Johns Hopkins University professor Nathan Connolly sees the Trayvon Martin case in terms far broader than the details of how the Florida teenager was shot and killed at the end of February.
Look at the attempts by some to dismiss race as a potential factor in the shooting of the black teenager or to limit any discussion of racial motivation on the part of George Zimmerman, who has been charged in the killing, Connolly told a roomful of Hopkins students and professors who had gathered Thursday to discuss the fallout of the case.
"We're living in a moment where white supremacy works like central air," Connolly said. "How can you prove the existence of a force if you can't see it or hear it?"
Six weeks after Martin was killed, the case is still inspiring such conversations in classrooms, radio studios and churches around Maryland and the nation. Wednesday's news that Zimmerman had been arrested and charged with second-degree murder only stoked the debate. Zimmerman has said he acted in self-defense as Martin attacked him.
Though many Hopkins professors have discussed Martin's death in individual classes, Thursday's "teach-in" session was a first attempt at creating campuswide dialogue about underlying themes of the incident. "Part of what we want to do is think beyond the immediate media cycle," said Connolly, who helped organize the discussion. "What are the greater forces to think about long-term?"
In that spirit, he and other professors raised provocative questions about whether white and black Americans are granted different standards of self-defense and whether social institutions deflect serious discussion of race.
Humanities professor Hollis Robbins talked about the case in relation to the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.after a neighbor mistakenly thought Gates, who is black, was breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Mass.
Gates was not given the benefit of the doubt in standing his ground, Robbins said, despite the fact that he was on his own property. Conversely, she said, Florida authorities waited weeks to charge Zimmerman after the neighborhood watchman shot Martin while the teenager was walking to his father's fiancee's house in a gated community. Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows violence in self-defense, was often cited as a reason why Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, remained free.
"The question of why he was not allowed to stand his ground in his own home has troubled me for some time," Robbins said of Gates.
"I think the one who stood his ground was Trayvon Martin," added history professor Franklin Knight, who called on the federal government to rule whether the shooting constitutes a civil rights violation.
Others said they were troubled by attempts to raise questions about Martin's character, as if he needed to be morally pristine to be a sympathetic victim. Martin had been suspended from school for possessing a bag with traces of marijuana.
Hopkins sophomore Maria Adebayo noted that Zimmerman had a prior arrest record.
"But I've heard more focus on how his actions were justified by the character of Trayvon Martin," the Bowie resident said. "Even though it has no bearing on the case."
Students and professors did not talk much about Wednesday's news that Zimmerman had been charged. Adebayo called the charge a "step forward," though she said it did not wipe out the sense of injustice she felt as Zimmerman walked free for weeks.
"I think that's what was most striking to me," she said. "That the police, as an arm of the government, did not arrest him."