On March 15, the Multi-Ethnic Information Exchange hosted an event at the School of Information to explore the swirling controversy around a mobile application recently patented by Microsoft. Among other things, the app communicates with users’ GPS devices to provide directions around unsafe neighborhoods. Microsoft rejected the negative criticism of its product — which some labeled the “Avoid the Ghetto App” — by stating the classification of “unsafe” neighborhoods stems from crime statistics and demographics. The MIX discussion did not attempt to respond to the alleged racism inherent in the concept, but rather sought to provoke a larger discussion of information, ethics and our role between the two as emerging professionals.
By all accounts, the dialogue succeeded in exchanging ideas, identifying responsibilities and broadening perspectives. I left the lecture hall immensely encouraged by the capacity of SI students to enact positive change in the lives of citizens everywhere. And while I still retain that optimism, the recent shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., an Orlando suburb, diminishes a small portion of that attitude. His assailant, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, informed police he shot the teenager — who was black — in self-defense. This is despite the fact that after he phoned authorities about a “suspicious” young man “walking around and looking about,” Zimmerman exited his vehicle with a 9-millimeter handgun and began to follow Martin. A physical encounter occurred, the specifics of which may never be known, and it concluded with a single gunshot wound to Martin’s chest. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
Sanford Police continue to reiterate they have no probable cause to arrest Zimmerman — who is white — due to a vague 2005 Florida law allowing a person to use deadly force if under the belief that great bodily harm or death is imminent. In essence, so long as Zimmerman perceived Martin to be a threat to his life, he possessed the right to “stand his ground.” Since Martin is no longer alive to prove he did not pose such a threat to Zimmerman law enforcement officials declare their hands to be tied. Issues abound with the case, prompting state and federal authorities to launch their own investigation.
Now, I’m no lawyer, nor will I pretend to be just for the sake of argument. But as an archival student, I am eerily reminded of this 19th-century legal doctrine: “A colored man is, prima facie, a slave.” The precept resulted in the illegal detention and enslavement of countless free blacks, as the courts ascribed the burden unto them to prove their freedom. Likewise, Sanford authorities first need evidence to verify Martin did not endanger Zimmerman’s life, a deeply problematic commentary in this era with the nation’s first black president. That a self-appointed neighborhood watchman can successfully justify Jim Crow-esque vigilantism under the auspices of perception demonstrates the great distance we have to travel toward racial understanding in our country. Such a reality should be a cause for concern not just in Florida, but all across the nation. The willful inaction of the Sanford Police Department has sent a clear and unambiguous message to American society: prima facie, young black men are criminals.
That sobering prejudice brings me back to the Microsoft application. While intending to increase safety, it ultimately produces a mentality in which they are out to get us. It rests upon the unsubstantiated claim that certain people living in certain areas commit certain crimes more frequently than others. Increasingly, the targets of those dog whistles tend to be younger and browner. This same notion led the killer of Grosse Pointe’s Jane Bashara to dump her body on the east side of Detroit. Surely, the murderer thought, these heinous crimes always happen near Gratiot Avenue, leaving the police to assume one of them did it.
In the end, there is perhaps no data a Microsoft researcher could aggregate to inform Trayvon Martin of the danger he eventually met. Indeed, we must give pause to remember that the crimes prosecuted are rarely the whole of crimes committed. A black boy was stalked, shot and killed as he walked home with a bag of candy and a can of iced tea. If that’s not criminal, I’m not sure any of us knows what is. That his admitted killer is a free man wages a psychological war against Martin’s parents that is just as violent, senseless and avoidable as the murder of their child.
Jarrett Drake is a first year Master’s student in the School of Information.