By Daniel Shyti

Two months later, the nation is still reeling.

The death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American Florida teenager, has sparked nationwide concern over the lingering traces of racism in American society.  Last Wednesday, GMU held a panel discussion to examine this subject.

Hosted by Dr. Joseph Williams of the Counseling and Development Program, the event featured six panelists from GMU providing various points of view.  Many of the panelists are currently professors or assistant professors and hold doctorates in fields such as psychology, sociology, and communication.  As Williams said, it is important for the GMU community to gain a “stronger understanding of the larger implications of the death Trayvon Martin.”

Florida state law includes a “stand your ground” provision, which states that the use of lethal force can be justified if an individual feels threatened.  But as Dr. George McMahon, another Assistant Professor in the Counseling and Development Program asked, “What society do we want to live in?  Do we want to live in a society where your ungrounded fear absolves you from guilt?”  In this case, the panel agreed that shooter George Zimmerman’s fear was ungrounded, because the only thing remotely threatening about Martin’s presence was the fact that he was a young black male wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

GMU doctoral student and Fairfax County Public School psychologist Reston Bell weighed in on this matter, describing the way African-American youths are pressured into believing that it is their own fault if another individual finds them intimidating.

“We’re pushing our young men into boxes,” she said.  “We’re asking them to contort themselves to appear less threatening.  How detrimental is it to teach someone that they have to feel small to live?”

The full scope of Martin’s death encompasses a number of issues in American society, and GMU is doing its part by encouraging this hot-button dialogue.  It was impossible not to come away from the discussion without a heightened sense of social awareness, which is a step in the right direction to create the social change necessary to put an end to racial injustice.