Another Black kid is dead.
This time it’s 17 year old Trayvon Martin.
His life snuffed out at the hands of an overzealous, trigger happy white neighborhood watch commander named George Zimmerman, who thought Trayvon looked “suspicious” as he walked back to his father’s home in a suburban Florida neighborhood with a pack of skittles and an iced tea for his little brother. Trayvon was unarmed; Zimmerman was packing a semiautomatic weapon.
How do we make sense of the senseless?
From the facts alone, it is clear that Zimmerman presented the real threat. But it has now been two and a half weeks since the shooting, and Sanford Police Department has declined to charge Zimmerman with a crime. Law enforcement officials claim they have no evidence to dispute Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense.
Apparently an unarmed, dead Black teen is not evidence enough. If this were 1912 and not 2012, we would call a Black man killed by a one-man firing squad with no just cause what it is: a lynching. These days, we search for euphemisms.
Self-defense. That feels so inadequate.
I mean, whose selves really need defending if it is Black selves—primarily Black male selves—that keep being murdered?
It’s high time that we started asking some serious questions about how we keep ending up here. Because there is most assuredly a racial logic—an alarming method – to this madness.
So come, let us reason, together. (Yeah, I got Biblical, because in times like these we need a savior. Take that as literally or as figuratively as you will.)
In one of the earliest reports I read about this murder, the author felt it important to mention that Trayvon was visiting his father because he had been suspended from school for a week. It infuriated me that this detail was there. It was a subtle way to suggest that this kid didn’t have his head on straight, that he had some flaw, that he had already demonstrated himself to be a disciplinary problem.
How does it feel to be a problem? It feels like gunshots, unheard screams, and a lonely, violent death.
It is now statistically documented that Black students are suspended 46% more than all other students, and account for 39% of expulsions, though they only make up 18% of the school system. One in five Black boys is subjected to out-of-school suspension. The increase in zero-tolerance policies and automatic referrals to law enforcement are major culprits here. It is beginning to sound like schools have a zero-tolerance for students of color in general, and an aversion to Black boys in particular.
Years ago, I taught reading to a group of middle-schoolers in D.C. public schools. That year four of my male students –all African-American—were expelled. Three of them were expelled not for selling drugs on the campus, but for failing to report that they knew one of their classmates was doing so. As the Head of School told me, “we have an honor code and a zero-tolerance policy.” Nearly ten years later, I find that decision the most dishonorable of decisions I encountered at that school, which was a fairly dishonorable experience for me. What my boss didn’t seem (willing) to understand is that these students –while boarding students during the week—returned home on weekends, to the very communities where the dealers supplying the drugs to their classmate lived. To ask these students to put their lives and their families’ lives in danger in order to honor our honor code was an exercise in missing the point. So the kids were expelled.
I learned a lot then about how the cultures of discipline in public schools fail to honor the very real material realities that shape how kids engage in school. When scholars talk about a school-to-prison pipeline, they are not simply talking about the ways that systematic lack of educational access sets up Black people for a stint in the criminal justice system. They are also pointing to the fact that the very logic of public schools is designed to discipline Americans into a certain model of citizenship, one that helps us to believe in the propaganda of equal rights that we are taught in our social studies classes, while obscuring the systematic inequalities that are on gratuitious display through the treatment of children of color, students with disabilities, and poor students.
I can’t help but wonder if it is this kind of discipline to which Trayvon had been subjected. School discipline should not be the pathway to a prison sentence or a death sentence.
A Black kid is dead. And blame must be placed somewhere.
I have zero-tolerance for a justice system that deputizes overzealous white men and vests them with the power to be judge, jury, and executioner, under the trumped up guise of self-defense . If this community fails to prosecute George Zimmerman, their silence, their acquiescence, their approval will constitute an official sanctioning of his course of action.
I can’t help but wonder what he must have thought as he was confronted for no reason by a white guy with a gun, while he was simply trying to go home.
Eyewitnesses said they heard Trayvon call for help. The police swiftly corrected them, letting them know that in fact, it was the white guy who had called for help. Even with eyewitness testimony, the police seemed incapable of seeing Trayvon as the victim. Young Black men are always the aggressors, right? Not the gun-toting white guy, who weighed 100 pounds more than Trayvon. Not the self-styled neighborhood vigilante with a documented disrespect for law enforcement. Nope. Just the Black kid, whose skin is (perceived as) a weapon.
Though Zimmerman had been charged in the past with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, officers told Trayvon’s parents that Zimmerman’s record was squeaky clean.
What is this peculiar thing about whiteness that it makes criminals look like victims and victims look like criminals?
Trayvon’s skin, not his actions, not his character, made him a criminal. Blackness always looks suspicious. Whiteness always looks safe.
A history lesson.
In 1857, Justice Roger Taney infamously declared in the Dred Scott case that “a Black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect.”
post- most-racial moment*, we must seriously re-evaluate this narrative of linear historical progress that we are beholden to. No, Black men don’t routinely find themselves hanging from trees. But that might be less an evidence of progress and more an evidence of white racial adaptation.
“Racial patterns [will always] adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” – Father of Critical Race Theory Prof. Derrick Bell’s famous maxim echoes in my ears.
(No wonder folks were mad last week to see the re-circulated video of Harvard Law Student Barack Obama hugging his professor Derrick Bell. As Melissa Harris- Perry said, two brothers hugging one another is an unforgivable offense.)
Perhaps a hip-hop metaphor is more appropriate. Present white racial violence frequently samples its own racial past, but packages the narrative in ways that make us think we are making progress, that we are doing a new thing. But this shit ain’t original.
Take for example this 2012 campaign bumper sticker.
The challenge in getting stuck on this show of ignorance is that most racism isn’t that visible. And because it isn’t, white folks (like the many I saw comment on this photograph on facebook) can tell themselves that this is isolated racial ignorance.
They don’t have to contend with the ways that our legal justice system continues to renege on its promises of equality and justice for all, through the enactment of supposedly color-blind policies like stricter voter registration laws that are designed to exclude folk of color from voting, through campaign suggestions that racialize the welfare system, and through sentencing disparities that criminalize Black and Brown folks for life. White folks can see this bumper sticker and never think about the ways in which every one of these deadly racial encounters (which seem to be a not infrequent occurrence in Sanford, Fl.) constitutes a “Re-Nig(gerizing)” of the Black male body.
Trayvon Martin “looked suspicious,” Zimmerman told the 911 Dispatcher. In fact, to say “suspicious” and “Black man” in the same sentence, feels redundant.
All these (short but long) years later, the racial logic remains the same. Black men are threatening. And murder is a proper response to that threat or a least an understandable one. Ida B. Wells could’ve told us that. And she did. But that soundtrack has been remixed to accompany us into a new era.
How does it feel to be white?
Whiteness, Critical Race Theorist Cheryl Harris tells us, is a “form of property.” In the classical sense, whiteness, like property, confers “all those human rights, liberties, powers, and immunities that are important for human well-being including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom from bodily harm, and free and equal opportunities to use personal faculties.” (CRT Reader: 279-280)
Does it feel like freedom? Whiteness.
Well it certainly looks like justice.
The kind of justice that we want for Trayvon.
But there is one problem. Trayvon is Black. And that matters when whiteness is the sine qua non of the American legal system, when possession of a white skin is the prerequisite for justice.
And it is precisely because of this deep-seated association of white skin with property, that George Zimmerman felt he had the right to “patrol” his neighborhood for interlopers and outsiders.
It is not coincidental that Black men are routinely profiled for looking suspicious in nice neighborhoods “because they don’t belong there.” The battle over who belongs in neighborhoods– even though Trayvon’s step-mother lived there!—is just a modern site for a long-standing warfare over white racial entitlement to control land and every thing that moves on that land.
So despite our cries of #justice4Trayvon, we know that it is a toss-up as to whether Zimmerman will be charged with anything, that it takes a literal act of God for the system to work for us. That God is all we have, when the system works against us.
We keep hoping that reason will take over, that the facts will be presented in just such a way that the crime committed here will become visible, evident, to the powers that be. Somehow, I don’t believe that this is what President Obama meant by “the audacity of hope.” And if he did, I hope he realizes that hope in the face of mounting injustice is an unreasonable thing to ask of us. We are the post-post Civil Rights Generation, the Hip Hop Generation. And we are tired of hope and dreams deferred.
If the persistence of racism has taught us anything, it is this : that racism is not rational. It literally doesn’t make any sense. Yet, we keep appealing to reason, even though we feel like taking it to the streets, because we know that such acts of violence, would be perceived as irrational. Threatening. And met with all consequent force.
Yet we keep appealing to reason, in hopes that someone will listen.
As we appeal to the system, signing petitions calling for the prosecution of George Zimmerman, we hope against hope, that the system will not decide that Blackness alone makes one a probable threat, worthy of execution, just a few hundred feet from one’s home. And yet, that decision has been made thousands of times. Will Trayvon be any different?
“You think our lives are cheap, and easy to be wasted, as history repeats, so foul you can taste it…His life so incomplete, and nothing can replace it”–Lauryn Hill
*Thanks to Rhea C. for the “most-racial” reference.