comments_image Comments

Killing Trayvon Martin: How White America Has Maintained Control of Its History of Racial Violence

The divide(s) between the response of black folks to the George Zimmerman "not guilty" verdict and that of his overwhelmingly white and conservative defenders (and those others who idolize him as a patron saint of white vigilantism and the way of the gun) are a function of a divergence in life experience, political attitudes, personalities, and values. What we see is often a function of where we sit.

The co-mingling of white conservatism, gun culture, and a Right-wing media which has legitimated a belief that white folks are oppressed in American by people of color generated a worldview in which a young black man shot dead by a white vigilante is a just act.

The White Right's vantage point cannot escape the shadow of black humanity as something its sees as violent and barbarous. Racism is a mania which they have normalized as central to their cognitive map. A fish does not apologize for swimming in the water; Zimmerman's supporters de facto see black men as criminals until proven otherwise to the former's satisfaction.

I am more interested in those good and decent white folks (and others) who simply do not get what the "big deal" is about Zimmerman's murder of Trayvon Martin, and how so many people of color are hurt, upset, and enraged both by the verdict, as well as how it took a national outcry to even bring the case to trial.

I would suggest that part of the indifference and perhaps even legitimate surprise at black pain and loss in the Trayvon Martin murder case by some white people is caused by a lack of empathy for non-whites. Recent experimental research supports this claim.

Social distance is a variable as well. Most white people do not actually know, in an intimate or personal way, any African-Americans. Black people are omnipresent in the mass media. However, most white folks do not know us as full human beings. Going to see a Denzel movie, hanging a poster of Lil Wayne or Lebron James on the wall, or "following" a person of color on Twitter, is not friendship. Embracing two-dimensional caricatures of black and brown humanity does not deeply humanize people of color for those who happen to be white.

The shock and surprise by some white folks in response to black folks' anger at Zimmerman's ability to now walk free after murdering Trayvon Martin--and how he is feted by the Right for gunning down a person "armed" with Skittles and iced tea--is rooted in willful ignorance.

As the essential BBC documentary Racism: A History observes, America is beset by collective amnesia in regards to the centuries of violence by the White State and White Society towards people of color. This is no accident.

Because the victors write the history, thus generating the dominant narrative, Whiteness is able to commit "intellectual colonialism" by quite literally white washing away America's long history as a racial dictatorship, and trying to destroy the connective tissue which reaches back from slavery, to Jim and Jane Crow, and into the present.

The Whiteness of memory works through historical erasure. Black folks' justice claims and upsetness about the George Zimmerman case are robbed of their continuity. The slave patrol, the lynching tree, and the extrajudicial killing of Trayvon Martin by a white Hispanic who over-identifies with White Authority and white racism are part of a larger continuity in American history and life.

If one does not know this history, then black folks are made to look as though they are hysterical and irrational. Such a frame is not accidental: it does the work of white racism by marginalizing black and brown people's concerns as irrelevant because our citizenship and full humanity are not to be respected by the white racial frame and a dominant culture which, as Sister Jane Elliot has pointedly described, is still sick with racism.

Sister Jane Elliot also observed how white people's number one privilege is the luxury and ability to remain ignorant of racism and the life experiences of people of color.

Will Trayvon Martin's murder and George Zimmerman's exoneration (what is a de facto endorsement of extra-judicial murder by whites against black men and boys) be a moment where those white folks who are willfully ignorant of the realities of white racism in the Age of Obama will now have their eyes opened to some plain on their face truths, or instead will they double down on a narrative of black hyper-emotionality and white innocence?

It is difficult if not impossible to have a "teachable moment" about race when the parties most in need of being educated are content to remain ignorant--or have decided they know more about the subject matter than those who are unfairly asked to educate them.