I’ve been wonderin’ why
People livin’ in fear of my shade
(Or my hi top fade) —from “Fear of a Black Planet” by Public Enemy
A few days ago, a middle-class Black couple was in Arte De Mexico, an upscale design and furniture store out in the Valley, when they struck up a conversation with another shopper, a sociable White woman. During the course of their exchange, they discovered they each had teenage sons roughly the same age.
They continued to chat away as the woman challenged them to guess her name, and she eventually gave in to reveal it was Zimmerman. This, of course, segued into a discussion about the recent second-degree murder trial, and the stresses of shepherding adolescent boys into adulthood. Their new acquaintance divulged a personal fear of her own, the possibility of her son being victimized while frequenting the customary haunts of youngsters throughout the United States—shopping malls such as the Grove. The menace she specifically feared was African American teenagers who single out their Caucasian peers.
Society’s fear of the Black man is nothing new. Here in the United States it is a tradition that can be traced at least as far back as the antebellum South, but this phobia is by no means the province of the American psyche. Pioneering Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso advanced this notion in the 19th century. He applied it, however, to the inhabitants of the southern part of his native Italy. He proposed that Gypsies, Sicilians, and so on were prone to lapses in morality due to inbreeding with their Arab and North African neighbors across the Mediterranean.
Colonial slave owners in the Western Hemisphere used the belief in the inherent moral inferiority of Blacks as a justification for enforced labor. Throughout the years this mind-set propelled the progression of events like the Civil War, emancipation, Jim Crow and the infamous “Black Code” legislation passed throughout the South. In its aftermath, desegregation, the Civil Rights Era, and so on, a tug of war continued over the extension of the privileges covered in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and other venerated documents upon which this nation is founded. Over and over again, the inherent depravity of the dark-skinned populace was used as a buttress against questions about the morality of slavery.
All this demonstrates that the judicial jockeying witnessed in the George Zimmerman trial and scores of other criminal events was about much more than the actual guilt or innocence of the involved parties.
There isn’t any case that goes through
the criminal justice system that’s
not determined by race.
—High profile criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos
In the past issue of Our Weekly, contributor William Covington noted that a sort of role reversal transpired during the Zimmerman trial. In his article, he stated that “The prosecution became the defense and had to defend the idea that Trayvon Martin was a good kid.”
The oft-told bromide that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty is thus given a new twist: the victim might be at fault because he fit the popular conception of what an offender looks like.
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.
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.
With this, two separate, distinct guises have been constructed, with no in-betweens or gray areas to be considered. Black men and women have been relegated to the polar opposites of martyr and monster, without the nuance and subtly that are part and parcel to the human experience. Ocen agrees. “…media representations are still one-dimensional,” she said.
… had I been the neighborhood watchman that day in Florida, I would have been understood in the media as the non-Black actor. Which is to say, for the limited purposes of this trial, I would have been granted ‘honorary White’ status — whether or not I wanted it.
—from “Trayvon Martin and Making Whiteness Visible,” July 17, 2012, in Time Magazine, by Chinese-American writer Eric P. Liu.
Zimmerman’s ancestry includes a retired Jewish magistrate father and a Peruvian immigrant mother, but for all practical purposes he was championed by a Caucasian contingent of supporters. This is noteworthy because one of the major issues contested in courthouses and living rooms across the country is the influx of immigrants. It bears noting that the individuals generally discussed are Hispanics or non-Whites, while little is said about the Armenian expats (who, in just a few decades have exhibited a prowess in gang activity and White-collar crime), or the Russian inhabitants of West Hollywood.
Ocen agrees that the recent judicial drama played out in Sanford merely proves that the thorny subject of race in this country is far from over. The intrusion of foreign-born settlers into this quagmire, in her words, “… broadens the discussion/debate.”
In a certain context, however, these newcomers from elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere can make the transition into the bosom of America with relatively greater speed and success than their darker-skinned counterparts who boast the distinction of being native-born. The resentment and bitterness that is an inevitable result of this situation will, no doubt, exacerbate the combustible aura that perpetuates the mention of race in the United States.
Only time will tell how long the ripple effects will linger from that fateful evening when George Zimmerman saw fit to ignore a police dispatcher’s admonishments, and intercepted a teenager on his way home from the 7-Eleven.