May 12 – Volume 13, #5
Don’t let the spontaneous celebrations in the black community fool you. There are many tragedies that continue to linger from the sad and premature demise of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the cowardly hands of George Zimmerman. Long after both men have met their makers, this case -and their role in it- will have major reverberations throughout our society irregardless of what becomes of Zimmerman’s long over-due indictment.
The political ramifications associated with Trayvon’s death abound but it took the compassion of youth to humanize the story most fully by reminding our introductory sociology class that what’s most heart wrenching about all of this is that a mother has to bury her child. The image of this scene captured a pain that all the militants and activists couldn’t begin to conceive. After all, it’s every parent’s worst fear to bury their child before they themselves leave this earth.
And it is irreparably lamentable that Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin lost their son on the evening of February 26. And while only Trayvon’s resurrection would be a sufficient ointment to heal his parents’ hurt, the wound might heal more quickly yet if it were only Zimmerman who added injury to the racial insult that he let slip out during his most recent 9-1-1 call. And if the injustice ended with George Zimmerman’s paranoid-induced lapse in judgment. But there were many perpetrators in what by all reasonable accounts seems to be a major mischaracterization of justice shown to Trayvon Martin and his family. And while the greatest slight is to Martin’s family, the mounting details of this case should be a personal affront to justice-loving people everywhere.
While many parents lose their children all over the world, Trayvon Martin lost his life because he had the misfortune of being black.
Had Trayvon staggered into Geoerge Zimmerman’s gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes with an unfamiliar white face, it is likely that he would have not come under Zimmerman’s radar at all considering that each of his previous 9-1-1calls to the Sanford police involved reporting on suspicious black characters. By all indications, being black was the only thing that Trayvon had done wrong prior to coming in contact with Zimmerman for the first time after he followed him several blocks in his car. It may well be proven to be true that after the two men came face-to-face that Martin had gotten so much of the upper hand that Zimmerman felt compelled to defend himself. It may be true that Martin was suspended from school 45 times for a host of offenses ranging from marijuana possession to breaking white boys’ noses for fun. Maybe they’ll find photos on Twitter or Facebook of Trayvon posing with an Uzi or an AK. Those are all matters that have been speculated about in recent weeks with little factual support to bolster these theories. But what is definitively true, what is factually undeniable, is that Trayvon had broken no laws when he passed Zimmerman’s house that day. In 21st century America, being black was still enough to suggest criminally deviant behavior.
In spite of the nation being lead by a black man for the first time in its history, the circumstances surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death shows that there are still many places in this society where blacks are made to feel foreign. Made to feel like refugees if you will. This in a country that our ancestors have called home a lot longer than many of the sons of Irish, Italian, Polish and German immigrants who sojourned to America of their own free will much more recently. Zimmerman would have been well within his rights to feel suspicious at the sight of any actual wrongdoing, but that wasn’t the case with Trayvon. Being black in and of itself was enough to elicit suspicion. Most black people weren’t dumb enough to believe that Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency meant that the nation had arrived in a post-racial America, but the psychology that made George Zimmerman view Trayvon Martin as a threat, as an outsider, shows that we have a long way to go to live up to the American creed of equality.
Trayvon Martin’s death illustrated, for all to see, the extra burden that black men are forced to carry on their shoulders each day when leaving out their door. This burden has been our constant companion since first arriving in North Americain 1526. Through big and small ways, we have constantly had to jump through extra hoops to justify our existence in this society in a manner that other races and ethnicities have not consistently had demanded of them. Although pass laws, which required freed slaves to carry papers with them at all times to allow them to travel freely have been outlawed for over a century, this process is still implicit for many black people in America as there are many places in this country where we continue not to be made to feel welcome and know implicitly not to go because it may put us in harm’s way. My parents warned me of the perils of going into Bridgeport or risk befalling the same fate as 13-year-old Lenard Clark who suffered permanent brain damage in 1998 for the crime of riding his bike while black in a white neighborhood. Clark got off easy, however, in comparison to 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins who lost his life nearly a decade earlier in 1989 when he had the misfortune of venturing into New York’s predominantly white Bensonhurst neighborhood. Trayvon Martin was a reminder to us all that we have not yet removed all the social restrictions on black men in this society. In fact, perhaps they have even gotten worse on some level. Yusef Hawkins and Lenard Clark were murdered far away from neighborhoods that they called home. Trayvon Martin had his life taken from him and all he was doing was his best to try and get home.
Though I’m not quite sure I can classify myself as a young black male any longer with 40 lurking there in the horizon, I am well acquainted with the suspicion that arose towards Trayvon that day. I just haven’t lost my life over it yet. But Trayvon Martin reminds me that like thousands of unnamed, faceless black men before him, I certainly shouldn’t let down my guard anytime soon. Not so long as maniacs such as George Zimmerman seem downright obsessed to see faces like mine in between their crosshairs.
Zimmerman is not alone though. Much racial progress has been made in America, no question about it. But there are millions of George Zimmermans that are produced in this atmosphere of fear where the young black male has often been ushered out for political benefit. Our street cred as menacing vigilantes had just gone down a bit in recent years as white America was busy being scared of our brown-skin Middle Eastern and Asian brothers. But far too much has been invested in creating the black bogeyman over the past 400 years to allow it to fade from our collective subconscious altogether.
And make no mistake, this fear of a black male is part of our collective subconscious as a nation and is not just part of the psychological baggage of white people. The exaggerated image of the hyper-violent, urban black male has made it where most black people have been trained to fear, distrust and disdain young black men. Yep, even among our own, black men are often viewed as threatening bottle kegs containing potential for random, impulsive violence. And make no mistake, there are plenty of black men who are engaging in some of the most senseless and brutal violent acts this side of Joseph Kony. But considering the warzones that have been strategically created for many black men throughout the nation, the marvel is that there are so many more Trayvon Martin’s than otherwise that don’t neatly fit into the super thug persona that many imagine when they see a young black man. And make no mistake it is our black skin that is seen as threatening, not our fashion statements. Particularly when you consider that nowadays there is not much of a line between the fashion tastes of young black males and young white males.
Morons like Geraldo Rivera attempted to take the onus away from a racist, white supremacist society that has been slow to live up to its own standards, suggesting instead that the responsibility lies with the black community to dress in a manner that is less threatening to whites. This type of bait and switch has gone on for generations but this time it was largely unsuccessful in a media age where alternative voices are numerous enough to shout out fringe elements like Geraldo. But while Rivera certainly warranted every bit of hate mail that he received for such an ignorant comment, the truth is that Rivera is far from alone in sharing such an outdated notion of judging people by their outside appearance.
Or at least young black men. Black men are far from the only ones in this society who make fashion statements that deviate from mainstream norms, but only our fashion statements are linked to criminality.
Everyone from God-fearing grandmothers to the lame, metrosexual, pussified Miami Heat made strong symbolic statements by posing in photos wearing hoodies in an attempt to reject the notion that you can profile someone’s character and behavior by observing their choice in fashion. If nothing else comes from Trayvon’s untimely death, I hope that this is a lesson that we can keep in mind long after this case fades from the public eye, which won’t be anytime soon as the extended legal proceedings figure to be scrutinized even more than the OJ case. But along the way, I hope that Trayvon causes us as a society to take a second look at how we judge one another by something as capricious as what you’re wearing.
This is not to suggest that appearance doesn’t matter. It does. And it does tell you a lot about a person. It just doesn’t tell you everything. And it certainly doesn’t tell you whether or not someone is a criminal. For all the hype, the reality is that the biggest thugs in this country have always worn suits every day and still do. This has been the case whether or not they’re Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff or George W. Bush. I, for one, found George W. Bush far scarier than some 17-year-old kid wearing his pants off his ass. That man still gives me nightmares.
There are many days, both in my professional and social life, where I have been dressed in a manner that is similar to how Trayvon was when he breathed his last breaths. While I come before my students most days wearing a shirt and tie, this costume certainly doesn’t give me any Superman like qualities, enabling me to perform my job more effectively. And it shouldn’t warrant me receiving any different treatment if I choose to come to class some days rocking an Illanoyze t-shirt , some baggy jeans and my Cubs hat to the back. But it does subject me to rolls of the eyes sometimes from some of my black colleagues who routinely show up for work 30 minutes late, skip their office hours and are routinely unprepared for their classes.
Unlike baseball or hockey, however, my uniform in this context has no bearing on how well I execute the duties of my job. And rocking a baseball hat or hoody certainly doesn’t instantly transform me into a criminal. In my experience I have had a lot more difficult time convincing my black colleagues this than my white ones. And that’s regrettable. I hope that whiteAmericacan emerge from this tragedy, more enlightened. But I hope that black people do too.
For as long as I can remember I’ve heard that America is a place that doesn’t judge you based on your exterior. It’s a person’s character and behavior that takes priority in the land of the free, home of the brave. We’re different from Cuba, or North Korea or Iran according to this mythology. But as Trayvon Martin takes his permanent sleep it seems clear that Martin King’s dream of having people judged by the content of their character remains a dream deferred.
Prior to the 1960s blacks were shut out of virtually every aspect of American life. There was strong encouragement by Civil Rights leaders for blacks to conform to mainstream expectations and standards in our dialect, in our values and in our fashion. As an ardent student of politics, I understand this strategy. Sincerely. The white establishment had shut blacks out from opportunity for things that are far more petty than whether or not our ties were crooked. So why give people another reason to ostracize us by not conforming to mainstream fashion expectations? After all, even the most militant of us have to conform on some level. And this militant isn’t so different.
When black America began making more vocal demands for equality in the 1960s, what many in white America heard was black retaliation. In order to win over the white majority that was so critical to the Civil Rights leaders’ aims it was vital to alleviate the fears of some white liberals and moderates. MLK had to show white America that their fellow black citizens were not as different, foreign and scary as they had been lead to believe. After two centuries of being the victims of kidnappings, lynchings and systemic rape it was necessary for the black community to bear one more cross by making white America feel comfortable. One of the ways that this was done was by adorning the uniform of the civilized man, a suit and a tie.
This nation has not produced a more peace-loving man than Martin Luther King, Jr, and yet many in America feared the change that he represented. They feared what he symbolized: an end to white privilege in America. King’s ideals, words and deeds were quintessentially American but this was not enough to overcome the hatred that his black skin inspired. The suits that Martin Luther King wore on a regular basis did nothing to gain him acceptance from large segments of this society, a far larger segment than we romanticize in hindsight. Nor did any of those suits magically repel the bullet that his FBI-sponsored assassin launched into right cheek in April of 1968.
Dressing, talking and thinking like white people hasn’t allowed us to be more accepted by America. The president of the United States has adopted all of the American values and his family is a living testament to those values. Still in spite of rocking some of the most finely tailored suits in the world, he is still not accepted by many. Not only is he not accepted as the rightfully elected president, but is not even accepted as a citizen.
We’ve tried to gain acceptance on America’s terms and it has lead to our brothers and sisters being killed in the street. At least the ones that the criminal justice system hasn’t already ensnared. Perhaps it is time to begin to demand that we are accepted on our own terms rather than those of the dominant culture.
The America that I want to live in, the America that Dr. King gave his life for, is an America where the differences between us are not only tolerated but embraced and celebrated. Such a society would not allow Trayvon Martin to be viewed as a threat or an outsider because of what he was wearing. And in spite of whatever both Geraldo and my well-meaning student may think, Trayvon was viewed as a threat far more because of the skin he was wearing than his clothing.
Any black person who has worn this skin for longer than five minutes anywhere in this world knows this feeling. It is daily psychological warfare to have to deal with all the assumptions that people make about us because of our skin color. But this burden is one that does not figure to be lifted from us anytime soon. This is a nation that was founded on the principles of white supremacy so that dog doesn’t figure to stop hunting in your lifetime or your children’s. I am more optimistic that we can use this “teachable moment” to learn to look a little bit more deeply at our fellow man, past what they may or may not have covering their back. The easiest place for this to happen is within the black community because so many of us have experienced first hand what it’s like to be judged by people who don’t know the first thing about us. Trayvon truly would have died in vain if we don’t work as a nation to eradicate the simplified stereotypes that associate hoodies with hooliganism.
Peace and God bless,