Dangers of being black

2012-03-31 12:39

Trayvon Martin was not innocent. He was guilty of being black in presumably restricted public space.
For decades, Jim Crow laws made this crime statutory.

They codified the spaces into which black bodies could not pass without encountering legal punishment. They made public blackness a punishable offence.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act removed the legal barriers but not the social sanctions and potentially violent consequences of this “crime”.

George Zimmerman’s slaying of Martin – and the subsequent campaign to smear Martin – is the latest, most jarring reminder that it’s often impossible for a black body to be innocent.

Black communities in the United States spent much of late March expressing outrage about Zimmerman’s actions and the Sanford, Florida police department’s inaction.

But the anger and grief are not exclusively about this single act. They are prompted by the ways the case reveals the continuing subordination of full citizenship for black Americans.

This is not a straightforward issue of racial inequality, discussions of which are often reduced to an almost competitive analysis of which Americans have the most problems.

There’s ample evidence that black Americans have consistently had fewer resources and opportunities. But this case is not about which race or group has the most problems. Right now, people of all races have problems.

With a decade of war, unemployment still hovering at historic highs, stinging gas prices raising the cost of consumer goods and a housing market still on its knees, there are few families untouched materially by our national challenges.

Even for those who have remained insulated from our collective difficulties, there are personal tragedies and loss.

Yes, everyone has problems. And, yes, government has a role in making citizens more resilient.

Moreover, democratic governments have a duty to ensure citizens bear the weight of these burdens more equally.

But the democratic social contract is not violated when citizens have problems; it is violated when some citizens are a problem. In The Souls of Black Folk, WEB du Bois described being black in America as a constant awareness that others viewed him as a problem.

Du Bois captures the defining element of African-American life as the very self, but most especially the visible, black self in public space as a problem.

Liberal democracy does not exist if the government legislates against particular bodies in public spaces, as it did during Jim Crow, or if it is complicit in violent policing by other citizens, as in the Martin slaying.

For more than two years, conservative politicians demanded proof of President Barack Obama’s citizenship – as if a black man was trespassing simply by being elected to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, state governments in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina empowered police officers, school officials and merchants to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they deemed suspicious of immigration violations – triggered by racial, ethnic and linguistic profiling.

Despite the dramatic legal changes brought about by the ending of Jim Crow, it is once again socially, politically and legally acceptable to presume the guilt of nonwhite bodies.

This is the political setting for the moment when Zimmerman approached Martin as he walked home in the rain with a bag of Skittles.

In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Zimmerman’s neighbour Frank Taaffe suggested, “if he Trayvon had just answered him in an appropriate manner, ‘I’m just here visiting. My mother’s house is around the corner’, there wouldn’t have been any problem.”

Fox News host Geraldo Rivera weighed in, saying: “I’ll bet you if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighbourhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”

Conservative commentators and websites pointed to Trayvon’s gold teeth and his tattoos – suggesting the unarmed teenager was culpable in the encounter not because of any aggressive or illegal act but because he was not following the appropriate protocol for being black in public.

A black body in public space must presume its own guilt and be prepared to present a rigidly controlled public performance of docility and respectability.

Sagging-pants laws in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and Arkansas attempt to legislate that public performance of black bodies by making it illegal to enact particular versions of youth fashion associated with blackness.

Philadelphia, New Orleans, Cleveland and Chicago have responded to violence in black communities by imposing curfews on young people and then policing these rules most vehemently among black youth.

New York City’s “stop and frisk” law empowers police to detain a person based merely on “reasonable suspicion” of involvement in criminal activity – vastly disproportionately applied to young men of colour.

It is easy, but wrong, to write off Zimmerman as a deranged man whose violence against Martin was tragic but unpreventable.

Zimmerman was acting in ways entirely consistent with the long history and current reality that assumes the criminality and potential danger of black bodies. – The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

» Harris-Perry is professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She is the author of Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough

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