Race Still Matters

I can’t help being fascinated by the Trayvon Martin case – by the way the events are unfolding and the ways in which narratives are being constructed and white supremacy is being exposed. It’s interesting to hear the many “takes” on the situation, including the following gems of cognition:

  • George Zimmerman isn’t white; he can’t be racist.
  • Black and Latino parents shouldn’t allow their sons to wear things that incite fear in white people.
  • Trayvon Martin was no angel; he’d recently been suspended from school. This suggests that Trayvon was probably up to no good on February 26th. So George Zimmerman was simply being proactive, eliminating a threat before it became one.
  • When police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman’s back was allegedly grass-stained and wet. Also allegedly, he suffered from a bloody nose and other injuries to his face and head. This indicates that shooting Trayvon Martin was a matter of self-defense.  I say “allegedly” because, as yesterday’s tape shows, what we see and what we’re told don’t exactly add up
  • And finally, nobody gets this upset when Black people kill Black people, sooooo…

I’m not sure how to spell the sound a record makes when it scratches and stops. But suffice it to say that now is that awkward moment. The rhetorical promises of national unity embedded in lullabies of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of Barack Obama had lulled us into a post-racial hypnosis hope.

The jig is up though. And for Black conservatives who want us to drink that “I am an individual” koolaide like they have:  the jig is up for y’all too.

Folks have worked hard and reached deeply into ridiculousness to obfuscate or re-work the details of Trayvon Martin’s last hour of life — that is, if they acknowledge it at all. It is a luxury and a privilege to be able to ignore this story, finding no connection between it and your life.  The reason the story resonates so powerfully is because if it was Trayvon, then it could be any boy who looked like Trayvon:  Black, male, 17ish, dressed in clothes. Imagine how many sons and grandsons, nephews, cousins, Godsons, and friends such an arbitrary designation ensnares. The “I Am Trayvon Martin” refrain hits home because so many of us could have been. So many of us could still be.

Last week, I asked my Black Politics class – a very culturally diverse group that includes an Asian-American, two Latinos and a Latina, an Eritrean and an Angolan, two white women, and about five Black folks – to list five national perceptions of Black Americans. I’ll share the ones I remember, but first allow me to explain why they matter – why race matters.

Racism in 2012 isn’t only recognizable at the personal level. It’s not about whether your grandparents or great-grandparents owned slaves or beat Black folks upside the head for daring to demand equal treatment. Rather, it’s about acknowledging, addressing, and owning the embedded institutional and psychological biases for which racism is responsible. Thus, it doesn’t matter that George Zimmerman isn’t white, or that he has a Black friend. He saw a Black guy wearing a hoodie in his neighborhood and grew suspicious of him on sight, which is why he pursued Martin. It doesn’t matter that George Zimmerman was bloodied and bruised by the time the police showed up. Because when you go looking for a fight, you might just find one – and you might just get your ass beat. But the most pertinent point of all is that the fight would never have happened if Zimmerman hadn’t been suspicious of a Black guy in his neighborhood wearing a hoodie in the rain. And followed him with a gun.

Moreover, Geraldo Rivera’s assertion that Black and Latino parents should keep their kids out of hoodies to keep them safe is absurd. I suppose Rivera was well-intentioned, but what if next time it’s not a hoodie that appears threatening to a George Zimmerman type? What if next time it’s a baseball cap, or a denim jacket, or a pair of Jordans, or a white t-shirt, or a pair of jeans? Why don’t we just cut to the chase and discourage Black and Latino parents from having Black and Latino sons? This way, they won’t be around to fill ordinary clothes with their brown bodies, makin ‘em all scary and shit.

Racism involves arbitrary value judgements. There’s no way to compose a comprehensive list of clothing to avoid or neighborhoods, streets, and cities into which you shouldn’t wander if you mean to stay safe. You don’t adjust to folks’ biases; you call bullshit on them.

Finally, can we desist with this “don’t be upset when racism kills a Black guy if you’re not going to be upset when Black guys kill Black guys” meme? For what it’s worth, there are rules to the street game and to street violence. In most cases (based on my experience with The First 48 and The Wire, of course), cats die the way they live.  If money or product comes up missing; if cats disrespectfully encroach upon territory, confusing who got what corners; if your top guy gets got by a rival, then there is an equal and opposite reaction to every action. And, while deplorable on its own merit, Black on Black violence and the killing of Trayvon Martin are not the same. We can and should be outraged by both, but we obscure each tragedy when we try to leverage one for the other.

Black folks often are accused of “making this into a race issue,” and seeing racial prejudice where, supposedly, none exists. Well, this time, it’s much harder to make that argument with a straight face, and expect to be taken seriously. One need not make this into a race issue. It is one because race is an issue. While sundown towns, in their overt display of intolerance for the differently hued, are now few and far between, their exclusions are no less implied. The fact remains that if your skin is too dark, there still are places where you do not belong. And there are folks, either purposely or subconsciously, who set out to enforce that implied power. I’ve read that Trayvon Martin’s family lived in the same gated community that George Zimmerman was “protecting” from him…

Right.

So what did my students say were national perceptions of Black Americans?  They say that Americans generally view Blacks as lazy, criminals, athletes or entertainers, ghetto and unsophisticated, religious, and as soul food eatin’.  To be fair, my class is but a cross-section of one university in one town. But my students also live in the same world you and I do, which makes their perceptions nonetheless valid, and nonetheless sobering.

Despite all the progress – all the great challenges and great works championed by great Black Americans, despite the presence of a Black American family living in the White House instead of cleaning or serving it, the stereotypes continue to define us.  They relegate us to our lowest common denominator – phenotypic Blackness, and their simplest, most base interpretation of Blackness.  In other words, you ‘d be hard pressed to find a Negro that wasn’t a lazy, chicken-eating, church-going hoodrat criminal.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, but that’s the prevailing narrative.  And it’s why race still matters.