Words by Sophie Ellis-Belter and TG
“It is a complicated thing to be young, black, and male in America. Not only are you well aware that many people are afraid of you—you can see them clutching their purses or stiffening in their subway seats when you sit across from them—you must also remain conscious of the fact that people expect you to be apologetic for their fear. It’s your job to be remorseful about the fact that your very nature makes them uncomfortable, like a pilot having to apologize to a fearful flyer for being in the sky.”
– Cord Jefferson; The Zimmerman Jury Told Young Black Men What We Already Knew
Trayvon Martin is dead, and his murderer is free. It was George Zimmerman’s decision to follow a teenager returning from a shop with Skittles for his little brother because he “looked suspicious” – despite having been warned by a 911 operator not to follow – leading to a confrontation, a fight and Zimmerman pulling his gun and killing a child with one shot to the chest. And today Zimmerman is free on the grounds of “self defence”. You have to wonder where Trayvon Martin’s right to self defence came into it, being stalked by a strange man with a skinhead, a concealed gun and an intent to scare and harm. A child is dead, no one is held accountable, and his family have endured months of inaction from the police and now a verdict which supports the assertion that Trayvon had it coming.
“Fucking punks, these assholes always get away”
George Zimmerman’s words the night he murdered a teenage boy for being black are important, emblematic of a society built on white entitlement. He was of course right, more often than not the bad guys DO get away, as the Not Guilty verdict handed to Zimmerman last night shows. But Zimmerman’s words display perfectly the dominant view in our racist Western societies – that despite all evidence to the contrary, even when black men are sent to prison in their millions while the murder of black people earns you less than a slap on the wrist, white society still believes that justice is skewed in favour of “real criminals”. A suspiciously black unarmed teenager represents every white fear. The bogeyman of the young BME man, assumed always to be a “criminal” (though what is criminal is defined by those with power), is at once both a slanderous lie held up by stereotyping, profiling and false accusations, and also a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you tell people they are worthless, deny them opportunities, restrict their access to support and education, flood their communities with hard drugs and guns, then yes some of those people are going to fit your profile of a criminal. And if they do, it’s still not their fault if someone murders them for walking down the street, or for fighting back when set upon by a stalker.
White power, white media and white people have created the image of the criminal, and send black people to prison in their droves for it. There are more black men in the US prison system today than there were indentured slaves in 1850. Angela Davis calls this the Prison Industrial Complex:
“Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages,” Davis says. “Taking into account the structural similarities of business-government linkages in the realms of military production and public punishment, the expanding penal system can now be characterized as a ‘prison industrial complex.”
Prisoners are forgotten, their problems hidden from view and from statistics, locked into effective slavery for the companies that have a stake in the prison system. There are alarmingly high numbers of people in prison for crimes of poverty, and for being victims of abuse. It’s easier to discard the victims of power disparities and abuses than it is to name and tackle the systems that created prisoners’ problems. In 1993 South Africa, 851 black men per 100,000 were in prison. In 2006 under the Bush administration, 4,789 black men per 100,000 were in prison. What does it tell you when the leader of the free world is locking up its black men at a rate 5.8 times as high as that of South Africa at the height of apartheid?
The fact is that in the widely accepted descriptions of someone who ‘acts like a criminal’, right at the top is ‘looks black’, and if you tick that box not only do other citizens assume you are a criminal, the justice system does too. Trayvon Martin was profiled, stalked and murdered by a racist curtain twitching neighbourhood watch vigilante for looking black in a middle class neighbourhood, and then he was put on trial for his own murder – and ultimately considered to be at fault. It’s a whole other discussion, but we need to talk about gated communities. Not only do well-off white people have the privilege to lock themselves away from the disenfranchised communities they create more problems in with every year’s widening of the wealth gap between rich and poor, if you decide someone doesn’t ‘belong’ in your community – even if it’s just a boy bringing Skittles to his stepmum’s house – you can get away with murder.
Trayvon Martin spoke to his friend Rachel Jeantel on the phone in the minutes before he was killed, when he told her he was being followed by a “creepy ass cracker” and they discussed whether he could be a sexual predator, a not unreasonable assumption given that Zimmerman was both following him at night and is indeed a rapist (TW for child sexual abuse in that link). Most people would be suspicious of a creepy guy following them with a gun (which would be a good guess in Florida and was in fact true), and most people would defend themselves in that situation. Not to mention that a grown man who looks to be white and has a skinhead following you would make most young black boys incredibly nervous with good reason. Zimmerman’s defence rested on Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law. The law goes beyond purely acting in self defence and removes the responsibility of someone to retreat from a situation where they feel threatened even if they are able to, up to and including the use of ‘deadly force’. Trayvon Martin, in death, has been vilified and treated as responsible for his own death for defending himself against a stalker with a gun and what could have been any horrible motive for following a black child, while George Zimmerman who followed an innocent child for no reason and instigated everything that happened thereafter has been successful in arguing self defence. The Stand Your Ground law is so compelling a defence for a white-passing gun-wielding wannabe policeman like Zimmerman that police refused to even arrest him and put his self-defence claim to the test of a trial for a long time on the basis that he had claimed ‘Stand Your Ground’ to them in interview.
The ‘Stand Your Ground’ law in practice has proved little more than an excuse to uphold the right of white men to behave like vigilantes. In states with ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws, 34 per cent of white shooters did not face charges or have not been convicted after shooting a black person, according to an Urban Institute analysis cited by the Huffington Post. Just 3 per cent of black shooters got the same treatment after shooting a white person and making a ‘Stand Your Ground’ claim, according to the same report. These statistics do not bode well for the outcome of Michael Dunn’s trial, a white man who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis after arguing over the volume of the music in Davis’s car. Dunn’s defence is going to be based around the Stand Your Ground legislation, even though the police failed to recover any weapons from Davis’ vehicle that Dunn insists he witnessed, causing him to fire 7 bullets into the car in ‘self defence’. The fact is that the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law can never bring justice in such an unequal society where it’s considered reasonable by most white people and by the legal system to assume with no evidence that any black man is a threat. ‘Justifiable homicides’ have gone up 195% in Florida since the law was introduced in 2005 – it really is just an open invitation to the gun-toting white men of the southern US to enforce in the most vicious way all of the unequal power structures they already sit at the top of. Now they’re free to do the racist police’s job for them – every 28 hours one black person is killed in the US by the police or a vigilante.
Self defence laws should be there to protect vulnerable people, but in the case of Marissa Alexander, a young black woman who fired nothing more than a warning shot at a wall to scare off her physically abusive boyfriend who threatened her saying “if I can’t have you no one can”, her ‘Stand Your Ground’ defence was rejected and a jury took 12 minutes to convict her, landing her with a minimum 20 year prison sentence. There’s also the case of CeCe McDonald, a young black transgender woman now serving a jail sentence in a men’s prison in Minneapolis for stabbing a man who attacked her with a pair of scissors. McDonald took a plea bargain to reduce her sentence, knowing that arguing self defence as a black transgender woman risked life in prison, even though that’s the exact demographic that has the most reason to fear being murdered themselves.
We shouldn’t pretend that this is just an American problem, though of course the ease of access to quick, depersonalised tools of murder like handguns and the culture surrounding ownership and usage of guns in the US adds a whole other level of danger. The reaction of some in the UK, that this just goes to show how crazy America is, is crass and short-sighted. The people of the UK, our police forces and justice systems are no less racist. Vigilante attacks on people of colour and racialised police brutality are as much a part of the fabric of our society as they are anywhere else. Just look at Stephen Lawrence’s parents’ 18 year struggle to achieve justice for their son’s murder. Black people are subject to routine “reasonable suspicion” searches at five-and-a-half times the rate of white people, and “exceptional” Section 60 searches at more than 25 times the rate. This is a humiliating and degrading process to be subjected to, and in 2011-12, 90% of the 1.1 million searches did not result in arrest.
And those feeling smug about our ‘far more tolerant’ and ‘less backward’ culture here in the UK would do well to remember that someone tried to bomb a mosque in the West Midlands TWO DAYS AGO, and hardly anyone is even talking about it. If we don’t see the huge rise in racist attacks (physical and verbal) against Muslims (or people who white people think ‘look Muslim’) in the last couple of months as an indication of our own massive problems with open and flagrant racism, then you have to wonder what white people in the UK would consider racist. The fact that white people in the UK aren’t more outraged is a huge part of the problem. Imagine how bad it would be if we had guns, because the attitudes are already there, and the “but I don’t see race, we don’t need to talk about it so much” racism of white liberals plays as much a part in the worsening of racist attacks as anything else.
Today The Guardian once again showed themselves up for the liberal cowards they truly are by temporarily removing Gary Younge’s article on the verdict. It’s telling that they will happily publish transphobic hate speech, but a black man writing passionately about the consequences of racial profiling was deemed too controversial and inflammatory. The article later reappeared but not without amendments – the original version can still be read here.
At the other end of the UK press spectrum, the Daily Mail attempted to psychologically analyse Zimmerman, painting him as some sort of misunderstood hero. “When George Zimmerman was a little boy he couldn’t let a good deed pass undone… Of all the lessons of his childhood the one that buried itself most deeply in ‘little Georgie’s’ heart was that helping was his duty.” This sort of narrative is one all-too-often afforded to those in no way deserving of our sympathy – remember how Adam Lanza, who killed 20 primary school children and 6 staff, was portrayed as a ‘quiet, friendless boy’? Whereas Trayvon, a victim, was characterised as an ‘undisciplined thug’.
“A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect”
It was probably our white privilege speaking to be optimistic that Zimmerman would at least serve time for manslaughter. Though waves of grief, anger and helplessness consumed the black community as the verdict was publicised, reactions of surprise was few and far between. Trayvon Martin will be remembered, just like Emmett Till, Troy Davis, Jordan Davis, Chavis Carter, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, James Anderson, Kenneth Chamberlain, Rodney King, Ramarley Graham and Wendell Allan will. Each of these black men were casualties of racial stereotyping or police corruption, the fate of their attackers left to a wholly negligent justice system that considers black men dispensable.
The idea flaunted by white feminists that white women are, of course, natural allies to black people needs to stop. That Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury of mostly white women is only the latest in a long line of evidence that justifies the black community’s suspicion of white feminism. As white feminists we need to challenge any attitudes we see in ourselves or others that presume to understand the experience of people of colour, because we don’t and it’s not our place to act like we do. We need to value the voices of those with experiences outwith our own, listen to what women of colour have to say about the behaviour and attitudes of white women, give up our places at the front and centre of the feminist movement and stop ignoring the experiences (up to and including murder) of black men in the name of white women. Part of George Zimmerman’s defence was his support for his white female neighbour who had been robbed by two black men in her home in their gated community. The profiling of black men as criminals, particularly as criminals who want to hurt white women is not a thing of the past.
White women, myself included, need to take responsibility for that by confronting our own subconscious attitudes to race every. single. day. And white feminism as a whole needs to take responsibility for its repeated unwillingness to listen when people of colour tell us that we need to stop acting like we understand & have the answers for everything. Feminism is not a competition to reach the finishing line of rightness about patriarchy. Feminism should be about learning to understand and name power structures, processes, how these change over time and interact with each other and our own places in struggling with and learning from them. Seeing the processes which undermine, alienate, hurt and kill young black men like Trayvon Martin as unrelated to our own struggle as women is bizarre, and women of colour have been telling us so for years. We can’t act like the fact that a child like Trayvon Martin can be murdered with impunity and the fact that we fail to adequately address the racism that permeates our own social and political movements are unrelated. Let’s not make this a tragedy that happens to another which we view from the outside and instead make it our responsibility to address it and change it. We are not all Trayvon Martin, but we all have a duty to stop future George Zimmermans. Racism (and let’s call it what it is, white supremacy) is never going to be addressed in the legal system and the media if we don’t address it within ourselves. Challenge your friends and challenge yourself.
“The growing number of gated communities in our nation is but one example of the obsession with safety. With guards at the gate, individuals still have bars and elaborate internal security systems. Americans spend more than thirty billion dollars a year on security. When I have stayed with friends in these communities and inquired as to whether all the security is in response to an actual danger I am told “not really,” that it is the fear of threat rather than a real threat that is the catalyst for an obsession with safety that borders on madness.
Culturally we bear witness to this madness every day. We can all tell endless stories of how it makes itself known in everyday life. For example, an adult white male answers the door when a young Asian male rings the bell. We live in a culture where without responding to any gesture of aggression or hostility on the part of the stranger, who is simply lost and trying to find the correct address, the white male shoots him, believing he is protecting his life and his property. This is an everyday example of madness. The person who is really the threat here is the home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.
White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat. ” This is what the worship of death looks like.” – bell hooks, All About Love
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What a brilliant article! Good job.
It gives me hope to see more and more people critically engaging with the concept of white supremacy as (structural) racism.
Keep going. And for the record I hope you break out of this colonial union too!