“Only in America can a dead Black boy go on trial for his own murder.”

—Huffington Post blogger Syreeta McFadden

Much has been made of televised trials and their relative pros and cons in educating and informing the public about the legal system. A secondary byproduct is the chance to observe America’s beliefs and moral precepts in action. The inclusion of media coverage enables the court room (ordained to determine the merits of a specific case) to become a stage for the close scrutiny of social issues well outside the confines of the legal process. Thusly, the now month-old verdict for George Zimmerma in the case of the murder of Trayvon Martin mushroomed from a manslaughter proceeding into a forum about racial conflict and the public perception of Black males.

America has always had an infatuation with demons, either real or imagined. Often these menaceing threats are merely conceived as part of a large, separate agenda orchestrated out of economic necessity and say more about the mindset and time in which they were conceived than any actual specter looming above to wage physical harm.

This practice was in place well before the settlement of the New World. The Middle Age conflicts, now known as the Crusades, may have officially been launched out of a desire to wrestle control of religious sites in the Holy Land away from heretics, but it had a residual effect on the economic enrichment of European Catholicism and the geographic spread of the faith’s political influence.

European settlers then focused their evangelic zeal across the Atlantic to bring Christianity to the “red-skinned savages,” and used this same rationale to enlist Africans to shape these newly liberated lands into a Eurocentric ideal, while conveniently filling the coffers of their sponsoring countries as well as enhancing the fortunes of their descendants.

This is not just a grim footnote of ancient history; it has enjoyed a more or less steady existence throughout the centuries. The post-World War II 20th century was dominated by a Cold War arms race fueled by the dual menace of communist takeover and nuclear apocalypse. Once this was over, the void for America’s terror addiction was filled by scores of defense contractors sounding the alarm (and lining their war chests) for the emerging threat of Islamic militancy.

Among the more common current manifestations of this obsession is the practice of law enforcement and politicians to use the public’s fear of crime in order to justify operating budgets and elections to public office. This mindset is arguably the motivating factor behind the lion’s share of our ongoing conspiracy theories, and the continued success of horror movies at the box office.

Throughout the development of this fledgling country, immigrants have stepped ashore and gone through the long process of being ostracized, while slowly being accepted into the cauldron of the American melting pot. It takes a while, but slowly the suspicion of the unfamiliar dissipates, and the new arrivals move up the pecking order.

John F. Kennedy’s 1963 presidential election marked the final rung in the climb to respectability for the Irish, long disparaged as street fighters and public drunkards, habitual hooligans for whom the “paddy wagon” was devised. In due course, Italians, and other ethnicities have in turn climbed their way from association with criminality, a compulsory occupation for outsiders excluded from legitimate livelihood. The latest ethnic incarnation of foreign “boogey men,” the Russian mob, has been denigrated in such pop culture vehicles as the movie “Training Day” (2001), but they, too, will likely make the assent to respectability within a few decades.

The sons and daughters of Africa, however, have had a slightly different American experience.

America’s Bogeyman?

“One in every three Black males is in some phase of the correctional system. Is that a coincidence or do these people have, you know, like a racial commitment to crime?”

“I mean millions of White European Americans came here and flourished you know within a generation so what the fk is the matter with these people ….”

—From the motion picture “American History X” (1998)

Of all the personas that descendants of African slaves have been thrust into since their introduction into the Western Hemisphere, they habitually have taken a back seat in the hierarchy of the American social pecking order, even sometimes subordinate to those “fresh off the boat.”

One, a man one generation removed from the Dark Continent, has even been awarded the mantel of head of state (some would say grudgingly, what with all the criticism and potshots that have been leveled at him), and others have garnered notable achievements in athletics and entertainment, but the stigma continues.

A major hindrance to upward mobility is the morass of antisocial behavior, specifically criminality. In spite of their centuries-long accomplishments, African Americans have remained closely associated with criminality, chronic nonconformity, and opposition to society and the state.

Located on the campus of Ferris State University in Big Rapid, Mich., The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia houses a collection of racist objects ranging from “White Only” signs, “Sambo” and “Mammy” dolls, to Ku Klux Klan robes and, more recently, posters of President Barack Obama being lynched. The items on display seek to realize its stated goal of “using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.”

Social psychologist J. Andy Karafa, Ph.D., the museum director, notes that his compilation consists of stereotypes built upon “the long history of subjugation,” starting with the loyal and docile servant, “Sambo.” A principle concept in all this is the stereotype of the “coon,” depicted as “Sambo gone bad,” a darkie not content with his station in life. Not nearly as prolific, but present nonetheless, is the “brute.” On the museum’s website, this persona is described as a caricature “innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal—deserving punishment, maybe death.”

As Karafa explains it, the dolls and figurines fashioned within this characterization conveyed a specific message. In so many words, they proclaim “… now that they’re out there with their freedom, look at how they act.”

This distortion has been carried over into contemporary incarnations, such as the vengeful militant in “Blaxploitation” movies, and the gang-banger propagated by the Rap culture. (Mike Tyson’s persona is arguably a manifestation of this.) Like all good caricatures and misrepresentations, it impacts reality most tragically. With the Susan Smith murder case for example, the dependent, personality-disordered South Carolinian drowned her two children, then put the blame on a fictitious Black marauder so that she could consummate an illicit affair with a wealthy paramour who had no wish to be tied down with her kids.

The influence of this gruesome legacy, far-reaching and pervasive, was firmly in place, especially in the South in which the Trayvon Martin shooting transpired. Notes Karafa: “ . . . all this was bound to influence the media coverage and the public’s perception of it.”

Starting with the premise that Afro Americans specifically are an undesirable ethnic group, Keidi Obi Awadu believes that the last few decades have seen resurgence in efforts by the media to denigrate the image of the Black man. An author, musician, and journalist, Awadu hosts a nationwide talk show highlighting Afro-centric issues on the LIBRadio Internet broadcast network.

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, Awadu took issue with the responses of Black leadership in this maelstrom, all of whom took turns condemning the incident and its aftermath, but not offering up any constructive solutions. Now is the time, he says, to build upon this misfortune by launching new programs and agendas to empower Black youth and prepare them for survival and success in this continually hostile environ.

Do we count (or are we just a fix for America’s fear addiction?)

“Tell me what’s a Black life worth, a bottle of juice is no excuse the truth hurts.

—from “I Wonder If Heaven’s Got a Ghetto” by Tupac Shakur

After several years of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, Brenda E. Stevenson, Ph.D., was looking forward to joining the history department at UCLA. Intrigued by the academic possibilities of the West Coast, she nonetheless was a realist. “I knew there were no oasis (free of prejudice) for Blacks in America,” she notes.

Shortly after her arrival, Rodney King endured his now infamous beating at the hands of the LAPD on March 3, 1991. This was followed by the death of Latasha Harlins at the hands of Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du on March 16.

Although the King narrative is arguably more familiar, Harlins’ story generated its fair share of cultural references, including the above lyric by Tupac Shakur.

The demonization and persecution of Black men has a long and well-documented heritage in this country, but the exploitation of Black women has its own, unique, nefarious and similar saga, as they are among the fastest growing groups in the judicial and prison systems.

Stevenson, whose academic focus had been the experiences of slave women in the 18th and 19th centuries, found herself swept into the present and all-too-real social inequities existent at the end of the 20th century. This eventually led to her recently (July 23, 2013) published book, “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins” (Oxford University Press, USA).

The perception (of the girl being a thug, troublemaker, and thief) was already implanted in the mind of Du, this immigrant newly arrived to our shores but already indoctrinated to the racial dysfunction of her adopted home.

“When I learned later that Latasha’s mother, the late Crystal Harlins, had been murdered (by another Black woman) as well, I became very interested in this particular case since much of my research, whether in the slave era or during other time periods, is centered on women, particularly Black women,” Stevenson says.

Continuing her approach to historical studies from a feminist perspective, Stevenson chose to concentrate on the dynamic between the three females central to the story: Harlins, the victim; Du, the expatriate shooter; and Joyce Karlin, the Jewish judge who transmuted the jury’s voluntary manslaughter guilty verdict into five years of probation, community service and a monetary fine. Key to these legal results, Stevenson believes, was Judge Karlin’s tendency to empathize more readily with Du, the Korean immigrant, rather than Harlins, the teenage victim lying face down on a liquor store floor with a gunshot in the back of her head.

“The jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter and the probation officer recommended Du receive the maximum sentence,” the author remembers.

“ … but Karlin refused to give Du time in prison.”

“Black children and youth seem to be regarded by the non-Black public as aggressors in criminal events, rather than as victims, even when they are the ones left dead,” she believes.

“Unfortunately, the vulnerable and precarious position of Black youth in our society vis-a-vis the criminal justice system does not seem to have changed much since Latasha Harlins was murdered 22 years ago,” says Stevenson.

A Convenient Persona

“He (the Negro) seems rather to exist in the nightmarish fantasy of the White American mind as a phantom that the White mind seeks unceasingly, by means both crude and subtle, to slay.”

—Ralph Ellison in his review of “An American Dilemma” by Gunnar Myrdal.

Ralph Ellison’s only novel published in his lifetime, “Invisible Man” (1952) has his protagonist lament his status of “invisibility,” due to the refusal of those (Black and White) around him to see him clearly. As we have seen in the collection at the Jim Crow Museum, the children of Africa have been variously cast as Sambo, the Coon, the Brute, and other characters in the American theater of the absurd.

The issues raised in the Martin/Zimmerman misfortune are merely recycled topics given a new twist, with the introduction of a mixed racial “honorary White man” (relatable to a sympathetic jury) and a victim on the verge of manhood transformed into a menace, via a little digging and enhancement of the petty delinquency in his background.

The recently elected head of the Association of Black Psychologists, Pepperdine University faculty member Daryl Rowe, Ph.D., has followed Zimmerman’s trial and, like many others, formed strong opinions.

He points to a legacy going back to 1655, when John Casor earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first person to be declared legal property in Virginia. Since then, there has been a systemic pattern to dehumanize people of African descent. This permeates all facets of American life, including our own Department of Justice, in Rowe’s words “ . . . a place where the criminal justice system conspires against the validity and value of Black life.”

As a consequence he continues, the “prosecutors presented a faulty and flawed case wherein they accepted the theory of the perpetrator and did not affirmatively argue the value of this young boy’s life.”

This legacy, he believes, perpetuates a “ . . . psychological stereotype of the dangerous Black male,” a stereotype reinforced for centuries and used regularly to justify the maltreatment, exploitation, and dehumanization of Black life.”

As a result, “. . . it conspired to convict young Trayvon Martin of his own murder.”

Echoing Stevenson’s assessment behind the motivation that prompted the judge over Soon Ja Du’s adjudication decades before, the jury sympathized with “poor George,” caught in the clutches of the man-child he’d confronted seconds before.