Tag Archives: Trayvon Martin

“Why does it always have to be about race?”

9267368072_11533350da_zI have been unsettled about the George Zimmerman verdict since it was rendered Saturday night. I’ve bounced back and forth between anger and disappointment. It’s not that a “Not Guilty” verdict was a surprise, it’s that the offense that led to Trayvon Martin’s death is, by nature, hard to prosecute. How do you put a person’s subconscious on trial? How do you prosecute an entire mythology that profiles Black boys as probably dangerous and probably up to no good?

Why does it always have to be about race? Because race is a factor. Race has value attached to it, and ignoring that reality is a privilege. I know some of you will say, what privilege? I’m white and I don’t get anything extra because of it. I disagree. What you get is to belong everywhere. You get to avoid the specter of suspicion brought on by your mere presence in a place. You get to just be.

Why is it always about race?  Because since the beginning, race has informed the structure of our institutions and our policies. But we pretend to be color-blind. This way, we don’t have to wrestle with the disparities that exist between Blacks and whites at almost every level of existence, nor the subliminal messages we receive from media about criminal pathologies to which Black Americans are genetically predisposed, I guess.

Why does it always have to be about race? Because this color-blind society of ours affords some of us a presumption of innocence and paints others with the presumption of guilt. The 1947 doll test and subsequent studies showed that, subconsciously, brown skin is akin to menace. That’s the offense. You could never get the Zimmerman jury to believe that the menace in this situation was George Zimmerman.  He was the creepy one.   Did they ever consider that George Zimmerman was suspicious to Trayvon Martin?  Why was that such a stretch of the imagination that the Prosecution would need to lead them there?  Zimmerman had the arrest record for domestic violence and the loaded gun.  Yet, he gets to be suspicious and the unarmed Black kid gets to be the suspect.  He is wrong, but the law protects his bad inference.  It was lose-lose for Trayvon Martin the moment George Zimmerman encountered him.  There is no justice in that, in life or in death.

So what now?  I’m not here for marches or rallies or riots because, well, I’m over that. I’m also uninterested in wilfully obtuse conversations about reverse racism or the indignity of ‘cracker’ vs. the indignity of ‘nigger’. I am interested in honest discussions about race. Ask me questions, challenge my assumptions, and allow me to do the same. I’m willing to confront race and acknowledge the differences because my Blackness is not incidental for me.  I am not color-blind and I admit that being Black informs my worldview. Similarly, you have to admit that not being Black has informed yours. After watching Juror B37’s interview last night, it is clear that some people have no experience with Black people, save the stereotypes from media or the music they listen to.  We have to change that.  Start by engaging the conversation.  Listen more than you speak.  Understand that you are not representative of the whole.  Understand, too, that you may not be racist, or you just may not know it.

Lastly, two things: First, O.J. Simpson’s acquittal was an anomaly. I’m not sure if Black people thought he was innocent, or if we were just tickled to see the system work in a Black person’s favor, petty as that seems. In contrast, George Zimmerman’s acquittal was a page right out of a Black history book. No Black people on the jury and no acknowledgement of the role of race as an aggravating factor. Only in the absence of context are these two cases similar. Second, miss me with the ‘don’t be mad about Trayvon if you aren’t mad about Black on Black violence’ meme. Jamelle Bouie’s piece, “The Trayvon Martin Killing and the Myth of Black-on-Black Crime,” notes that the large majority of crimes are committed by people who know each other or live near to one another. This means that if Black on Black crime is a thing, then so is white on white crime, as 86% of white victims are killed by white offenders. Still, even if the proliferation of Black on Black crime wasn’t a myth, don’t police my emotions. Black people can decry street violence and the targeting of our young men at the same time. And even then, again, only in the absence of context are these two incidences the same.

I said all of this to say: If you find yourself asking why certain conflicts “always have to be about race,” recognize that privilege is not having to know the answer to that question.

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Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? Me, Kinda.

I’m teaching a Black Politics course this summer, and I’m using Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to Be Black Now as the primary textbook. Initially, I planned to take the traditional route – lecturing from works by the usual suspects: Manning Marable, Michael Dawson, Cornel West. But I decided in the end that I wanted to discuss race in a contemporary way, and Toure’s work allows me that freedom.

My class starts like Toure’s book does, with questions about the nature of identity. What exactly is Blackness in 2012? 50 years ago, varying shades of brown skin were sufficient determinations. If you couldn’t pass a brown paper bag test, then you were Black enough to experience the struggle, and on some level, you probably knew it personally. It was that – the struggle, the trauma narrative – of the Black American experience that was the rallying cry of Black Americans.

In 2012, however, with a biracial President of the United States who has chosen to identify culturally as Black, what now is the rallying cry? What now is the reason to rally for the race? Toure’s book argues that Blackness is multifaceted. Struggle, trauma, oppression, and racism are no longer qualifying characteristics of living while Black in America. Scholar and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates explains it this way: if there are 40 million Black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be Black. Thus, poor, oppressed, and powerless is but one reality of Blackness. There are 40 million other ways to “do” it.

Last week, I asked my class to write a short paper about the way(s) they express Blackness. I wondered if it was fair for me to have the same expectation of my non-Black students. But I figured, fuck it. Writing the paper required all of them to soul search. They’d have figure out for themselves what it means to be Black and how they, as individuals, fit into that narrative. It’s an opportunity to process through a different prism.

In the beginning of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, Touré lists his interview questions. There are some good ones designed to move the windmills of your mind and to jump-start dialogue. Touré asks: What does being Black mean to you? Does being Black mean something different today than it did 40 years ago? Would you feel comfortable eating fried chicken or watermelon around white people? My students and I talk about these questions, and we try to answer them too. I’ve noticed that the younger ones always respond in post-Black, individualistic ways. And the older students often answer from a collective perspective.

It always starts this way though. No one likes to admit that they still subscribe to a trauma narrative about the Black American experience. That they still wear “the struggle,” and are still caught up in it. Post-Blackness gives folks license to slough off that trauma, and move on. In a way, it’s like a second Emancipation Proclamation. This time though, Blacks are liberated from an imposed responsibility for advancing the race. You get to just “do you,” without worrying about whether it helps or hurts Us-at-large. “Us” is not your priority; you are. Post-Blackness allows Blackness to be embraced in a continuum, where Clarence Thomas-types can be at one end and Angela Davis-types can be at the other. And it’s all the same. Angela Davis hasn’t kept it real, and Clarence Thomas hasn’t sold out. Each of them performs Blackness in their own way, and each expression of Blackness is as legitimate, and as authentic as the other.

Post-Blackness represents the freedom to be an individual. To that end, it’s possible no one embodies the Post-Black pathology ideology quite like Dave Chappelle. “Chappelle Show” was absolutely fearless in the way it handled the social and cultural constructions of race in America. The third chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness is titled “The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King”. In it, Touré presents several of Chappelle’s most hilarious, most provocative, and most brilliant comedy sketches cum social commentaries on race. But they’re so much better in video. See for yourself.

The Niggar Family

Frontline – Clayton Bigsby, Black White Supremacist

These sketches worked because they made it seem like we could actually be evolved and mature in discussing race – so conscious, as it were, that we could even be irreverent about it.

Roots Outtakes

But alas, as I mentioned, Chapter 3 of ‘Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness’ is titled “The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King.” Remember, Dave Chappelle walked away from “Chappelle’s Show” and away from his $50 million contract with Comedy Central because he felt like folks no longer laughed with him. Whereas initially, the point was to be funny and if somewhere along the way, a sentient message about race relations emerged, that was even better. But in the end, Chappelle felt more responsibility than that. In other words, the irreverence for Blackness that Post-Blackness encourages and excuses is cool until it’s not – that is, honestly, until white folks laugh a little too hard at depictions of slavery, or get too comfortable misunderstanding nigga/nigger. “You start to realize that these sketches, in the wrong hands, are dangerous.”

The history of race relations in America makes discussions of race slippery and uncomfortable. Being able to laugh about it certainly lightens things up, but the sore still festers if we really aren’t yet evolved and mature enough to also recognize the blues of it all.

The blues of the Black American experience are still palpable for a good number of folks because, although some of us have managed to exorcise ourselves from the charge of race consciousness by standing proudly as Post-Black, the world in which we live, unfortunately, isn’t so evolved.

Clever. Renege is spelled differently, but I’m sure they already knew that.

Post-Blackness, in the wrong hands, is also dangerous. And in the Trayvon Martin case, I think Touré saw that too.

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…

Right.

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