by Guest Contributor Hari Stephen Kumar, originally published at Kinetic Now
Shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted, a friend said that “these are dark times in America.” To which I said, “No, these are white times in America, as always.”
In the month since the Zimmerman acquittal, the mainstream conversation about the case has morphed into a personal verdict on Trayvon’s behavior and a cultural indictment on black people more broadly. When even the President of the United States, a black man, begins his heartfelt statement on the issue by saying that he wants to address “the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling,” you already know that in the public imagination the case of Florida v. Zimmerman has become instead a Trial of Trayvon.
And when the President ends his speech by asking the American people to ask ourselves, echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” you cannot help but reflect on all the ways that it was indeed Trayvon’s character that was judged and assassinated in both the legal courtroom and in the court of public opinion.
For many, this is one of the strangest things about the case: why did the trial’s focus shift to Trayvon instead of Zimmerman? After the verdict, why has the so-called “national conversation on race” become so fixated on “problems” with “black culture”? Why did the acquittal give license to commentators from across the racial and political spectrum to speak so bluntly in blaming black people for Trayvon’s death? How do we make sense of the ugly racial rhetoric coming from white commentators like Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and NRA board member Ted Nugent who are so quick to condemn the character of “the black community”? Why do their talking points get repeated across online comments and in personal conversations?
And why do so many such conversations begin with “I’m not racist but …”?
I mean, there’s even a satirical app called iNotRacist which allows anxious white people to demonstrate their level of non-racism by surrounding themselves with tokens of minority cultures:
In summary, here are five keys that explain how mainstream conversations and perceptions about race in America contribute to a broader history of racial injustice:
- Key #1: Practice racism without being racist
American racism is more of a color-blind cultural racism than a personal racism. This kind of racism allows people to believe cultural stereotypes about minority communities in general, without feeling like they are being personally racist against minority individuals.
- Key #2: Continue a long American tradition of condemning blackness (while confirming whiteness)
American cultural stereotypes linking blackness to criminality go back a long ways, to discriminatory social policies and Jim Crow laws instituted after the Civil War that condemned black people as a group based on biased crime statistics. Meanwhile, similar patterns of crime by white immigrant groups were instead humanized and individualized.
- Key #3: Use new Jim Crow methods to legally profile black/brown men with “reasonable suspicion”
Our current legal system enforces a new kind of Jim Crow policing and segregation in urban black/brown communities, while largely ignoring suburban white communities, through the court sanctioned use of de facto racial profiling and discriminatory sentencing in the War on Drugs. This results in a disproportionate suspicion of black/brown men.
- Key #4: Rely on whiteness to deny ‘neighborliness’ to black/brown neighbors
White privilege shapes the ways people interpret and suspect the actions of their non-white neighbors. This happens even if the person suspecting the neighbor is non-white, because whiteness is a system of beliefs that we are all immersed in, so you don’t have to be white in order to uphold the normalcy of whiteness.
- Key #5: Stand your (white) ground by supporting gun laws based on white supremacist talking points
Laws like Stand Your Ground (which, by the way, was absolutely part of the Zimmerman defense) reflect fears and paranoias that once were the domain of white supremacist groups but are now a part of mainstream NRA talking points that openly encourage violent white vigilantism as a “reasonable” response to suspicious behavior in “your” neighborhood.
These keys interconnect to explain how so many Americans believe and act upon a deeply entrenched set of cultural prejudices that make black/brown bodies automatically suspicious in everyday encounters, suspicious enough to justify an aggressive and even violent pre-emptive response. The next few pages explore each key in more depth, but there are also significant reasons for hope.
What we are seeing in the aftermath of the verdict is an opportunity for more coalitions across racial lines — especially an opportunity for more white people to start working with communities of color who have long been working hard on these issues. Indeed, many of the keys above are probably no surprise at all to people who are intimately familiar with the continued work of anti-racism and civil rights. But they do provide a way to understand and engage what sometimes seems to be an overwhelming backlash by a conservative white majority. Thus, many of my own reasons for hope, as a brown immigrant American, are in seeing an increased number of white communities critically engaging their own privileges in productive ways.
Key #1: Racism Without Racists … Is Still Racist!
To truly engage in a meaningful conversation about race in America today, we urgently need to understand how racism happens without self-professed racists. We have to understand how someone can fervently say “I am not a racist,” but still engage in racist behavior and beliefs. We have to understand how even non-white people can hold racist beliefs that at their core uphold white supremacy. We have to understand how having “black friends” or being “part-black” doesn’t make any of us immune to the influence of a pervasive cultural racism in America.
In “Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva traces four key frames that people use when perpetuating racism in everyday life:
- Abstract liberalism is when people express ideas of economic or political liberalism, such as equality and freedom of individual choice and personal responsibility, in an abstract way to oppose or deny the realities of racial inequality and oppression.
For example, people will oppose affirmative-action policies as a matter of abstract principle, because they think that such policies are somehow unequal and unfair and a kind of “reverse racism.” Such a belief dismisses the realities of racial inequality, choosing instead to borrow the language of equal opportunity to claim an imaginary “level playing field” for white people.
Disturbingly, white supremacist movements also use this same logic to claim that they are not being racists but instead are simply fighting for “equal rights for the White race.”
- Naturalization of racial differences is when people dismiss racial issues as “natural” human behavior.
For example, people can claim that racial stereotyping is just a “normal” thing that happens in any society where one group is in an overwhelming majority, and thus it’s just “how things are.” This is also key to why white people will sometimes describe an experience where they were in the minority and felt like an outsider, and generalize from that experience to claim that it is simply natural for outsiders to feel singled out in any society (thus ignoring the realities of systematic institutional racism). Or, people can claim that racial segregation is not a sign of discriminatory housing policies but rather just a natural tendency for people to live close to others of “their own race.”
By making racism seem “natural,” any attempt to address racism thus gets dismissed as being a waste of time and money.
- Minimization of racist discrimination is when people believe that overt acts of racial discrimination either don’t happen anymore or are so rare that they don’t affect minorities very much.
This belief allows people to assume two separate things: (1) to adopt an all-or-nothing definition of racism, where racism is restricted to a purely individual act involving absolute violent hatred of minorities; and (2) dismiss any instance where people of color experience anything less than outright violent bigotry as simply “playing the race card.”
Such a view means that people will often respond to any critique of cultural racism or institutional discrimination or systematic inequality or even actual bigoted encounters with either “it’s not as bad as it used to be” or “that has nothing to do with race, you’re the one bringing up race.” People will also dismiss outright any historical analysis of racism, saying things like “slavery ended 150 years ago, get over it,” as if long-standing patterns of racism simply disappeared overnight with the passing of a law. In combination with abstract liberalism, this also means people will dismiss critiques of “white-on-black” crime by often bringing up instances of “black-on-white” crime as a way of abstractly equating the two without considering deeper contexts.
This is also a key factor in how people defend themselves from any involvement in racist practice: they will often say “I’m not a racist” and proceed to provide examples such as “I have black friends” or “I am part Hispanic” and so on, to demonstrate that since they clearly are not absolute and extreme racists then they cannot be racist at all.
- Cultural racism is when people believe a prejudiced cultural story about a minority group to explain that group’s behavior while allowing for individual exceptions. Bonilla-Silva highlights this frame as the key shift from the more biological-based racism of Jim Crow to a culture-based racism that is “as effective in maintaining the racial status quo” (25).
For example, instead of believing that every black male is a criminal, or that every Muslim is a terrorist, cultural racism allows people to believe just-as-racist myths that most black males are criminals or that most Muslims are terrorists. Then they can say that of course they don’t judge all black males, that they are perfectly willing to recognize that some black men may indeed be law-abiding citizens, that they may even have the one or two black friends who are “good guys,” and hence they are not being racists.
Cultural racism also means that people can judge an entire minority culture as morally inferior rather than just judging minority individuals to be genetically inferior. So for example cultural racism allows people to believe that “black culture” is to blame for all kinds of “problems” that black people have to deal with, and that their few black friends who are “good guys” are the exceptions that prove that individual black people can indeed “transcend” the challenges of “black culture.” Thus cultural racism reinforces a kind of white supremacy, where black/brown cultural values are considered inferior to cultural values held as morally supreme by white people (values that white people themselves tend to fail on a regular basis).
These frames shape the beliefs and storylines that even non-white people adopt when perpetuating racism while claiming staunchly that they are not individually racists. To really understand our contemporary conversation on race, we must recognize that these ideas are not exclusive to white people: these frameworks inform a broad cultural pattern that a variety of people across color and class and gender pick up and repeat. This broader cultural pattern is a process of whiteness, which is a system that assumes the best of character traits for white people while suspecting the character of non-white people.
This broader process explains why Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, can profile, suspect, pursue, confront, threaten, eventually kill an unarmed black teenager and then have a broad range of people claim in his defense, variously, that he’s not a racist because he has black friends, that he’s Hispanic and not white (therefore this cannot be a “white on black” crime), that he didn’t engage in racial profiling (only regular ‘profiling’), and most absurdly that HE was the one threatened by Trayvon’s allegedly aggressive male blackness. In those storylines we can see how a “racism without racists” connects powerfully with a long-existent cultural racism against black males, where a dominant cultural narrative about young black men assumes and condemns the content of their character outright.
Key #2: A Long American Tradition Of Condemning Blackness (While Confirming Whiteness)
We are prone to judge ourselves by our best traits and strangers by their worst. In the case of the Negro, stranger in our midst, all beliefs prejudicial to him aid in intensifying the feeling of racial antipathy engendered by his color and his social status. The colored criminal does not as a rule enjoy the racial anonymity which cloaks the offenses of individuals of the white race. The press is almost certain to brand him, and the more revolting his crime proves to be the more likely it is that his race will be advertised. In setting the hall-mark of his color upon him, his individuality is in a sense submerged, and instead of a mere thief, robber, or murderer, he becomes a representative of his race, which in its turn is made to suffer for his sins.
The above was written in 1928, by white criminologist Thorsten Sellin, but it eerily echoes how American popular culture portrays black crime today. The quote is from Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s book “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.” Muhammad explains how the period between 1890 to 1940 in America was dominated by narratives of black inferiority, especially of black criminality, that led to the establishment of Jim Crow laws. A key strategy during that period was the use of racial crime statistics, which by 1890 were already aggressively biased to disproportionately feature African Americans in prisons. As Muhammad describes, starting with census data from 1890:
New statistical and racial identities forged out of raw census data showed that African Americans, as 12 percent of the population, made up 30 percent of the nation’s prison population. Although specially designed race-conscious laws, discriminatory punishments, and new forms of everyday racial surveillance had been institutionalized by the 1890s as a way to suppress black freedom, white social scientists presented the new crime data as objective, color-blind, and incontrovertible. Neither the dark color of southern chain gangs nor the pale hue of northern police mattered to the truth of black crime statistics. From this moment forward, notions about blacks as criminals materialized in national debates about the fundamental racial and cultural differences between African Americans and native-born whites and European immigrants.
For white Americans of every ideological stripe—from radical southern racists to northern progressives—African American criminality became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public safety.
Meanwhile, during the same timeframe similar crime patterns by European immigrants and working-class whites were either discounted or humanized by white sociologists. As Muhammad explains: “… crime itself was not the core issue. Rather, the problem was racial criminalization: the stigmatization of crime as “black” and the masking of crime among whites as individual failure” (3). So began a long process of humanizing and individualizing white criminal violence, so that patterns of violence by white males would be seen as purely individual failures and never associated with any broader scrutiny of white masculinity or white culture itself. However, crime statistics regarding black males were aggressively studied and circulated as sensational stories that portrayed black masculinity as inherently violent and dangerous, often with white women portrayed as their vulnerable victims (so black men were framed as more of a threat to white masculinity).
Thus, in an echo of current media commentary, stories about black crime in the 1890s became more powerful and ingrained than stories about white crime as a way of casting suspicion on the entire “black community” by commentators who claimed they were simply observing statistics. And that pattern persists today since, as Muhammad describes: “In all manner of conversations about race—from debates about parenting to education to urban life—black crime statistics are ubiquitous. By the same token, white crime statistics are virtually invisible, except when used to dramatize the excessive criminality of African Americans.”
Key #3: The New Jim Crow System Of Legally Profiling Black/Brown Men With “Reasonable Suspicion”
So what are the current consequences of cultural stereotypes that assume black/brown men to be criminals? In her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander outlines how the American criminal justice system since the 1960s has created a racial caste structure through enforced de facto racial profiling, aggressive surveillance, and discriminatory sentencing of black/brown men. Much of these racial laws and policies were implemented during the controversial beginnings of Reagan’s War on Drugs in the 1980s. And that War was almost exclusively focused on low-income urban communities of color instead of white communities. As Alexander describes:
From the outset, the drug war could have been waged primarily in overwhelmingly white suburbs or on college campuses. SWAT teams could have rappelled from helicopters in gated suburban communities and raided the homes of high school lacrosse players known for hosting coke and ecstasy parties after their games. The police could have seized televisions, furniture, and cash from fraternity houses based on an anonymous tip that a few joints or a stash of cocaine could be found hidden in someone’s dresser drawer. Suburban homemakers could have been placed under surveillance and subjected to undercover operations designed to catch them violating laws regulating the use and sale of prescription “uppers.” All of this could have happened as a matter of routine in white communities, but it did not.
Instead, when police go looking for drugs, they look in the ‘hood. Tactics that would be political suicide in an upscale white suburb are not even newsworthy in poor black and brown communities. […] The hypersegregation of the black poor in ghetto communities has made the roundup easy. Confined to ghetto areas and lacking political power, the black poor are convenient targets.
The War on Drugs relies extensively on racially-biased profiling by police. However, there is a difference in the American legal system between “racial profiling,” or arrests made solely on the basis of race, versus using race as one factor among many in the use of police discretion in decision-making. While “racial profiling” itself is illegal, Michelle Alexander points out that “the Supreme Court has indicated that in policing, racecan be used as a factor in discretionary decision making” by police officers. This opens the door for police departments to justify racially-biased policing because, as Alexander describes:
… police departments believe that racial profiling exists only when race is the sole factor. Thus, if race is one factor but not the only factor, then it doesn’t really count as a factor at all. […] A young black male wearing baggy pants, standing in front of his high school surrounded by a group of similarly dressed black friends, may be stopped and searched because police believe he “looks like” a drug dealer. The problem is that although race is rarely the sole reason for a stop or search, it is frequently a determinative reason. A young white male wearing baggy pants, standing in front of his high school and surrounded by his friends, might well be ignored by police officers. It might never occur to them that a group of young white kids might be dealing dope in front of their high school. Similarly situated people inevitably are treated differently when police are granted permission to rely on racial stereotypes when making discretionary decisions.
So how do such racially-biased policies play out in practice? A 2002 study by researchers at the University of Washington focused on arrest patterns in the Seattle Police Department when it came to drug-related policing. As Alexander summarizes:
The authors found that it was untrue stereotypes about crack markets, crack dealers, and crack babies—not facts—that were driving discretionary decision making by the Seattle Police Department. The facts were as follows: Seattle residents were far more likely to report suspected narcotics activities in residences—not outdoors—but police devoted their resources to open-air drug markets and to the one precinct that was least likely to be identified as the site of suspected drug activity in citizen complaints. In fact, although hundreds of outdoor drug transactions were recorded in predominantly white areas of Seattle, police concentrated their drug enforcement efforts in one downtown drug market where the frequency of drug transactions was much lower. In racially mixed open-air drug markets, black dealers were far more likely to be arrested than whites, even though white dealers were present and visible. And the department focused overwhelmingly on crack—the one drug in Seattle more likely to be sold by African Americans—despite the fact that local hospital records indicated that overdose deaths involving heroin were more numerous than all overdose deaths for crack and powder cocaine combined. Local police acknowledged that no significant level of violence was associated with crack in Seattle and that other drugs were causing more hospitalizations, but steadfastly maintained that their deployment decisions were nondiscriminatory.
The study’s authors concluded, based on their review and analysis of the empirical evidence, that the Seattle Police Department’s decisions to focus so heavily on crack, to the near exclusion of other drugs, and to concentrate its efforts on outdoor drug markets in downtown areas rather than drug markets located indoors or in predominantly white communities, reflect “a racialized conception of the drug problem.”
This racialized cultural script about who and what constitutes the drug problem renders illegal drug activity by whites invisible. “White people,” the study’s authors observed, “are simply not perceived as drug offenders by Seattle police officers.”
Similarly, federal data shows that in 2010, “blacks were 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites […] even though they used marijuana at similar rates,” prompting sociologist Lisa Wade to ask “It’s a war on what again?”
Disproportionate arrests of black/brown men due to racial profiling then leads into discriminatory patterns of sentencing and policing. As Alexander says:
Subjecting people to stops and searches because they live in “high crime” ghettos cannot be said to be truly race-neutral, given that the ghetto itself was constructed to contain and control groups of people defined by race. A black kid arrested twice for possession of marijuana may be no more of a repeat offender than a white frat boy who regularly smokes pot in his dorm room. But because of his race and his confinement to a racially segregated ghetto, the black kid has a criminal record, while the white frat boy, because of his race and relative privilege, does not.
The War on Drugs also relies in a massive number of stops and searches but with shockingly small results. Alexander reports that “one study found that up to 99 percent of traffic stops made by federally funded narcotics task forces result in no citation.” But the 1 percent of stops and searches that DO result in a citation, especially for black/brown men from poor neighborhoods, leads to a “parade of guilty people” in the courts that makes it look like drug crimes are primarily committed by black/brown men. And this appearance convinces judges that when police make arrests, they are acting on some magical ‘hunch’ that turns out to be right—even if the facts don’t bear out—so the courts explicitly authorize the use of ‘profiles’ in policing.
Alexander studied the patterns in such profiles of ‘drug-couriers’ used by law enforcement as the pretext for stopping suspected individuals. She found them to be a collection of unreliable contradictions:
The profile can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants,” acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on. Even striving to obey the law fits the profile! The Florida Highway Patrol Drug Courier Profile cautioned troopers to be suspicious of “scrupulous obedience to traffic laws.”
Taken together, this pattern of criminalization and suspicion of young black/brown men in the context of the War on Drugs explains much of the Zimmerman defense team’s strategy. By evoking Trayvon’s alleged drug use (the trace amounts of marijuana in his blood) and parading pictures of him shirtless, and by repeatedly insinuating that Trayvon was some kind of thug, the defense successfully connected the jury to a deeply entrenched pattern of suspecting young black men of being drug criminals. And the defense team was at pains to point out that there was noracial profiling, just regular profiling apparently, where Trayvon’s race was simply one factor among many that fit into a profile of suspected criminality. And just like the arbitrariness of drug-courier profiles as described above, the Zimmerman defense team’s profiling of Trayvon also involved numerous contradictory and unreliable indicators: he was suspicious because he walked too slowly! As commentator Charles Blow poignantly asked in a question that haunts me everyday about my own brown son:
We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?
Key #4: Whiteness and the White Privilege of ‘Neighborliness’
If you know—
as a black American must know,
discovers at his mother’s breast,
and then in the eyes of his father
—that the world which calls itself “white”
and which has the further, unspeakable cowardice
of calling itself “free”
—if you will dare imagine that I,
speaking now as a black witness to the white condition,
see you in a way that you cannot afford
to see me,
if you can see that the invention
of the black condition creates the trap
of the white identity
you will see that what a black man knows
about a white man stems, inexorably,
from the white man’s description of who
and what, he takes to to be the other—
in this case, the black cat: me.
~ James Baldwin, 1979.
One of the main reasons why the killing of Trayvon attracted national attention is the nature of his relationship to the neighborhood where he was murdered: he belonged there, he was Zimmerman’s neighbor, and yet he was suspected of being a criminal outsider. While unarmed black menget profiled and shot and killed pretty much everyday in poor ‘high-crime’ neighborhoods all across America, the difference here was that Trayvon was killed in a predominantly middle-class neighborhood where he actually belonged.
What does Trayvon’s killing say about the privileged assumptions people make about who they consider to be a ‘neighbor’? What led Zimmerman and the predominately white jury to never consider the possibility that a young black kid like Trayvon, especially in a diverse gated community, might actually be a neighbor? As an anonymous commentator posted online: “I hope for a world where Zimmerman offers Trayvon a ride home to get out of the rain.” What stopped Zimmerman from considering such ‘neighborliness’ when seeing Trayvon walking home in the rain from the store?
There are any number of incidents where black/brown residents of middle-class predominately white neighborhoods experience the shock of being suspected to be strangers by their own neighbors or by police who stop them “randomly” to ask if they are somehow lost. Here are just a few that attracted news attention:
- In 2009 it was a neighbor who called the police upon seeing Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., attempting to enter his own home with the assistance of a black cab driver.
- In 2012 a white 76-year-old Milwaukee man, John Henry Spooner, accused and then killed his unarmed black 13-year-old neighbor Darius Simmons on suspicion that Simmons had stolen Spooner’s guns. When police arrived, they searched Simmons’ home to make sure he hadn’t actually stolen the guns, which raises the question of why a 13-year-old black kid is still a suspect even after being shot dead while unarmed and on the sidewalk outside his own home.
- In 2013 it was a neighbor who called the police on 60-year-old Roy Middleton in Sarasota, Florida, who was searching his mother’s car for a loose cigarette. When he turned around too rapidly in surprise at being challenged (in his own driveway), the police shot him with a fusillade of bullets.
These everyday experiences show that there is a privilege of whiteness associated with who gets to be assumed to be a ‘neighbor’ especially in a middle-class neighborhood. White anti-racist author and scholar Tim Wise explains the concepts of whiteness and white privilege in his book “White Like Me” (and also his upcoming movie). Wise describes the reality of race for white people as follows:
We are all experiencing race, because from the beginning of our lives we have been living in a racialized society, where the color of our skin means something socially, even while it remains largely a matter of biological and genetic irrelevance. Race may be a scientific fiction […] but it is a social fact that none of us can escape no matter how much or how little we may speak of it. [By] “whites” or “white folks,” I am referring to those persons, typically of European descent, who are able, by virtue of skin color or perhaps national origin and culture, to be perceived as “white,” as members of the dominant group.
The dominance of “white” as a racial category extends beyond just numerical majority. Rather, as Wise explains:
Whiteness is more about how you’re likely to be viewed and treated in a white supremacist society than it is about who you are, in any meaningful sense. This is why even some very light-skinned folks of color have been able to access white privilege over the years by passing as white or being misperceived as white, much to their benefit. […] To be white is to be born into an environment where one’s legitimacy is far less likely to be questioned than would be the legitimacy of a person of color, be it in terms of where one lives, where one works, or where one goes to school. […] To be white is to be free of the daily burden of constantly having to disprove negative stereotypes.
The privilege of whiteness does not operate alone but works in conjunction with numerous other systems of privilege and inequality. Wise describes the intersections thus:
We live not only in a racialized society, but also in a class system, a patriarchal system, and one of straight supremacy/heterosexism, able-bodied supremacy, and Christian hegemony. These other forms of privilege, and the oppression experienced by those who can’t manage to access them, mediate, but never fully eradicate, something like white privilege. So I realize that, socially rich whites are more powerful than poor ones, white men are more powerful than white women, able-bodied whites are more powerful than those with disabilities, and straight whites are more powerful than gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered whites.
Still, one of the ways whiteness works is to constantly reaffirm the assumed normalcy of “white” people by positioning “non-white” groups as somehow inferior or suspicious or strange. Whiteness seeks to become invisible, transparent, so that no negative stereotypes can be attached to “white” communities with any meaningful consequences to white people in everyday life. Rather, negative stereotypes of non-white communities serve to deflect attention away from white communities. When white people commit crimes, rarely will their race be reported as a part of media stories, and never will a pattern of white crime be linked to a serious accusation about white culture more broadly. Instead, white crime gets treated as instances of individual moral failure, as aberrations, rather than as something reflective of a possible deeper pathology in white communities.
For example, when Rolling Stone magazine had a selfie picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on their cover, commentator Joe Scarborough remarked on MSNBC that the magazine had effectively taken someone who was “our enemy” and made him look like “our next door neighbor.” Thus, even though the article referenced Tsarnaev’s “copious marijuana use,” there wasn’t much of an outcry to depict him as a drug criminal (unlike when Trayvon’s “trace amounts of marijuana” became grounds to depict him as a thug). This indicates a reality for most white people, reinforced by TV shows like Weeds: the use of recreational drugs by white people is simply taken as a given, shrugged off as harmless or even celebrated, while any hint of drug use by black/brown people is characterized as a moral failure of black/brown cultures more broadly.
Thus, white privilege means that black/brown residents of gated communities are more likely to NOT be assumed as “our neighbors” in police traffic stops and in neighborhood watch calls. There is instead an implicit assumption that a white stranger in those communities will simply be seen as naturally belonging there.
ey #5: The NRA, White Vigilantism, and Stand Your (White) Ground
… but not if you are black, apparently.
One of the persistent myths about the Zimmerman trial is the claim that Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws played no role in the case. This is untrue: while Zimmerman’s defense never brought up SYG during the actual trial, they successfully lobbied to have SYG encoded into the jury instructions. As criminal law professor Alafair Burke writes, the jury instructions in the Zimmerman trial had the following three components:
1) A defendant is “justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.” This means that Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin did not actually have to be necessary; Zimmerman simply had to have a reasonable belief that it was necessary. (This is typical of self-defense in other states.)
2) If Zimmerman “was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any palce where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed [as above].” This is part of the “stand your ground” aspect of Florida law, which does not require a person to exercise reasonably safe retreat options.
3) “If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty.” In some states, defendants have to prove by some level of certainty that they acted in self-defense. In Florida, the state has the burden to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.
Notice how these three parts fit together to Zimmerman’s advantage. Following someone — even if because of the most horrific racial stereotypes, even while armed, even after a police dispatcher warns one not to — is not unlawful. And if jurors had any reasonable doubt about whether Martin “attacked” Zimmerman — even if he did so out of fear of a strange older man who was following him for no legitimate reason — they were instructed to acquit.
So far these instructions track fairly accurately with the text of Florida’s SYG laws. However, the Florida law also has an important “initial aggressor” exception, where SYG does not apply to someone who initially provokes the use of force. Alafair Burke describes how the defense managed to convince the judge to leave out this key exception from the jury instructions over the objections of the prosecution:
The state asked the court to instruct the jury not only about the justification of self-defense, which favored Zimmerman in the ways described above, but also about its initial aggressor limitation. […] According to the state, the jury might have concluded that Zimmerman provoked any physical response from Martin by following him. If a jury could reasonably find an instruction applicable, the instruction should be given.
The defense objected to the initial aggressor instruction. […] As a factual matter, the defense argued that no evidence indicated that Zimmerman physically initiated the confrontation. As a legal matter, the defense relied on Gibbs v. State, a 2001 decision from the Fourth Division of the Florida Court of Appeals, which held that a defendant loses the right to self-defense as an initial aggressor only if he provokes the victim’s use of force through either force or “threat of force.”
As Burke explains, the judge eventually decided with the defense in dropping the initial aggressor instruction entirely from the jury instructions. This meant that the jury had no option to consider whether Zimmerman’s initial actions could have been interpreted by Trayvon as a “threat of force” that might have justified whatever stand Trayvon took in response. Burke goes into some length about why leaving out that jury instruction was a key mistake by the judge, but the broader conversation in national media about Stand Your Ground never picked up on this key omission. To understand why, we must take a look at how Stand Your Ground justifies a culture of aggressive white vigilantism as “reasonable” ways of approaching suspected criminals.
Stand Your Ground laws connect deeply with the National Rifle Association’s lobbying efforts in several states to promote armed resistance by citizens in encounters with criminals. The language in the NRA’s lobbying efforts also reflects a broader paranoia about armed self-defense in the face of specters of racialized violent thugs. Dissident Voice writer Martha Rosenberg traces the explicit racism in the NRA’s messaging, especially in a 2007 brochure titled “Freedom in Peril” produced by the NRA: “The 27-page, high budget brochure, leaked to the press in 2007, shows an Aryan nation under siege by African-Americans and ‘illegal alien gangs’ of darker peoples and homeowners defending themselves from Helter Skelter-like apocalypse by shooting from rooftops.” Such language mirrors the logic of white supremacist groups who also advocate for armed vigilante patrols by militias looking for “trouble” in the neighborhood. For example, the Ku Klux Klan chapter in Springfield, Missouri, recently distributed flyers announcing that it was starting up a neighborhood watch program to assure residents that “You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake!”
The NRA’s rhetoric has escalated recently, with their board members and leaders calling NRA supporters “fighters for freedom” and proclaiming that the NRA would wage a “culture war” in order to see their agenda succeed nationally. But here’s a thought experiment: would the NRA approve of such rhetoric if it were advocated by “dark skinned” or “Muslim” groups? For example, what if a large group of Muslim-Americans decided to hold a gun rights rally to recognize and celebrate their 2nd Amendment rights? Given that mosques in the US receive death threats from white Christian-supremacist organizations on a frequent basis, and given that most militant Christian supremacists are white males, what if Muslim-Americans decided they had a right to defend mosques by standing their ground with armed resistance against any suspected white male trespasser? When it comes to African Americans, would the NRA defend the rights of African Americans to stand their ground against threatening approaches by unidentified white men? As I have written on brofiling.com:
Indeed, the history of gun rights in America shows a stance by white leaders to systematically take away guns from minorities who were labeled as ‘militants’ if they took up arms as part of their struggle for civil rights. For example, the 2nd Amendment traces its roots partially to the demands of Southern states for Constitutional guarantees that the Federal government would not infringe on the rights of Southern white militias to arm themselves in order to suppress potential slave rebellions. Ironically, some gun rights supporters today claim that slaves would have been free if only they had been armed.
While the NRA’s main mission and messaging in the 1980s and 1990s promoted the use of guns for hunting and sportsmanship, since then their mission shifted to more explicit and ominous anti-government fear mongering that connect with right-wing politics. In fact, much of the NRA’scurrent talking points closely resemble the rhetoric and language used by white supremacist and white nationalist groups, once considered fringe and extreme in the 1990s but now repeated as mainstream right-wing rhetoric. The NRA’s heavily promoted vision for Stand Your Ground primarily assumes white homeowners and white citizens as the targets of non-white criminals.
Given such a backdrop for Stand Your Ground, and the cultural assumptions around who SYG was meant for, it is not surprising that Zimmerman’s actions would not be seen as those of an “initial aggressor,” and thus why the omission of the jury instruction did not raise much attention in media coverage of the trial. Indeed, the defense was then able to claim, atrociously, that even though Zimmerman was literally armed with a weapon it was actually Trayvon who was armed—with a sidewalk. Defense attorney Mark O’Mara infamously held up a slab of concrete in his closing statement to the jury, illustrating how Trayvon could use the sidewalk as a dangerous weapon to pummel Zimmerman’s head, making the sidewalk in Trayvon’s hands more threatening to Zimmerman than Zimmerman’s actual loaded gun was to Trayvon.
That such an absurd argument has since gained traction in public sentiment proves the depth of white paranoia when it comes to armed vigilante violence against black/brown men. It shows that if you are a black or brown man, Stand Your Ground doesn’t apply to you because the very ground you are standing on will be yanked out from under your feet and held up by a white lawyer who will convince a white jury that you deserve to be shot dead for posing such a threat to white society.
Three Reasons For Hope
These five keys paint a bleak picture to explain the reality of racial injustice in America, a reality that legally achieves the goals of white supremacy without the embarrassment of actual white supremacists running around burning crosses. As Eugene Robinson famously wrote, when describing the realities of endless suspicion and incarceration of young black men, “I call this racism. What would you call it?”
Still, there are some reasons for hope for me as a brown American. While communities of color have long known and experienced these realities in America, what is encouraging to me now is that there seems to be a growing movement among white communities as well to engage racial problems more honestly and productively. Here are three ways I see hope for significant transformation especially with regard to white privilege and whiteness:
- Projects like www.wearenottrayvonmartin.com : This blog gathered thousands of responses from thoughtful white respondents who reflected on the many ways that their white privilege allowed them the security of not being profiled and accosted in the ways Trayvon did. Here are some striking examples:
- I am not Trayvon Martin’s Mom: My 17 year old son is white. He does stupid things, he’s a smart ass, he makes bad decisions, he’s probably smoked weed and gotten drunk, his grades are kind of bad and he’s had minor trouble with the law. He’s also alive. He can walk home at night with a hoodie and some candy and make it home safely with no problem any day of the week. If something tragic happened to him walking down the street no one would go on TV and say it was his fault because he was a “thug” and continually talk about how he looked at 12 years old verses how he looks at 17. He is fiercely loved and if someone followed him in the dark and then shot him I would not have the grace and poise that Trayvon’s mother has shown – honestly, I’d probably hunt down the guy who did it in a frothing rage. It would be me on trial, not him. You can tell that I’m not Trayvon’s mother because I haven’t been forced to swallow injustice and tragedy in my family for generations and I have not been taught to take the high road in the face of it. I don’t have to because I am white. And if she ever reads this…I am so, so sorry. I think of you every day.
- I Am Not George Zimmerman: I will not appoint myself to be a neighborhood watchman. I will not go out at night with a concealed weapon, looking for “punks.” I don’t think a Black teenager wearing a hoodie is suspicious. I do not and never will want to be a police officer. I didn’t kill Trayvon Martin. I refuse to be complicit in the United States’ white supremacist system, and I recognize that – together with my sisters and brothers – I have the power to smash it.I am a white man who has come to realize that his experience of life is drastically different from that of people of color. I can never fully understand what it’s like to be Black in America, and I will not allow this fact to excuse ignorance or disengagement with the antiracist movement. White supremacy has given me privileged access that I once took for granted, and which I now demand be extended to all people. I will never be targeted by police because of my race, and I will stand against the police and the racist institutions they serve. I will challenge these institutions the only way I can, by taking part in a mass movement. I will endeavor not to dominate the space or draw attention to myself in this movement, my participation in which is the only way to further my consciousness of race and oppression.The murder of Trayvon Martin – of a Black person every 28 hours in the US – does not make me feel guilty. It fills me with anguish and rage, which fuel my determination to stand behind my Black comrades fighting to destroy the New Jim Crow. I do not identify with George Zimmerman, but with Trayvon Martin.
- We are not Trayvon …: But we are Trayvon’s America. And right now we kind of suck. We let that “stand your ground” garbage become law. We were busy, we were just trying to get by, we were watching the Kardashians, not CNN (and who can blame us?).
I am a 40+ over-weight white woman, never gonna be stopped at night except to be given helpful directions, probably. But I don’t want to live in a country where a man with an attitude and a gun can chase down another woman’s son and shoot him and that is deemed legal.I’m not blaming the jurors, they probably followed the instructions they were given and honestly tried to do their best with the system they were given.Trayvon’s system is our system and we’d better fix it.
- Satirical critiques: These projects offer a different venue for criticism, parodying cultural racism by making white culture the target of the kinds of racist commentary frequently said about minority cultures. Through satire, these projects aim to show how “colorblind racism” works in our main media institutions and our everyday language. Examples:
- Coalitions for anti-racist work : Increasing numbers of white people are looking to join with community groups that have long been working hard for racial justice. There are many resources for white anti-racist work, such as:
- An Open Letter to White People About Trayvon Martin (by a white man).
- Seven Stages of White Identity (by a white male pastor).
- Tim Wise’s Website.
- This video: