Monday, March 26, 2012

The Murder of Trayvon Martin: The Larger Issue at Stake

Like many across the country, I have been watching this case unfold with growing horror, sorrow, disgust – and a sense of familiarity, because we’ve seen this and similar scenarios play out many times before across the span of this country’s history.

And it is because of this situational familiarity that I find my feelings about this shooting compounded by the way in which this case is being prepared, packaged, and served to the general public by many in the media as an isolated tragedy instead of yet another in a long series of race-based profiling, stalking, and murder.

Once "mainstream" media finally found this story worth reporting (yes, it was in the public consciousness of Black media for more than a minute before breaking into the consciousness of “mainstream” media the way it finally has. . .), the question de jure seems to be some variation of "was this really about race or was it just a bad law?" And the self-admitted shooter, George Zimmerman, is increasingly being "packaged" as a person with "mental problems", thereby cutting off any discussion of how his racialization and stereotyping of a Black youth fueled and informed his stalking and shooting him. Just as importantly, this type of packaging serves to truncate needed discussion of the examination of the history and racial climate that supports those stereotypes and the continuing dehumanization of Black males in public consciousness.

Much has been made of the shooter’s ethnicity -- Latino -- without any acknowledgement that the racial spectrum within the Latino community ranges from those with white-skin privilege and those who are seen as of Afrikan descent. There is no acknowledgement that the experiences of Latinos without white-skin privilege often mirror those of African Americans in this society.

But with all of this historical perspective, there are still the questions and hand-wringing regarding the issue of whether race really, truly played a role in this stalking and shooting.

Can there really be any doubt of this, even after listening to the 911 recording of George Zimmerman's call? To me -- and I refuse to believe that I am the ONLY one who holds this opinion -- this George Zimmerman call confirmed that HE knew what role race plays in America; that he acted based on that racial difference; and that he acted on American assumptions and perceptions of that difference: i.e. the historical American stereotype of Black men as dangerous madmen that are always guilty of something and must be stopped at any cost.

Just weeks ago, we have seen this stereotype and others (. . . lazy, trifling, broke, etc., etc., etc.) being played out in the remarks made regarding African Americans by Republican presidential candidates, so it is no surprise that some of them have used this shooting as yet another flame-thrower to stoke the flames of white racial resentment against President Obama in particular and African Americans in general.

Newt Gingrich -- who prides himself on being a historian -- dared to say on a radio show about President Obama's statement of empathy to Trayvon's parents (regarding thinking about his own children when he thought about Trayvon):

“What the president said in a sense is disgraceful. It’s not a question of who that young man looked like.” He continued "Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background. Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot that would be ok because it didn’t look like him?”

Another (former) presidential candidate, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, agreed with him, saying ". . . the president should not have brought Martin’s race into the forefront and connected it to his own".

In other words, we must remain "colorblind" to the fact that -- according to the shooter’s 911 call, at least -- race was the very heartbeat of this.

For Gingrich and Bachmann to ignore the racialized nature of this shooting -- and to cynically and strategically accuse the president of race-baiting – without any significant public outcry is what helps support the continued climate for more Trayvon Martin-type cases.

As I see the protests across the nation and people -- including white progressives -- throwing on hoodies and holding signs that say "I am Trayvon Martin" I wonder why they are not protesting the larger issue of the racial -- the "anti-Black male" -- climate in which we live. Don't get me wrong, I understand the need to want to DO something "touchable" and immediate, like a rally. But really, focusing on this ONE tragedy removes it from the larger context that allows such tragedies to continue to happen: that of white privilege and structural and cultural racialization, exploitation, and bias.

The murder of Trayvon Martin is one of the many race-based tragedies involving Black men, who remain the boogeymen of America's racialized imagination. From Emmett Till to Medgar Evers to James Byrd Jr. to the hundreds and thousands of unknown, un-named Black men who have lost their lives to America's racial psychosis,” Negrophobia” (the fear of Black people), the Trayvon Martin tragedy reminds us how deep in the psychotic clutch of “Negrophobia” -- manifesting as "the assumption of guilt of Black men (for any and every reason)" -- America still remains.

And that presumption of guilt was in full display on message board and comment sections of the web when "mainstream" media first finally caught up to Black media's exploration of this case. Commenters suggested that Trayvon Martin himself was somehow responsible for his own death. They claimed that he should not have been wearing a hoodie, that he somehow was "aggressive" toward the shooter, that his very presence as a Black youth was enough to warrant a death sentence as it was his responsibility to let the shooter know that he was not a threat. Moving along this train of thought, commenters had no hesitation in stating that, in not adequately letting the shooter know that he was not a threat, he left the shooter with no alternative but to "protect" himself against the deadly combination of skittles, iced tea, a hoodie, and -- oh yeah -- a Black person who felt he had a right to walk the street "innocent until proven guilty".

A dear friend of mine always says that "learning is a journey, not a destination" but after 400+ years you have to wonder whether white America has some kind of learning disorder when it comes to race.

When will there be a public outcry at our questions of WHETHER race played a role in this? At our willingness to de-contextualize these incidents from America’s history of race? To continue to look at them OUTSIDE of the context of America's DNA of structural racism?

Because every time we do that, we give tacit permission for it to happen again.

When there is no public indignation at the political battle cry of "take our country back" or the misrepresentation of remarks like those made by Gingrich and Bachmann; when there is no front-and-center acknowledgement by those -- and especially those who are white -- who participate in rallies and who proudly wear their hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin about how white privilege continues to operate in society; when there is no acknowledgment that had it been THEIR sons in Zimmerman's cross-sights we would not even be having this conversation; and when communities of color stand shoulder to shoulder with them without demanding these conversations, then we all collude in supporting the climate for this to happen again.

This issue is larger than the murder of Trayvon Martin; it is the continuing legacy of the 400 years of history that fueled it.

To just focus on this one murder, as tragic as it is, is a mistake that lets us off the hook of discussing the larger, harder issues of structural racism, American anti-Blackness, and the dehumanization of Black people – and specifically Black men -- while making us feel as if we are doing something other than guaranteeing more of the same.

If we really want to do something for Trayvon, let's do more than throwing on a hoodie. Let's face the racial realities of this country, and the danger it creates for African American men and those of us who love them.

Because the truth of the matter is that we are NOT all Trayvon Martin, no matter how big the hoodie. Race trumps dress. To pretend any differently -- especially in the name of solidarity -- promotes the false concepts of colorblindness in the ways in which we are "differently placed" in society based on race. It ignores the prime position that the privilege of white skin still holds in America.

And we owe Trayvon -- and all our sons and daughters -- the opportunities that they will gain in life if we face that reality. And we owe society -- who would benefit from their talents, skills, intelligence, numbers, earning potential, and cultural richness -- the opportunity to have that.

Speaking of “reality”: the reality of this situation is that if we had honestly done this sooner instead of fostering and legitimizing an atmosphere of “colorblindness” and the denial of continuing structural racism and anti-Blackness, Trayvon Martin and other young Black men like him, might be alive today.

Moving forward,