Ask Dr. Lynch: The Trayvon Martin Tragedy as a Teachable Moment

Question: I am an 8th-grade Social Studies teacher and want to discuss the Trayvon Martin tragedy with my students, but I am having difficulty coming up with ideas. I especially want to touch upon the topic of racial profiling and the part that it may have played in this tragedy. In addition, I want my students to develop a sense of social justice, but I also want them to learn that in America, you are innocent until proven guilty. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer: Thanks well-articulated question. As readers may know, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, admitted to killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American male, on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. It is important for educators around the country to be prepared for the multitude of questions and comments that they may get from their students. Although the death of Trayvon was a senseless tragedy, educators can use it as a teachable moment.

In this column, I will provide teachers with a variety of strategies that they can use to illustrate the dangers of racial profiling and explore the part that it may have played in Trayvon’s death.

In my opinion, the topic of racial profiling should not be discussed prior to grade six, because although younger students have the ability to understand the concept, they may have difficulty understanding it in its historical context. (Do, however, use your own judgment about whether the topic is appropriate for your students. Keep in mind that teachers of grades five and below can begin discussing the concepts of diversity, bias and prejudice in order to prepare students for more advanced topics such as racial profiling, genocide and human trafficking.)

Next, I will discuss some basic strategies that can be used to teach the topic of racial profiling to students in grades six and up. You will need to modify these strategies in order meet the developmental and intellectual needs of your students. Alternatively, you can use my strategies as a blueprint for creating your own.

Regardless of what strategy you use, begin with an overview of racial profiling and discuss why it is controversial. Throughout United States history, there have been many high-profile cases involving the unfair treatment of people of color by police officers and citizens. These include Adolph Archie, New Orleans, 1990;  Rodney King, Los Angeles, 1991; Abner Louima, New York City, 1997; Amadou Diallo, New York City, 1999; Sean Bell, New York City, 2006; and Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge, 2009. Each of these men was either killed, severely assaulted, or unfairly treated by police officers in the last quarter century.

Examine how America has responded to each of these cases. This will help your students analyze the topic of racial profiling in historical context. Teachers must make sure that they avoid making amateur connections between the famous cases of racial profiling that have occurred throughout history. This way, students will learn that each atrocity has its own identity and characteristics. Also, explain to students that despite the overwhelming outcry for justice in the Trayvon Martin case, Mr. Zimmerman is innocent until proven guilty.

Now let’s talk about some strategies teachers can use. One strategy would be to use an outstanding piece of literature to illustrate the concept of racial profiling. One great title is Black Like Me, a 1961 nonfiction book by journalist John Howard Griffin. Griffin was a white man who with the help of his doctor, darkened his skin so that he would look like a black man. The book describes his six-week experience traveling through the racially segregated south as a black man. Have your students read the book over a six-week period. Students will learn how radically different the same man was treated when his skin color changed from white to black. You can use the book to illustrate and discuss how bigotry and bias, which are factors in racial profiling, can manifest themselves in the actions of others.

Another strategy would be to begin class by making a shocking announcement to your students. The school has decided that since the color black is a known gang color, anyone who wears black to school will be suspended indefinitely. To heighten the effect, draft a student and ask him or her to pretend to be the victim of “racial profiling.” Since s/he will be wearing black, tell the student that s/he is in violation of school policy and must report to the principal’s office to be disciplined.

Use this activity as a springboard for discussion. Be sure to ask students questions such as: How was this simulation similar to racial profiling, and how was it different? Have you ever been profiled? If so, describe the experience. What did you learn about yourself and about others? What was your biggest surprise during this experience?

I would finish the lesson by illustrating constructive actions taken by people and entities in response to racial profiling. Students will learn that throughout history, there have been individuals who have spoken out against racism and risked their lives to stand up to the perpetrators of these deleterious acts. As a final activity, ask students to create an action plan that details what they plan to do to combat racial profiling and promote social justice in the world.

For homework, ask your students to create a political cartoon that represents their thoughts and ideas on racial profiling. Alternatively, have your students interview family members and friends concerning any occasions on which they were racially profiled. Students can then write a detailed narrative that delineates the interviewee’s personal experiences.

The Trayvon Martin tragedy is placing a spotlight on the dangers of racial profiling, but teachers must also do their part. Racial profiling in America is a very controversial subject that although emotionally and mentally draining for teachers and students, is nonetheless important. If you follow the guidelines discussed above, your students will become social justice advocates in no time.


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