Graduate Students

'It Could Have Been Me': a Black-Studies Graduate Student Responds to the Killing of Trayvon Martin

Courtesy of Dwayne Nash

Dwayne Nash, a graduate student in black studies at Northwestern U. who is writing his dissertation about racial profiling, says the police response to the killing of an unarmed teenager in Florida is a form of such profiling.
March 20, 2012

The murder of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager from Sanford, Fla., who was gunned down by a neighborhood-watch volunteer who said he acted in self-defense, has sparked outrage and grief, especially among black Americans. The teen, who the shooter told police looked "suspicious," was wearing a hoodie as he walked through the gated community where he lived. Mr. Martin was unarmed and was carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea he had just bought at the 7-Eleven.

A thousand miles north, Dwayne Nash, a 35-year-old black graduate student who is in his fourth year at Northwestern University's black-studies program, is still in shock. He's sitting inside the Lenox Coffee near Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where he is doing research for his dissertation on the history of the stop-and-frisk practices of New York City police officers and why young black and Hispanic males are so frequently the targets of those stops. Mr. Nash is dressed in a black pinstriped suit, a Burberry tie, a powder-blue shirt, and wing-tipped shoes, the kind of "conservative go-getter" outfit he says he used to wear when he worked for six years as a prosecutor for the New York County District Attorney's Office. Watching hundreds of black and Hispanic men and women walk through the courts in shackles for small criminal infractions was heartbreaking, he says, so he decided to attend graduate school to attack the problem from a different angle.

Mr. Nash was making plans to purchase a hoodie for the "Million Hoodie March" scheduled to take place Wednesday night in Union Square. He hasn't owned a hoodie, he says, because "it is a dangerous thing for a black man to own." Despite his background and his educational status, he says that his skin color makes him a potential victim, like Trayvon Martin.

Here is an edited version of The Chronicle's conversation with Mr. Nash about how, as a scholar, he is viewing the teen's death.

Q. How did you react when you heard about the killing of Trayvon Martin?

A. My first thought was, I can't believe another young black man has been shot down. I have hope that this kind of tragedy won't keep happening, but I'm still horrified and shocked. As a former prosecutor, my second thought was that Trayvon's body was going to be sent to the morgue and tested for drugs and alcohol because the state needed to know whether this kid was under the influence and if that could have possibly escalated his situation and caused his own death. I was shocked that George Zimmerman, the shooter, was not arrested or tested for drugs and alcohol, and that he was let go. The police arrived at the scene and saw a dead young black male's body and shockingly there was no cause for concern. They saw no need to investigate that a white-skinned, burly man with a gun could have possibly been the aggressor. And Zimmerman has gotten the benefit of Florida's "stand your ground law." He's using it both as a sword and a shield because his victim was a young black male.

Q. Your graduate work focuses on stop-and-frisk practices as a form of racial profiling. How is Martin's death connected to your research?

A. Based on my research, I know that in New York City alone, 700,000 people are stopped and frisked on a yearly basis. Eighty-five percent of those people who are targets for police surveillance are black or Hispanic. Only about seven percent are even arrested. Whether we are stopped, searched, arrested, or shot, it's all the same. We're being automatically read as a threat, criminal, or suspicious at the very least.

Q. In the past few days students at colleges in Florida have organized protests in response to this incident. Do you see racial profiling as an important issue for scholars to address?

A. Racial profiling and the killing of Trayvon Martin is a higher-education issue. My scholarship, for example, is responsible for educating the public on these social phenomena. Racial profiling is a sensitive issue that has historically plagued this nation since its colonial foundation and throughout the civil-rights movement. It remains with us in the post-Obama era. It needs to be studied, dissected, and constantly examined.

The police response to Martin's death was a form of racial profiling and the mainstream newspapers first framed the story as a white neighborhood watchman who killed a black boy. Later we find out that Zimmerman is Spanish-speaking, and now the media is saying he is a white Hispanic. These racial categorizations are showing us how people are being valued. We have to teach the public how to read between the lines. Trayvon's murder provides an impetus for me to pursue my research and illuminate the areas that are often ignored. There are ordinary people in their own neighborhoods who are repeatedly stopped, arrested, and funneled through the criminal-justice system. These people are living the new Jim Crow and are fighting against it in criminal-court proceedings every day.

Q. As a former prosecutor and now as a young black male scholar in the ivory tower, do you think there's a real possibility that you could someday suffer the same fate as Trayvon Martin?

A. I embody what W.E.B. Du Bois termed a "double consciousness." I feel trapped. I have paid my dues to society and stayed out of trouble, have never been arrested. I've practiced law, and now I'm working on a Ph.D. about my history. But I understand the fact of blackness. I see myself through the eyes of others, and I know that despite my suit and tie, my education, and the positive energy in my heart to do good, I'm a black man who is perceived as a threat.

Instead of Trayvon Martin, it could have been me that was killed. I know my time is coming when I'm going to be surrounded by an unbelievable abyss of fear. I pray that a gun barrel is not pointed to my face and that I am not shot and killed for making an innocent gesture or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time because of my skin color. And the wrong place could be in my own home. There is no right place for me. There was no right place for Trayvon. He was walking home in the rain, doing nothing wrong, and he was read as suspicious.