arm New Yorkers with knowledge about their rights in the face of unwarranted police action.
Perhaps if the teenagers who were falsely accused of raping the Central Park jogger in 1989 had known their rights at the time, they and their parents would not have consented to prolonged interrogations without lawyers, they would not have been tempted to sign bogus confessions, and we would not have unleashed a generation of media misinformation about the criminal nature of America’s superpredator teenagers.
And perhaps George Zimmerman would have been able to look out of his car window and see a harmless high-school kid heading home from the store with a bag of Skittles for his little brother.
Vincent Stehle, executive director of Media Impact Funders, is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.