In the wake of the Trayvon Martin trial/George Zimmerman verdict — I say it this way because in many ways it was really Trayvon who was on trial, but Zimmerman who received the ‘not guilty’ verdict — there has been a quote floating around from W.E.B. DuBois that “a system can’t fail those it wasn’t meant to protect.” But this forces us to turn to the question which system are we talking about? I think that few would argue that the criminal justice system systematically precludes outcomes of justice for blacks in the United States. The perpetual disenfranchisement of blacks is evidence of their exclusion from the political system in this country. However, the system of racial oppression which is alive and well within the United States is inclusive of, if not wholly dependent upon the participation of blacks.
However, reactions to the trial/verdict embodied in DuBois’ quote inspired me to explore a number of other senseless and troubling reactions in the wake of the trial/verdict, such as the predictions of mass riots and violence towards whites. Here are my top 5 most troubling, confusing, and (at times) off-the-mark responses to the Trayvon Martin Trial.
1. Black people need to do better.
If racial oppression were a tangible system, this kind of response would be emanating from the center like the ripples created by a fresh drop into still water. Recently Touré tweeted “to the right, Black people’s biggest problem is Black people.” However, it is from within the elusive ‘Black community’ that people continue to put forward narratives such as “black people need to do better.” These narratives often carry the message miscarriages of justice such as this one will continue until we stop black-on-black crime, as well as other similar sentiments.
Just the other day Bill O’Reilly invoked the spirit of Daniel P. Moynihan and blamed the “disintegration of the African-American family” for the ills of black neighborhoods. CNN anchor Don Lemon took this and ran with it to give a list of recommendations that should have been titled “The 5 Most Irrelevant and Useless Pieces of Advice that Will Not Change a Thing in Black Communities.”
Let me be clear: it is NOT the fault of black people (either as a ‘community’ or in their individual capacity) does not respect and value black life. Before the rise of gangs and the ‘epidemic’ of black-on-black crime, black life was devalued (read: slavery, Jim Crow, etc.). While crime in black neighborhoods is a pressing issue that needs to be address, it is inconsequential to the deep-seeded issue of racial oppression. The history of race relations in the United States has occurred along a continuum, not in a vacuum; you cannot just reset the clock and choose where to start the ‘equality’ clock (although people love to set this clock to 1968 while simultaneously adjusting the end of slavery to ‘400 years ago’). Proposing that blacks should not internalize society’s disdain for them and bear the burden of changing how (white) society views them is ahistorical and, frankly, illogical.
2. It’s not about race because George Zimmerman is “Hispanic.”
I am confused as to the relevance of this assertion and how it goes to ‘prove’ that Blacks are being ‘hypersensitive’ in playing the ‘race card.’ Zimmerman’s mother is Peruvian; this is a fact. But what does this have to do with anything? That Zimmerman couldn’t have profiled, stalked, attacked, and killed Trayvon based on his skin color because Zimmerman himself is a ‘minority’ is a nonsequitur. This line of reasoning relies on the (very) flawed assumption that Hispanics (and possibly other minorities) cannot be racist. This is false. ‘Minority’ status does not give someone immunity from being racist, as it if were a disease they just cannot contract. Even if one subscribes to the faulty logic that Zimmerman cannot be racist (used as a noun), are we to also conclude that he cannot do racist acts (used as an adjective) either? Of course this assumption – and it’s attendant conclusion – is absurd.
3. You can’t prove that George Zimmerman is a racist.
What in the world does this have to do with anything? (Yes, Bill Cosby, I’m talking to you!) Even if this statement were a tad bit relevant, which it is not, why would this have to be proven? What would proving this prove? Although I should just refer subscribers to this line of reasoning to point 2 (above), I will reiterate. Could Zimmerman not have profiled and killed Trayvon (which he did) without being “a racist”? While proving someone is “a racist” may require the use of objective criteria, this does not have much to do which whether or not Zimmerman (as the aggressor) was entitled to claim self-defense in his killing of Trayvon.
4. Any and all comparisons to OJ.
Again, relevance? Is Trayvon now somehow vicariously responsible for the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Brown, too? The facts of the case are different, the jurisdiction and therefore the applicable law are different, and the implications on society are different. Paul Thornton very adequately discussed the silliness of this comparison in his article for the LA Times. While OJ’s acquittal may have given the impression that we live in a ‘post-racial’ society where a defendant’s skin color may not always be a sign of his guilt (especially important given that the victims were white). This case sends a different message entirely. The acquittal of Zimmerman says that black life is cheap. It says that it is okay to be the aggressor and kill an innocent black teenager because you are afraid; it affirms that black men are, by definition, threatening. It says that as a threatening black man it is not okay to stand your ground.
(Even though this point is about OJ, I did want to address the (more salient) comparisons that have been made to Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to ward off her attacker. While Time contributor Adam Cohen went to great lengths to point out that the injustice in Alexander’s case is more about inflexible sentencing, it misses the mark in that a broader and more relevant question to be asked is, “Who is entitled to claim self-defense, and under what circumstances?” The answer to this question may have different practical answers that vary along racial lines.
5. Ted Nugent.
This guy. (Or if I were Elon James White, of ThisWeekinBlackness.com I might even say #TMFRH.) Even though this comment did not specifically refer to the trial/verdict, it is something that arose in the wake of the conversations on race relations and the state of ‘black America’ sparked by the trial. I could probably write “Ted Nugent. Enough said,” and leave it at that, but let me just address two of his many disturbing statements made during an interview with — of all people — Nick Cannon. First off, you can have a black bass player in your band and pay tribute to black musicians and still be both racist and a racist; “entertainer” has long been established as an acceptable role for blacks to play. If you must assert that you are “anti-racist” by offering superficial evidence such as liking “black music”… sir, it is very likely that you might, in fact, be racist, or at the very least, have racist tendencies.
Now after declaring his “anti-racist” status, he continues to assert that blacks should be profiled in similar ways to various breeds of dogs. WHAT? In case all of the ways in which this is wrong is not clear, let me lay it out. Any comparison of people, especially blacks and other minorities, to animals, given the history of such comparisons in proving inferiority, is largely a “no-no.” Furthermore, his analogy just doesn’t make much sense. He then moves on to say that Trayvon wasn’t “raised properly” for not walking up to Zimmerman and saying “hey man, why are you following me?” *sigh* On a positive note, I was impressed by the poise demonstrated by Nick Cannon in taking Nugent’s comments and providing larger context and a starkly different perspective.
by Portia Allen-Kyle