The Blame and the Questions
On February 26th, 2012, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford, Florida. And despite wearing your hoodie, your participation in the protest, and your indignation on behalf of injustice, if you’re reading this article, you probably helped that tragedy occur.
George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, that part is not in question. He told the police as much when they arrived. The questions are 1) Why did George Zimmerman kill Trayvon Martin? 2) Why did the police consider the killing justifiable under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law? And 3) what do you, the reader, have to do with any of this?
The Master Narrative and the Value of Black Male Life
The answer to the first question is brief, but complex: George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin because Trayvon is Black. I believe that is unquestionable as well. But the subsequent question is, why would he kill Trayvon because he’s Black? The answer is the toxic atmosphere of our American society, one that denigrates and devalues the lives of Black males in particular, and which causes an environment in which it is okay to kill Black males. Black males like Trayvon.
The Supreme Court determined in 1857 that the Founding Fathers of this country were not talking about Black men (or women) when they wrote about “We the people…” in the Constitution. Chief Justice Roger Taney, wrote the following in the majority opinion of the 1857 Scott v Sanford case (the Dred Scott decision):
In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included inthe generalwords used in that memorable instrument… They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.
From that time until the present, the struggle for humanity, citizenship, and manhood has been an epic one for Black men in America. I know some of you are thinking, “But it’s great to be a “brotha” now, isn’t it?! They can rap and jump high and dance…
They’re so cool! And you know what else they say about Black dudes…” Unfortunately, being stereotyped into what Howard University’s Toni Morrison calls America’s “master narrative” view of Black males – athletic, unintelligent, angry, fearsome, and lascivious, a threat to White women everywhere with their enormous, uncontrolled penises – doesn’t translate into being treated with equity. And being cool or even imitated doesn’t mean that Black men are valued for their humanity. The lives of Black men in this country, since its inception, have had minimal human value. America’s political and social campaign against Black male humanity has created an irrational fear of Black men (misandry) that pervades today. I have no doubt George Zimmerman feared for his life on February 26th, and that he saw Trayvon Martin as the primary threat. Just like the rest of us, he’s been socialized that way. The fact he is a White Hispanic man (as opposed to a Black Hispanic man) doesn’t preclude him from acting on how he was socialized. Neither does it cause Black law enforcement officers to view Black men any differently either.
The Police and the Exoneration of George Zimmerman
George Zimmerman maintains that he shot Trayvon in self-defense during a physical altercation. The prevalent story amongst the public, however, is that Zimmerman left his car to confront Trayvon, even after being told by a police dispatcher – the one he himself called – to stop following Trayvon. A fight ensued, during which Zimmerman shot and killed him, with neighbors hearing the sounds from the conflict. The focal point has become Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows a person to use deadly force to protect his or herself in self-defense if they feel that their own life is in imminent danger. Combined with Florida’s concealed weapon laws, it allowed George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon with a gun he may never have seen, and for the police to decide – rather than a jury of his peers – that the killing was justified. No arrest, simply decided upon Zimmerman’s own words. We’re led then to ask, why did the police consider the killing justifiable? The answer again is because Trayvon Martin is Black. There is a subsequent, more important question though: why did the police believe the killing was justified because Trayvon is Black? The answer is the criminalization of “Black male behaviors”.
Like the rest of us, police are trained to define “criminal behavior” as “Black male behavior”. Black males are known to “hang out on the corner”. Black males popularized sagging pants and the use of Ebonics. Black males are known for “looking tough”. Black males popularized the so-called “thug” style. They’re even known for wearing hoodies. And you may hate seeing a boy’s underwear above his jeans, you may malign him for “hanging out on the corner”, cringe at the sound of his “broken” English, and look with disdain at the mean look on his face as he peers out from his hood. None of these things, however, are illegal.
Linda Tucker and Michelle Alexander have done some incredible research on how certain Black male behaviors are criminalized. From Alexander we know that despite crime rates dropping continuously for decades in the United States, there are more people in prison today than there have ever been at any point in American history, and that America imprisons a higher percentage of its ethnic minorities than any other country on the planet. Linda Tucker talks about how “surveillance” in practice actually means comparing the behavior of people being watched to what is thought of as “White people’s behavior”. Of course, there is no such thing as “White people’s behavior”, that’s just a “moving goal post” that people use to describe the behavior of “others” – meaning non-White people.
Law enforcement officers, with their training and master narrative socialization, are often poorly equipped to engage with young Black men. Even me, a career educator, graduate student, and “model citizen” with no criminal or arrest record, I still avoid interactions with law enforcement if it is at all possible. I don’t feel safer around the police. They make me feel at best like I’m suspicious, and at worst, like an outright criminal in my interactions with them. Quite honestly, the only reason I would call police is if I was overwhelmed and in dire need of some strong-armed backup, since I don’t carry a gun. Otherwise, they’re better left out of my life. That’s the reason why when I see kids wearing “Stop Snitchin’” shirts or I hear rappers decrying snitches and talking to the police, I don’t impugn them for it. I can identify completely with how having police involved actually makes things feel less safe. Understand, I’m not talking about each and every single law enforcement officer; I’m talking about how they’re trained – formally and informally – and my experiences with them. This is without regard to their race or ethnicity. I don’t inherently feel safer around Black law enforcement either, even though some of my close friends are police officers… (purposeful irony goes here).
Armed with Black misandry, a gun, and pepper spray, law enforcement officers of all races and ethnicities are socialized and trained to treat Black men as criminals. Like the person whose only tool is a hammer, everything to them starts to look a whole lot like a nail. On Febrary 26th, 2012, one of those nails was named Trayvon Martin. It’s the reason why they were convinced that George Zimmerman killed him in self-defense, and it’s the reason why I don’t believe that Zimmerman will spend significant time in prison, if he’s punished at all. Whether or not Trayvon started the fight with him, Zimmerman could operate under the assumption that law enforcement officers would see him and his white skin and see Trayvon in his hoodie and his dark skin (and probably sagging pants) and come to the same conclusions. There would be no questions as to who was standing whose ground. Like Taney’s opinion in Scott v Sandford 155 years earlier, their interpretations of the law and of Black male humanity are spot on.
Why Pound Cake Tastes Like White Supremacy
I stated at the beginning of the article that if you’re reading it, you probably have some culpability in all of this. The sad truth is that even though most of you know how Black men have been treated in America, you know the sordid history that law enforcement has with the Black community, you know that racial profiling only affects people of color, and you know that people are socialized to fear Black boys, you’ve supported all of those notions. Oh no? How many times have you complained about Black boys being “on the corner when they should be at home”? Did you ever consider that they may feel at home on the corner? Did you ever question why being on public property is a criminal activity only for Black men? And how many of you voted for, applauded, or otherwise supported “pull your pants up” laws? Did you consider whether you were violating the constitutional rights of Black boys everywhere? Without a doubt, I hated seeing a boy’s underwear above his pants when I lived in Riviera Beach as well, but would I support a law literally criminalizing it? Not on the coldest day in Hell. And how about that whole Stop Snitchin’ campaign that started in urban Black neighborhoods? While declaring the stupidity and ignorance of the Black boys who championed it, did you ever sincerely consider why these kids would be so disaffected by law enforcement that they would rather have the stick-up kids and drug dealers in their communities than the police? And I’ve seen pictures, allegedly of Trayvon, have now surfaced with him wearing gold fronts. What were you saying when you saw people with gold-covered teeth? In rap videos? I know personally I wish I had taken every penny I put into my 401k ten years ago and bought some gold and diamond encrusted fronts. My money would still be here, sitting in my jewelry box instead of having disappeared into the electronic ether. Or how about when Bill Cosby delivered his bigoted and hateful tirade against poor Black people, the so-called the “Pound Cake Speech”? Did you join the amen-chorus when Dr. Cosby berated the Black community in a hypothetical scenario, for showing outrage toward law enforcement when a child is shot by police for stealing a piece of pound cake? What if it was a bag of Skittles instead? And is it okay if it’s actually the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain instead of the police? Do you still think “but we all know what Bill was really saying”? Do the police know? Did George Zimmerman know? And do you really think they had to actually hear Cosby’s speech to feel the same way, as you may be arguing in your head right now? And how about this slain young man’s name? I have purposefully referred to George Zimmerman as both “George” and “Zimmerman” throughout this article, but I haven’t done the same for his victim. How many of you spent time, just like Dr. Cosby, deriding Black people for how they’ve named their children? I admit that I’ve done it, but I stopped years ago. The fact that a parent wants to name their child something other than “Taylor” or “Jacob” or “Ethan”, push against White cultural standards, and give them something unique that no one else in the world can claim, is not a reason for ridicule. And who are we to decide how someone names their child anyway? Why would we blame that parent for giving their child an “unemployable name” instead of demanding equitable treatment from employers? And 23.7 million views later, how funny would the“ghetto” name “Trayvon” be now if it had made the top 60?
All of this is about White supremacy. How so? We Americans have accepted wholeheartedly the notion that White culture is superior to others. It reigns supreme (though we allow that Asians are smarter, of course). That’s what White supremacy is: a belief in the inherent superiority of White people and/or culture. People of all races and ethnicities buy into White supremacy. The big problem now is that the accepted conception of a “White supremacist” is literally a White guy wearing a sheet and a hood or a swastika on their arm, who refers to non-White people using 7 – 10 very naughty words. This allows White supremacists who are far from that description to hide in plain sight. It also allows White supremacist speech like Cosby’s to pass for legitimate critique.
What our White supremacist notions have us end up saying is, if Trayvon hadn’t had on sagging jeans, he’d be alive today; if Trayvon hadn’t been suspended from school, he’d be alive today; if Trayvon hadn’t been in the wrong neighborhood, if Trayvon didn’t have a gold grill, if Trayvon hadn’t been looking suspicious, if he hadn’t been wearing a hoodie like thugs do, if Trayvon had just been White… he wouldn’t have got himself killed. How about, if George Zimmerman hadn’t killed him, he’d be alive today?
So if you, like Minister Louis Farrakhan admitted concerning the death of Malcolm X, contributed to the poisonous environment, you have an obligation to help detoxify that environment. Wearing your hoodie in your Facebook profile isn’t enough. You should consistently question and analyze and then re-question and re-analyze why it is “okay” for George Zimmerman to have killed Trayvon Martin. And for the police to have vouched for him. Your critical analysis and critique of Black communities must also be carried out to non-Black ones. Your activism should be consistent and constant, rather than sporadic and self-serving. You cannot simultaneously reinforce and disparage the White supremacist notions that govern our social, political, economic, and legal interactions, and allow them continue unabated.
No, you can’t have your pound cake and eat it too.