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How Right-Wing Bullies Blame and Attack the Victims of Violence and Oppression

The right-wing exploits tendencies toward victim-blaming to advance its worldview. But are Americans wising up?

A makeshift memorial to Trayvon Martin, in Sanford Florida.
Photo Credit: Agence France-Presse


When Geraldo Rivera and other right-wing figures zeroed in on Trayvon Martin's hoodie as though it provided some sort of explanation or justification for the young man's tragic death, when right-wing websites began a smear campaign against the dead child's memory, they were playing right into a  blame-the-victim script.

It's a script that is used almost always to reinforce white supremacist and patriarchal power structures. And it's a script that plays off a weakness of our Western worldview, our inclination to assign negative moral value to those who suffer--what psychologists call the " just world fallacy ."  

For many, it can be less disturbing, simpler to blame the victim than the system (and, by extension, ourselves) and no one exploits this weakness better than the right wing. Any time there's been a major backlash to a social movement, from civil rights to feminism to AIDS activism, the right has followed a similar victim-blaming script. The message gets injected into the culture: Black poverty is a symptom of pathology. Rape victims are asking for it. AIDS sufferers are being punished for their lifestyles. Those without health care should be left to die. And now, most horribly and tellingly, a dead young boy with skittles and iced tea in his hands had it coming. 

The idea behind these smears is: it can't happen to you. It's not your problem. But racism, xenophobia, homophobia, patriarchy--these are our problems, problems the majority and the privileged perpetuate. 

A Derailing and Damaging Process

Over the past month or so, the central injustice in the Trayvon Martin case--the idea that the killer has not even been arrested or charged--was so glaring and obvious that even complacent Americans grew outraged. The case garnered millions of petition signatures and a steadily growing stream of attention. A genuine conversation about race actually began. And then the victim-blaming script kicked in in earnest.

Here's how the process goes: First, right-wing figures express perfunctory dismay that something terrible--in this case, the most nightmarish thing imaginable--has occurred. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney even weighed in on the Trayvon Martin "tragedy." Then, extremists and their enablers get alarmed that a chorus of voices are (rightly) calling attention to the relationship between the tragedy and massive inequalities, in this case deeply embedded, deeply damaging racism.

Then, they attempt to reverse the story, and try to bully everyone else into reversing it, too. They begin to dig into the victim's history to find something unsavory. To wit, the sudden cries emerging this week that Trayvon Martin wasn't the perfect victim and therefore the entire line of thought connecting his death to racism was somehow invalid. After all, he was once found with a baggie that contained traces of marijuana. He tweeted teenage-type things and grimaced at the camera. These flimsy arguments, as some commenters on conservative blogs implied, suddenly meant we could absolve both George Zimmerman and ourselves of responsibility. Other white supremacists and racists went so far as to  hack Martin's online accounts  in an effort to keep smearing him.

Although only the biggest extremists said the most explicit things out loud, the idea that Trayvon Martin deserved to be killed was the exact message they were supposed to receive--and transmit. Zerlina Maxwell at the Grio called it the " Thug-ification of Trayvon Martin," writing:

It is a strategic manipulation of public perception with the purpose of turning Trayvon into a stereotypical black male predisposed to criminal behavior. The purpose is to spin the public outcry that followed as overreactions or as a rush to judgment.

Maxwell notes this is an effort to "derail" us, a crucial aspect of victim-blaming, shifting focus away from the damning facts: Zimmerman shot Martin after making an 911 call that strongly indicated clear racial profiling if not outright racism on his part; Martin was unarmed and told his girlfriend he was being followed; the police made a number of glaring missteps and didn't collect evidence.

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