The killing of Trayvon Martin is a Rorschach test for American society. This tragedy reveals a deep divide in our political imaginations and communities. It also is a mirror for the fissures of race, ideology, and party that still vex and befuddle us to the present.
Some folks imagine themselves, their children, and members of their communities as Trayvon Martin. To their eyes, Trayvon is a symbol of how American society all too often devalues the lives of people of color.
Other people imagine themselves as George Zimmerman. To them, he is a "victim," a "good" man who only wanted to protect his neighborhood from crime and "suspicious" people. Moreover, the assertion that George Zimmerman acted out of racial bias in his hunting and killing of Trayvon Martin is personally offensive to them.
Because Zimmerman is “them,” and “they” are Zimmerman, he is quite simply a "law abiding" citizen who is being made a victim of "reverse racism," "race hustlers," and "the liberal media."
Black men are scary, frightening, and suspicious to George Zimmerman and those people who think like him. These beliefs are part of a matrix of racism, prejudice, and stereotypes which are reproduced and disseminated throughout American culture. Ultimately, many on the Right see George Zimmerman as a hero figure; for voters primed on a toxic mix of conservative rhetoric that bundles together such issues as race, guns, and crime, George Zimmerman is a fetish and totem for their wish fulfillment.
In the post civil rights era, old fashioned racism is out of style. Consequently, supporting George Zimmerman necessarily requires the shaming and smearing of Trayvon Martin. Perhaps I am too generous, but I would like to believe that even for the most strident conservative authoritarians and colorblind racists there would be some level of cognitive dissonance to be overcome in order to justify the killing of an unarmed black teenager who was guilty of no more than holding a bag of Skittles, and walking home wearing a hooded sweatshirt in the rain.
The solution to this puzzle comes in a common sense appeal to black thuggery, hooliganism, and a logic which suggests that people like Trayvon Martin are existential threats to civil order and society: to that end, Zimmerman's defenders marshal "data" and "statistics" which "prove" that black men commit a "disproportionate" amount of crime in American society. This "fact" becomes a casus belli for shooting down innocent black and brown people in the streets either at the hands of police, or corrupt vigilantes such as George Zimmerman.
This logic hangs in the ether, hiding in plain sight, and has gone little discussed in the public conversation about the Trayvon Martin shooting. The claim that black people commit more crime, and thus black men in particular should always be treated as uniquely and singularly capable of violence, is accepted and legitimized even by some liberals and progressives.
When conservatives bring up this point, many defenders of Trayvon Martin stutter, hew, and stammer through the inevitable, "that may be true, but..." moment. Rarely do they attack the premise of what is a centuries-old "true lie" that black people, and black men in particular, are criminal bogeyman and hoodlums--civilized and under control until they decide to lash out and show their true selves like metaphorical savage beasts, a dagger, or a bomb waiting to go off at any moment in the heart of “normal” society. Instead, many accept the terms of this true lie, and give it credence by accepting the premise of the argument.
In reality, matters are much more complicated. A surrender to a basic and fallacy laden argument that black people, and black young people in particular are uniquely and especially prone to violence, oversimplifies the nature of crime in America. As the old saying goes, "numbers lie and liars figure." Or alternatively, the lazy recitation of statistics is a dumb person's idea of how a smart person sounds.
The black people commit more crime canard is a fallacy of both process and outcomes. African Americans are subject to discrimination in the legal system at every level. As documented by The Sentencing Project, and detailed in such works as Race, Crime and the Law, and The New Jim Crow, African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police without cause, to be more aggressively questioned, receive longer and more severe charges for the same crimes as white defendants, and to have fewer resources to defend themselves in court.
As compared to white neighborhoods, black and brown communities are also subject to more severe surveillance and aggressive police tactics. Moreover, the disproportionate number of minorities in the criminal justice system can be largely explained by the War on Drugs. In total, if white communities were subject to the same type of aggressive police tactics as black and brown communities, the number of white people in prison would skyrocket.
The data is very telling here. While people of color are the prime targets of such policies as “stop and frisk” and racial profiling, it is in fact white people who are far more likely to be both drug users and to be in possession of narcotics at a given moment. This reality signals to a larger social phenomenon: black individuals who commit crimes are representative of their whole communities, crime is racialized, and there is no qualifier of individual intent. All black people are deemed suspicious and guilty because of the deeds of the very few.
In contrast, white people who commit crimes are unique individuals: the criminals who destroyed the global economy, a group of white men, were not taken as representative of the entire white community. There is a long list of crimes such as domestic terrorism, serial murder, child rape, sedition, treason, and financial fraud that are almost exclusively the province of white people. But again, whites as a group are excluded from suspicion or indictment as a “criminal class.”
The supposition that black men (and black folks more generally) are by definition “suspicious” is a channeling of the once in vogue concept known as “rational” or “reasonable” racism. Applying this logic, George Zimmerman is justified in shooting first, profiling, or harassing black people because “statistically” the latter are more likely to commit crime. Again, this is a chain of reasoning that is rife with problems.
Generalized statistics about crime tell you very little about a given person’s likelihood of committing a criminal act. This is especially true in a society where race and class are variables which over-determine how the courts treat suspects and who the police choose to single out for surveillance, harassment, and arrest.
Broad statistics also tell us little about a given population’s capacity or propensity to commit crime. For example, while black men are disproportionately incarcerated, the majority are in jail for drug offenses. African Americans are also more likely to be poor than whites. When a researcher accounts for these variables, the story becomes one of class and not race. Further problematizing the true lie that “black equals criminal,” is that disparities in crime largely disappear when you consider the black middle and upper classes in comparison to their white peers.
As demonstrated by Jody Armour in her book Negrophobia, less than 2 percent of black men are incarcerated for violent crimes. By implication, to generalize from the demographics of a given prison population to a specific person’s likelihood of committing a violent crime is a fool’s errand of the first order.
This is a counter-intuitive dynamic: just because a given group may constitute a higher percentage of those in jail, it does not in fact mean that a given individual is more likely to commit said type of crime.
A person is more likely to suffer a violent crime at the hands of a family member, friend, or acquaintance than a stranger; and most crime is intraracial.
Ultimately, incarceration is a function of many structural factors in relation to the criminal justice system.
Anecdotes matter. Police often give a pass to those who they know or trust. The white kid with weed just made a mistake; the black or Latino is a hardcore thug to be jailed. The judge may give parole or a lenient sentence to a white defendant in order to “teach them a lesson” about bad behavior. By comparison, a person of color before the same judge is already a “lost cause,” someone to have the book thrown at. We see this same dynamic even in schools: researchers have determined that white and black youth who are accused of the same offenses see wildly different outcomes in terms of punishment. The latter are suspended or expelled, while the former are given warnings or other remediation.
Two points are readily apparent.
The demographics of those in jails, prisons, and hospitals are a means of judging a society, as well as determining which groups of people are valued (and those who are not). By that calculus, the poor, working classes, and people of color are second class citizens in the United States.
If American history's circumstances were reversed along the axis of the color line, then our country's jails and prisons would be filled with millions of white people. In the sum total of this alternate America's history there would likely have been many thousands of white people killed at the hands of black mobs and blood thirsty vigilantes obsessed with maintaining the racial order, and protecting themselves from white “criminals” and “thugs.” In this world, there would likely have been many "Black" George Zimmermans and "white" Trayvon Martins.
Here is the true failure of political imagination and empathy in the present: many white conservatives instinctively defend George Zimmerman because they cannot imagine themselves, their kin, or their children, as victims of unjust violence at the hands of the police.
Sadly, the consequence is an inability to find a sense of shared humanity with Trayvon Martin, because to do so would require a leap of faith in the pursuit of shared humanity and the common good across lines of race and class--a journey that many white conservatives and others are unwilling to entertain even in the twenty-first century.
Once more, our politics are sick.