Monthly Archives: March 2012

Race Still Matters

I can’t help being fascinated by the Trayvon Martin case – by the way the events are unfolding and the ways in which narratives are being constructed and white supremacy is being exposed. It’s interesting to hear the many “takes” on the situation, including the following gems of cognition:

  • George Zimmerman isn’t white; he can’t be racist.
  • Black and Latino parents shouldn’t allow their sons to wear things that incite fear in white people.
  • Trayvon Martin was no angel; he’d recently been suspended from school.  This suggests that Trayvon was probably up to no good on February 26th. So George Zimmerman was simply being proactive, eliminating a threat before it became one.
  • When police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman’s back was allegedly grass-stained and wet.  Also allegedly, he suffered from a bloody nose and other injuries to his face and head. This indicates that shooting Trayvon Martin was a matter of self-defense.  I say “allegedly” because, as yesterday’s tape shows, what we see and what we’re told don’t exactly add up…
  • And finally, nobody gets this upset when Black people kill Black people, sooooo…

I’m not sure how to spell the sound a record makes when it scratches and stops. But suffice it to say that now is that awkward moment. The rhetorical promises of national unity embedded in lullabies of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of Barack Obama had lulled us into a post-racial hypnosis hope.

The jig is up though. And for Black conservatives who want us to drink that “I am an individual” koolaide like they have:  the jig is up for y’all too.

Folks have worked hard and reached deeply into ridiculousness to obfuscate or re-work the details of Trayvon Martin’s last hour of life – that is, if they acknowledge it at all. It is a luxury and a privilege to be able to ignore this story, finding no connection between it and your life.  The reason the story resonates so powerfully is because if it was Trayvon, then it could be any boy who looked like Trayvon:  Black, male, 17ish, dressed in clothes. Imagine how many sons and grandsons, nephews, cousins, Godsons, and friends such an arbitrary designation ensnares. The “I Am Trayvon Martin” refrain hits home because so many of us could have been.   So many of us could still be.

Last week, I asked my Black Politics class – a very culturally diverse group that includes an Asian-American, two Latinos and a Latina, an Eritrean and an Angolan, two white women, and about five Black folks – to list five national perceptions of Black Americans. I’ll share the ones I remember, but first allow me to explain why they matter – why race matters.

Racism in 2012 isn’t only recognizable at the personal level. It’s not about whether your grandparents or great-grandparents owned slaves or beat Black folks upside the head for daring to demand equal treatment. Rather, it’s about acknowledging, addressing, and owning the embedded institutional and psychological biases for which racism is responsible. Thus, it doesn’t matter that George Zimmerman isn’t white, or that he has a Black friend. He saw a Black guy wearing a hoodie in his neighborhood and grew suspicious of him on sight, which is why he pursued Martin. It doesn’t matter that George Zimmerman was bloodied and bruised by the time the police showed up. Because when you go looking for a fight, you might just find one – and you might just get your ass beat. But the most pertinent point of all is that the fight would never have happened if Zimmerman hadn’t been suspicious of a Black guy in his neighborhood wearing a hoodie in the rain. And followed him with a gun.

Moreover, Geraldo Rivera’s assertion that Black and Latino parents should keep their kids out of hoodies to keep them safe is absurd. I suppose Rivera was well-intentioned, but what if next time it’s not a hoodie that appears threatening to a George Zimmerman type? What if next time it’s a baseball cap, or a denim jacket, or a pair of Jordans, or a white t-shirt, or a pair of jeans? Why don’t we just cut to the chase and discourage Black and Latino parents from having Black and Latino sons? This way, they won’t be around to fill ordinary clothes with their brown bodies, makin ’em all scary and shit.

Racism involves arbitrary value judgements. There’s no way to compose a comprehensive list of clothing to avoid or neighborhoods, streets, and cities into which you shouldn’t wander if you mean to stay safe. You don’t adjust to folks’ biases; you call bullshit on them.

Finally, can we desist with this “don’t be upset when racism kills a Black guy if you’re not going to be upset when Black guys kill Black guys” meme? For what it’s worth, there are rules to the street game and to street violence. In most cases (based on my experience with The First 48 and The Wire, of course), cats die the way they live.  If money or product comes up missing; if cats disrespectfully encroach upon territory, confusing who got what corners; if your top guy gets got by a rival, then there is an equal and opposite reaction to every action. And, while deplorable on its own merit, Black on Black violence and the killing of Trayvon Martin are not the same. We can and should be outraged by both, but we obscure each tragedy when we try to leverage one for the other.

Black folks often are accused of “making this into a race issue,” and seeing racial prejudice where, supposedly, none exists. Well, this time, it’s much harder to make that argument with a straight face, and expect to be taken seriously. One need not make this into a race issue. It is one because race is an issue. While sundown towns, in their overt display of intolerance for the differently hued, are now few and far between, their exclusions are no less implied. The fact remains that if your skin is too dark, there still are places where you do not belong. And there are folks, either purposely or subconsciously, who set out to enforce that implied power. I’ve read that Trayvon Martin’s family lived in the same gated community that George Zimmerman was “protecting” from him…


So what did my students say were national perceptions of Black Americans?  They say that Americans generally view Blacks as lazy, criminals, athletes or entertainers, ghetto and unsophisticated, religious, and as soul food eatin’.  To be fair, my class is but a cross-section of one university in one town.  But my students also live in the same world you and I do, which makes their perceptions nonetheless valid, and nonetheless sobering.

Despite all the progress – all the great challenges and great works championed by great Black Americans, despite the presence of a Black American family living in the White House instead of cleaning or serving it, the stereotypes continue to define us.  They relegate us to our lowest common denominator – phenotypic Blackness, and their simplest, most base interpretation of Blackness.  In other words, you ‘d be hard pressed to find a Negro that wasn’t a lazy, chicken-eating, church-going hoodrat criminal.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, but that’s the prevailing narrative.  And it’s why race still matters.


A Word About Trayvon Martin

Allow me to present the facts:

Unarmed 17-year-old male walks home from a 7-Eleven in the rain in Sanford, Florida. He carries a bag of skittles and a can of iced tea. He’s wearing jeans and a hoodie.

A volunteer neighborhood watch captain calls the police, telling the operator that he spied a “real suspicious guy” who “looks like he’s up to no good, on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about…”

The dispatcher tells Mr. Neighborhood Watch – now in pursuit with a 9mm handgun – not to pursue the guy. They on it; they got it.

But he does. And a squabble ensues. Mr. Neighborhood Watch shoots. Unarmed 17-year-old male is killed. Shooter claims self-defense.

Now let’s color in this outline.

The male’s name is Trayvon Martin, a skinny Black kid weighing 140 pounds. An A-B student. Had no criminal record.

Mr. Neighborhood Watch is George Zimmerman. He is 28, a big guy; he weighs about 250 pounds. Folks say he was pressed to be a police officer. He was a self-appointed Neighborhood Watch captain. He’d called the police 46 times in the last 15 months. According to the Huffington Post, Zimmerman had been the subject of complaints from his neighbors about his aggressive tactics. His neighbors also claimed that Zimmerman, a white dude, was “fixated on crime and focused on young, black males.” Fixated on crime? “Focused” on young, Black males? This cat didn’t have no authority to do shit. He was “fixated on delusions of grandeur, and focused on being a fucking dick” is how that should have read.

But this isn’t just about George Zimmerman’s inability to deal sufficiently with his dreams deferred, and turning into the over-aggressive community hall monitor as a result. Zimmerman bet on a racist stereotype and came up wrong. Way wrong.

For the moment, I’m not going to play the “if Trayvon was white” game with you. The injustice in this case is that George Zimmerman is protected – by law – for his bet on a racist stereotype. And Trayvon Martin is dead because of it.

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” or “Shoot First” law allows folks to play cops and robbers with real lives and real guns. And sure, you may be able to find a justifiable reason for vigilantism like Carl Lee Hailey did in “A Time to Kill.” But in George Zimmerman’s case, from the very outset, the wrongdoing is his own. He killed a guy who was unarmed because he had this line of reasoning: Black guy –> “just walking around” in my gated community –> suspicious.

*ding* *ding* *ding* There’s your problem. Institutional racism is psychological. It sneaks up on you; it sneaks up in you.

To be sure, one could make the case that the law itself has some issues.  But I’ll be honest with y’all:  if it was Trayvon Martin or Robert Downey, Jr. breaking into my house in the middle of the night, I’ma want “Stand Your Ground” to protect me if some shit pops off. That is if, in fact, Trayvon Martin or Robert Downey, Jr. was breaking into my house. In fact. Not figment of imagination.

Zimmerman’s psychological prejudice against that young man, coupled with his police officer fantasy, allowed him to profile Trayvon Martin without a second thought. These practices, racism and racial profiling, are both lazy and dangerous, as this case so clearly proves.  They rely on presumptions of guilt based in weak, opaque information.

The suspect is or might be a young Black male who is or might look between the ages of 16 and 35, and is possibly wearing a shirt with button on it.* Put out an APB to patrol and tell Zimmerman over in Sanford to be on the lookout.

With a little investigation, “the suspect” may later identify himself (because he’s still alive, you see) as:

Trayvon Martin;

Amadou Diallo;

Oscar Grant; or

Sean Bell**

…for example.

They could clear up the misunderstanding, and force “security” to work smarter at its job. They could force it to rely less on fear, which can be a terribly irrational emotion, as sole judge and jury.

We don’t know exactly what transpired between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in the seconds and minutes between 911 calls. What we do know, thanks in part to the 911 recordings, is that it was Trayvon Martin who attempted to defend his life by howling for help. And it was George Zimmerman who had the criminal record, the gun, the weight advantage, and presumably, the strength advantage. Yet, the boy is dead, and George Zimmerman’s irrational fear, according to Florida law, makes him justified in causing it.

Now I’ll play the “what if Trayvon Martin was white” game with you because Black people’s claims of racism are often met with eye-rolling and irritation. A lot of “here we go again” and “is Rev. Al marching yet?”  First, let me assure you that there is no perverse sense of enjoyment reaped when prejudice is responsible for a death.  We rally and we march, and Al Sharpton shows up because the fact that folks still aint acting right needs some attention.  And because, by and large, Black life isn’t valued in the same way non-Black lives are.  Remember the final court scene in “A Time to Kill,” when Jake Brigance shares the awful details of an assault on a little girl, and his final words are, “now imagine if she were white.”   What’s left unsaid in that moment, but resonates nonetheless is “now do you get it?  Now do you understand the tragedy before us?”

What if some asshole with an itchy trigger finger hunted down and killed any other teenage boy with the same résumé as Trayvon’s, namely teenage boy walking home in the rain?

Are you outraged yet?  Now do you get it?  Now do you see the tragedy before us?

George Zimmerman should be arrested.  He should have to stand trial for his actions on February 26, 2012.


*(yes, racism and prejudice still play a role when the officers or aggressors are Black. See what I said about the normative gaze in my Rihanna and Chris Brown post .)

**That’s really what George Zimmerman said. “….And he’s a Black male, he’s got a button on his shirt

“sometimes you gotta walk away and let em grow.”

i hope y’all don’t mind if i get personal for a moment. and truthfully, i probably shouldn’t write this now because the feelings are so fresh. but alas, here we are. you’re stuck with me.

the title of this post was actually a tweet that found its way into my timeline yesterday. i’ve used it probably four or five times in the last 24 hours. most recently, i used it in reference to my parents – two people from whom i never imagined i’d have to walk away.

but alas, here we are.

all my life, my family has been a proud family of three — just me, my mom, and my dad. after graduating from college and before i left home for graduate school, i lived with my parents for about two years. in that time, i grew to cherish the relationship that we’d built. my mom and i had found common ground; my dad and i talked endlessly about politics – we loved it. it was our thing, and i began to see that my dad respected my perspective. but more than that, my parents and i grew close. we loved each other, and we enjoyed each other. we liked being around one another.

i remember the day we gathered in my bedroom and watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the tiny 13 inch tv my parents got me when I was, like, 9. that story was one i told for years. we had the works set up in the den – stereo surround sound, plasma screen mounted on the wall, a couch. yet, there we were. the three of us. smashed onto my childhood bed. watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on a 13 inch screen.

my mom has struggled for the last two years to wrap her mind around my life. and her struggle has manifest in some foul ways. to be sure, i’ve seen the face of ignorance and homophobia real close up. and it is ugly. aint nothing pretty or pleasing about it.

but i’d come to expect blowback from my mom. i know who she is. i know where she comes from. i know the people with whom she surrounds herself. i could handle her better because i understood that her sickness was about the limitations in her life experience. her perceptions of gay people and what gay life looks like were woefully flawed. but in her view, she was spot on. and not even close proximity to one whom she already knew as so many other things – in addition to gay – could penetrate that force field of ignorance. such is life. it sucked, but i could deal.

my dad though. his rejection. that rejection hurt. it hurt like i imagine it would have hurt if i was six and i’d watched him walk away, knowing he’d never come back. i idolized my father. he was the smartest, kindest, most wonderful man. but he had his deficiencies too.

my dad’s beef wasn’t that i like girls. he actually handled that news well, and with a remarkable degree of love, support, and grace. what he can’t seem to grasp, however, is that i refuse to permit disrespect and disregard for my happiness – no matter the source. lord knows i love my mama, but when she steps out of pocket, she’s not immune to being put back in place. he knows she’s wrong. knows how vitriolic her words can be. but insists unceasingly that “you gotta respect ya mama.” no, dad. no. respect is a two-way street. you don’t hold open the door the next time for the cat who spat in your face and stepped on your wingtips the last time.

unfortunately, my dad is the product of a different kind of ignorance. one which affords you the freedom to spread your wings, to explore, and go far – but not too far. it’s like he encouraged me, and gave me all the tools i’d need in order to be amazing. but wanted me to stop just short of being amazing. he wanted me to grow up and be an adult, but he wanted me to accept treatment not even befitting a child. he wanted me to accept treatment that was beneath the person he raised me to be. no, dad. no. i won’t do it.

and so here we are.

it took me 31 years to see my parents as people – as man and woman, and not only mama and daddy. that it took so long, i think, is a testament to the strength of our familial bond. but also, i suspect that i wasn’t yet strong enough to handle life without my rose-colored glasses. i needed time to grow a thicker skin.

i love my parents. i miss them. i live a great life, and, naturally, i want them to be part of it. but i won’t negotiate respect for love; my “lifestyle” for my parents. I shouldn’t have to choose. I should never have had to choose.

but sometimes you just gotta walk away and let ’em grow. because if you make me choose, then i choose me.