Race in the U.S.: fear of the dark

America in the wake of the verdict

Gregg Reese | 7/25/2013, midnight
A few days ago, a middle-class Black couple was in Arte De Mexico, an upscale design and furniture store out ...

Covington goes on to suggest that the jury’s (subconscious) fear of criminal victimization outweighs the physical reality of a teenager being killed. This fear is substantiated via traces of the marijuana component THC found in the deceased’s postmortem examination, documentation of school suspensions behind misdemeanor offenses, and provocative photos taken from Facebook.

Loyola Law School Associate Professor Priscilla Ocen, who specializes in gender and racial identity as they relate to the judicial system, concurs.

“Although Zimmerman was (technically) the defendant, (many Blacks felt) Martin was the one on trial,” she notes.

“There is much more work to be done,” in terms of racial understanding, especially as it applies to the makeup of the justice system as a whole, declares Ocen.

This perception of inbred decadence, conceived out of economic convenience and perpetuated by social expedience, has gotten considerable validation from popular culture, an influence whose sway should not be minimized. In recent decades this has been boosted by the promotion of a strange intermingling of separate, dissimilar personas into one stereotypical façade.

The athlete, the gangsta rapper, and the common street hoodlum have all been merged into a grotesque Black everyman who stalks the American subconscious, a phobia rarely acknowledged, but nonetheless, patently obvious. In this way, he is much like a landlocked cousin of the great white shark that plagued moviegoers in the 1975 blockbuster film “Jaws.”

… it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that—that doesn’t go away. There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the

experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

—from President Barack Obama’s remarks about the Zimmerman verdict.

One curious byproduct of the popular culture that informs our perception of daily life is the tradition of the “bad boy” that figures prominently in our literature and film heritage. Actual personalities from the American West like Billy the Kid and Jesse James have transcended their outlaw vocation to be regarded as folk heroes to an admiring public. Carrying on this paradoxical mantle into the 20th century were gunsels John Dillinger and Petty Boy Floyd, who played on the heartstrings of a populace that felt victimized by banks and other institutions behind the Great Depression.

Contemporary movie stars who’ve built careers on this persona of the lovable rogue include Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and especially Charlie Sheen.


Priscilla Ocen

Reasons behind this are multifaceted and not open for easy explanation. Ocen suggests that “… Whites who are lawbreakers are not denied their humanity.”

People who enjoy the affection of the masses as they skirt civilization’s norms, do so because their “… actions are based in a larger social context,” according to Ocen. The Bad Boy is redeemed because his wrongdoing is seen as resistance against an oppressive authority.

Continuing this thought, she suggests these anti-heroes “… fight for positive social values even though they break the law.”

Black figures, however, are excluded from this embrace by virtue of the inescapable “otherness” that they represent. The few Black figures elevated to the status of hero must be sanitized to the point of sterility. Jackie Robinson who, in his bid to integrate professional sports 70 years ago, was run out of Sanford, Fla., (the town in which these recent, tragic events transpired), had to turn his cheek and appropriate the vestige of sainthood to be accepted. Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington have arguably also shaped their careers to an exacting prototype designed not to ruffle the feathers of the status quo.