Tim Wise: Trayvon Martin, White Denial and the Unacceptable Burden of Blackness in America

By now, you probably know the shameful details, but they are worth repeating, in any event.

On the evening of February 26, George Zimmerman, a self-appointed “neighborhood watch captain” in an Orlando suburb, shot and killed 17-year old Trayvon Martin.

Because Martin was black.

And no, don’t even think of rolling your eyes at the suggestion. That is what happened, just as surely as so many might well be loathe to admit it.

Oh sure, he denies such a motivation, as does his family, but the details of the incident, now emerging from that evening leave very little question about it.

This was not, as we too often hear in the wake of such incidents, “a tragedy.”

This was not, as some would have it, “a terrible accident.”

It was murder, plain and simple. And it would be called such by everyone in a nation that had any commitment to honest language, which, sadly, would pretty much rule out the one in which Martin’s life began and ended, and in which Zimmerman continues to operate as a free man, unarrested by the police.

Trayvon Martin is dead because George Zimmerman believed his neighborhood needed and deserved to be protected from young black men, who could not possibly belong there, in his estimation. Never mind that Martin was in the community with his father, visiting friends. Never mind that Martin was armed only with Skittles and iced tea, while Zimmerman carried a loaded weapon.

Zimmerman, who has a history of aggressive behavior (including assaulting an officer a few years ago), appears to have something of a Dirty Harry syndrome about him. He is someone described by his own neighbors as overzealous, motivated by an obsessive desire to guard the perimeter of his community and pose as a crime-fighting hero to those around him. It doesn’t take much imagination to size up Zimmerman psychologically. He’s like so many other utterly unaccomplished males who fantasize about being a badass law officer, meting out justice to the ne’er-do-wells. He’s the kind of person who, if he weren’t playing at policeman, would be one of those guys fabricating stories of his war heroism, buying fake military uniforms and medals on eBay and telling strangers in bars how he single-handedly held off insurgents in Kandahar or some such shit. He’s one of those guys. If you’ve met one, you’ve met them all: a wannabe somebody with a gun permit and a healthy dose of amped up, testosterone-fueled anxiety about outsiders; and so too, in his case, it appears (not only from this incident but also from dozens of previous 9-1-1 calls he’d made), a consistent fear about black men, whom he seemed to consider, almost by definition, as not belonging in his neighborhood.

If Trayvon Martin had been, say, Todd Martin, a 17-year old white male, in the same neighborhood on the same evening, it wouldn’t have mattered that he was wearing a hoodie, looking at homes as he passed them by, or fiddling with his waistband. These, it should be noted, were the apparent indicators of criminality that Zimmerman felt compelled to share with the police during his 9-1-1 call, before opting to chase Martin himself, in brazen defiance of their explicit instruction to stay put. Had he been white, Martin’s humanity would have been clearly discernible to Zimmerman. But he was black, and male, and that alone inspired Zimmerman to conclude that there was “something wrong with this guy,” and that he appeared to be “on drugs,” a judgment Zimmerman felt qualified to render based on his extensive background in behavioral psychology, bested only by his prodigious law enforcement training, and by extensive and prodigious, in this case, I mean none whatsoever.

Indeed, if you do not know that Martin’s race (and more to the point, Zimmerman’s racism) is central to the former’s death at the hands of the latter, it may well be that you are incapable of ever comprehending even the most obvious manifestations of this nation’s longstanding racial drama. Worse still, it may suggest that you are so bereft of empathy as to render you morally and emotionally dangerous to decent people.

And by empathy here, I don’t mean merely the ability to feel for the family of this murdered child. I’m guessing most all can manage that much. Rather, I refer to the kind of empathy too rarely attainable, by whites in particular, in the case of black folks who insist, based on their entire life experience and the insight gained from that experience, that their rights to life and liberty are too often subject to the capricious whims of those with less melanin than they, and for reasons owing explicitly to the color of their skin.

Empathy — real empathy, not the situational and utterly phony kind that most any of us can muster when social convention calls for it — requires that one be able to place oneself in the shoes of another, and to consider the world as they must consider it. It requires that we be able to suspend our own culturally-ingrained disbelief long enough to explore the possibility that perhaps the world doesn’t work as we would have it, but rather as others have long insisted it did.

Empathy, which is always among the first casualties of racist thinking, mandates our acceptance of the possibility that maybe it isn’t those long targeted by oppression who are exaggerating the problem or making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill, but rather we who have underestimated the gravity of racial domination and subordination in this country, and reduced what are, in fact, Everest-sized peaks to ankle-high summits, and for our own purposes, rather than in the service of truth.

And please, let us have no more ignoble and dissembling rationalizations for Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s killing of him. If you are one, like those firmly ensconced in the pathetic Sanford, Florida police department, trying against all logic and human feeling to square this pernicious circle, just stop it. That there had been a half-dozen or so break-ins in Zimmerman’s community, ostensibly orchestrated by black males matters not a whit. Likewise, that there was a string of robberies in my New Orleans neighborhood during my senior year of college, which were the handiwork of white men, would not have justified my being stopped by police every time I returned home from a late afternoon class, to say nothing of being accosted by some community asshole with a Charles Bronson complex. But of course, such an analogy is silly isn’t it? We all know that whites are never subjected to this kind of generalized suspicion, even when we do, indeed, fit the description of one or another bad guy on the loose. We are not all looked at sideways when yet another white male serial killer is at large, or yet another abortion clinic bomber. We don’t face police roadblocks in lily-white communities so as to catch drunk drivers, even though the data is quite clear that whites represent a disproportionate number and percentage of those driving under the influence.

As for Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense, that anyone could believe such a demonstrably transparent lie as this, is stunning. Or rather it isn’t. It makes perfect sense in a nation where blackness and danger have long been considered synonymous, such that any black male over the age of perhaps 10 can “reasonably” be assumed a predator whose designs on decent people and their property are so concretized as to warrant virtually any measure invoked to monitor, control and incapacitate them. However much has changed in the U.S. since the 1960s, or for that matter the 1860s, make note of it that at least this much has not: black folks are still, in the eyes of far too many whites, a problem to be addressed, a riddle to be solved. And deprived of the old mechanisms of social control to which we were once so wedded — formal segregation, regular lynchings, forced sterilization, even enslavement — we have opted for the development of new forms: racial profiling, gated communities into which we shall police entry, zoning laws that limit who can live among us, and mass incarceration for non-violent drug offenses, among others.

Under what rational interpretation of self-defense could Zimmerman’s actions qualify? Zimmerman chased Martin down. Zimmerman tackled Martin after Martin demanded to know why Zimmerman was following him. Martin screamed for help. And Zimmerman shot him. Even if Martin fought back, how could such a thing — a quite reasonable response, it should be noted, to being attacked by a total stranger — justify pulling a gun, pulling the trigger and shooting the person who was acting in self-defense against you? To those who accept Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, let us ask a simple question: would you be so willing to buy that argument if a black person were to chase down a white person in a mostly black neighborhood, and then upon catching him, end his life when the white person resisted being pummeled? You know full well the answer. We all do.

If I chase you and jump you, and you resist my assault, and in response to your resistance I kill you, I am the bad guy. Period. End of story. No exceptions, no prevarications, no ifs ands or buts. It’s me. Trayvon Martin is the innocent one here. He is the one who was acting in self-defense, when he resisted the assault of a total stranger, whose purposes for chasing him and accosting him made him rightfully afraid. After all, “neighborhood watch captains,” whether duly elected as such or just in their own heads (as seems to have been the case with Zimmerman), don’t wear official law enforcement uniforms, which might help identify them to the persons they may find themselves pursuing. And ya’ know why? Because despite their fervent and pre-adolescent desires to play cops and robbers like they used to do when they were eight years old, they are not cops. They are not even security guards. They are self-appointed enforcers with no authority whatsoever, save that which they have chosen to fabricate so as to make themselves feel more important.

Oh, and when you abuse that ill-gotten authority and take the life of a young black man in the process, you don’t get to be taken seriously when you swear that your actions couldn’t have been racist because, after all, you’re Latino (this being the latest fanciful insistence of Zimmerman’s family). Dear merciful Lord, what is that supposed to prove? Racism is not about the identity of the person acting it out so much as those upon whom it is acted, and for what purpose. There were black slave owners in the South, after all, and what of it? American slavery was a racist institution because it subordinated people based on racial identity, and was predicated on the notion of black inhumanity and white supremacy. That there were some black people who bought into both sets of lies does not acquit the institution of the charge of racism, nor those among the African American community who participated in it. So too, that there are persons of color who are just as anti-black in their thinking as many whites, pathetic and heartbreaking though it may be, means nothing and truthfully, should surprise no one.

It should be especially unsurprising that Zimmerman would have internalized racially-biased assumptions about black males, given the society in which he (and we) reside. And although this hardly lets him off the hook — one must be responsible for one’s own actions in any event, no matter the social contributors to those actions — it is worth noting a few things about the milieu in which this wannabe police officer was operating. In other words, Zimmerman’s culpability, while total and complete, is not solitary.

After all, we are a society in which research has shown quite conclusively that local newscasts overrepresent blacks as criminals, relative to their actual share of total crime, and overrepresent whites as victims, relative to our share of victimization.

A society in which other studies have shown that these racially-skewed newscasts have a direct relationship to widespread negative perceptions of black people. Indeed, a substantial percentage of anti-black racial hostility can be directly traced to media imagery, even after all other factors are considered.

A society in which the disproportionate incarceration of black males — especially for non-violent drug offenses, which they are no more likely (and often even less likely) than whites to commit — feeds the perception that they are so treated because they are dangerous and must be kept at bay.

A society in which criminality is so associated with blackness that whites literally and almost instantly connect the two things in survey after survey, and study after study, even though we are roughly 5 times as likely to be criminally victimized by another white person as by a black person.

A society in which anti-black racism has been so long ingrained that not only most whites, but also most Latinos and Asian Americans, demonstrate substantial subconscious bias against African Americans in study after study of implicit racial hostility (and even about a third of blacks themselves demonstrate anti-black racism).

George Zimmerman was very simply taught to fear black men by his society, and he learned his lessons well. And while he must be punished for his transgressions — and hopefully will be, now that the Justice Department is investigating and a Grand Jury is being convened — let there be no mistake, he cannot and should not take the fall alone for that which stems so directly from a larger social and cultural narrative to which he (and all of us) have been subjected.

Black males are, for far too many in America, a racial Rorschach test, onto which we instantaneously graft our own perceptions and assumptions, virtually none of them good. Look, a black man on your street! Quick, what do you see? A criminal. Look, a black man on the corner! Quick, what do you see? A drug dealer. Look, a black man in a suit, in a corporate office! Quick, what do you see? An affirmative action case who probably got the job over a more qualified white man. And if you don’t believe that this is what we do — what you do — then ask yourself why 95 percent of whites, when asked to envision a drug user, admit to picturing a black person, even though blacks are only 13 percent of users, compared to about 70 percent who are white? Ask yourself why whites who are hooked up to brain scan monitors and then shown subliminal images of black men — too quickly for the conscious mind to even process what it saw — show a dramatic surge of activity in that part of the brain that reacts to fear and anxiety? Ask yourself why whites continue to believe that we are the most discriminated against group in America — and that folks of color are “taking our jobs” — even as we remain roughly half as likely to be out of work and a third as likely to be poor as those persons of color. Even when only comparing persons with college degrees, black unemployment is about double the white rate, Latino unemployment about 50 percent higher, and Asian American unemployment about a third higher than their white counterparts.

George Zimmerman must be held accountable for his actions, and hopefully he will be. Innocent until proven guilty of course, there is a process for determining matters of formal legal responsibility, and may that process now move forward to a just conclusion. But beyond the matter of legal guilt or innocence, beyond that which can be addressed in a court of law — one way or the other — there is a bigger issue here, and it is one that cannot be resolved by a jury, be it Grand or otherwise, nor by judges or prosecutors. It is the none-too-minor matter of the monster we as a nation have created, not only apparently in the heart of George Zimmerman, but in the minds of millions: individuals far too quick to rationalize any injustice so long as the victim has a black face; persons for whom no act of racially-biased misconduct qualifies as racist; persons who have allowed their own fears, anxieties and occasionally even hatreds to numb them, to inure them to the pain and suffering of the so-called other.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from someone suggesting that perhaps we should begin to sport buttons like those that became so ubiquitous in the case of Troy Davis last year. You know the buttons, right? The ones that said: “I am Troy Davis.” The ones that aimed at solidarity with an unjustly executed man, but which, on the lapels and t-shirts of white people seemed, to me at least, more banal and offensive than anything else, since we were not, in fact (and would not likely ever be) in the position of Troy Davis. And while in this case too, I understand the sentiment and appreciate the real compassion underlying the suggestion — or the no-doubt-soon-to-be-witnessed insertion of Trayvon Martin’s name in many a Facebook profile handle — I feel that perhaps we who are white should remind ourselves, before we jump on either bandwagon, that unfortunately, we are much less like Trayvon Martin and much more like George Zimmerman.

And that is the problem.

The Struggle Continues…