Did Trayvon Martin die because he was black?

David Horsey/Los Angeles Times

Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old kid walking back to his father’s house after buying a package of Skittles at a convenience store. George Zimmerman was an overzealous block watch volunteer carrying a gun. Zimmerman may have been carrying something else around with him: an attitude about black kids and where they belonged.

Martin had the bad luck to cross paths with Zimmerman. It was raining. Martin’s hoodie was up. He was on the phone with his girlfriend and, according to her, was getting nervous about the big guy following him. The guy was Zimmerman.

Zimmerman considered Martin a suspicious character -- at least that’s what he was telling the 911 dispatcher he had on the line. He also told the dispatcher that “these ... always get away,” according to a recording of the call that has been released. Then he took off running after Martin and uttered to the dispatcher a word that some listeners heard to be a racial epithet.

Martin, of course, was African American and, even though this gated neighborhood in Sanford, Fla., happened to be where his dad lived, in Zimmerman’s eyes, he did not belong there.

Then came a confrontation, cries for help and a gunshot.

Trayvon Martin was dead. The police who came to the scene took his body away and held it in a morgue for three days without checking out his cellphone to find someone who knew who he was. The police let Zimmerman go at the scene, saying they could not charge him since he claimed self-defense because, in Florida, a “stand your ground” law protects people who shoot first and later claim to have been threatened.

This killing a month ago has now become a national cause with demands for Zimmerman to be arrested and put on trial. A grand jury has been invoked. The Justice Department has stepped in. The Sanford police chief has taken a temporary leave.

Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, told a rally in New York City that this tragedy was not a matter of white and black, but a matter of right and wrong. That’s generous. But it’s hard to believe Trayvon Martin would be dead today if he had been just a white kid on his way home in the rain.