Dark Side of the Sunshine State: Trayvon Martin, "Stand Your Ground," and Race in Florida

Sean Posey I Race & Ethnicity I Commentary I July 17th, 2013

The murder of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman drilled the small city of Sanford, Florida into America's consciousness. This tale of an unarmed black teen and an obsessed neighborhood watchman also put the State of Florida and its "Stand Your Ground" law at the intersection of race in America, particularly in the South, in a time of "color blindness." To many it may seem that Florida is an incidental backdrop for such a drama, yet this is but the latest chapter in a state whose tragic past informs its turbulent present.

Florida was the third state to leave the Union, joining the Confederacy on January 20, 1861. In the post-Civil War era, Florida enshrined white supremacy in the state constitution, enabling most of the classic elements of Jim Crow to turn the land of sunshine's soul into a heart of darkness. For over three decades at the beginning of the twentieth century Florida led the country in lynching's per capita. In 1923, in what was one of the most infamous acts of racial terrorism in American history, whites from nearby Sumner destroyed the black town of Rosewood, killing several black residents and driving the rest from the area. Racial tensions and separation extended to all areas of life in Florida. As late as 1960, Florida had no integrated schools. In the ensuing decades Florida's caste system would be dismantled, but the psychic scars of the state's racial past never fully healed.

The post-war explosion of population and development in Florida seemed to change the very nature of the state. In the fifty years after World War Two, Florida's population went from almost three million to nearly sixteen million. Bulldozers plowed through palm trees, mangroves, and swamplands. Farms and grazing lands gave way to sprawling developments; millions of moving vans followed. A state with so much undeveloped land appeared as a blank canvas to many of the Rust Belt refugees, retirees, and immigrants that arrived. In the words of historian Gary Mormino, Florida had gone from "Dixie to Dreamland." However, Dixie shaped race relations in Florida as it had throughout the Deep South. According to cultural theorist Christina Lane, Florida came to act as a "projection screen for national global images and imaginings." While many of those projections represent the sunny side of life in this new promise land, the dark side of Florida's racial past remains close at hand.

The murder of Trayvon Martin took place in a region shaped by Florida's dark history. Ocoee, Florida, near Orlando, was the site of a race riot in 1920 that killed over thirty blacks, and the Orlando area hosted a hotbed of Klan activity in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, the traditionally black area of Sanford is centered in the neighborhood of Goldsboro. The neighborhood itself was originally a township, the second black community incorporated in Florida. In 1911, Sanford annexed Goldsboro-dismantling the town's institutions and erasing its black character, which included changing streets named after African Americans. It was into this hidden history that Trayvon Martin unknowingly strolled during the fateful night of February 26, 2012.

The Florida of the past was known for its blatant race based laws, but it is a seemingly "color blind" law known as "Stand Your Ground" that has cast long racial shadows over Florida today. The origins of Stand Your Ground (enacted into law in Florida in 2005) can be found in the "Castle Doctrine," which itself emanates from English common law. According to the doctrine, a person's home is their castle, and they're afforded certain liberties when defending themselves, including the use of lethal force. Florida's Stand Your Ground law takes this even further to its illogical conclusion: "A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."

Of course the law is maddeningly open to a wide variety of interpretations. Additionally, charges can be dropped long before they reach a judge or a jury, or they can never even be filed. Since the inception of Stand Your Ground in Florida, justifiable homicide rates have tripled, though Stand Your Ground was not actually used in the Martin case. The law did however lead to the long-delayed arrest of George Zimmerman. The delay was due to the rigorous evidence requirements needed to determine whether the shooting constituted a legitimate of claim of self-defense. And While Stand Your Ground might appear to be a color-blind law; it is hardly racially neutral in practice.

A study by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center of over 40,000 homicides in both states with and without Stand Your Ground laws, found that whites in Stand Your Ground States were 350 percent more likely to get off in murder charges involving a black victim. That's over 100 percent higher than in states with no such laws. Nor apparently can just anyone invoke Stand Your Ground. In a particularly controversial Florida case, Marissa Alexander, an African American woman, claimed self-defense when she fired a warning shot at her estranged ex-husband in a confrontation at her home. Alexander was denied the protections afforded under Stand Your Ground and was instead convicted under Florida's mandatory minimum laws. Despite the fact that no one was hurt, she was sentenced to twenty years.

Changing demographics and economics in the past fifty years have in many ways created a whole new Florida, one quite unlike most of the rest of the Deep South. Like Virginia or chunks of North Carolina, the land of sunshine has come to represent the "New South," yet like those states, Florida is still haunted by the ghosts of Dixie and its unresolved racial past. Trayvon Martin found himself cornered in a city-one emblematic of Florida as a whole-with deep racial fissures, in a state in thrall to a deeply damaging and dangerous law. His death, like that of Emmett Till, is sure to haunt Florida, much as Till's murder haunted Mississippi. However, unlike segregation era Mississippi, Martin's death symbolizes the falsehood of a color blind/post-racial country. May Trayvon's murder rouse the state of dreams-and America-from its slumber.