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Dismantle, from a feminist perspective, all forms of oppression, including but not limited to those based on ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation.
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Makes Something a "Race Issue"?

A lot of the talk at last night's event circled around the idea of whether of nor what happened to Trayvon was a "racial issue" and whether that question really mattered, given the very deliberate, racially-charged way in which this case has been presented to the media. I entered last nights event knowing, in my heart, that race was a very salient part of Trayvon's murder and that acknowledging this fact matters a lot. However, when I really sat down and tried to sort out in my head exactly why I felt this way, I realized I had a bit of work to do. I imagine I am not the only one fighting between gut & brain. I wrote this post to help us solidify and strengthen the connection between what we know in our guts and what we know from in a more academic, objective sense.

Why did Trayvon look suspicious? The hoodie. All conversation about this case keeps on coming back to the hoodie, but that doesn't mean race isn't involved. If we are being honest with ourselves it is the hoodie plus the color of Trayvon's skin that caused George Zimmerman to assume that Trayvon didn't belong in that neighborhood. This isn't Trayvon's fault. This isn't George Zimmerman's fault. This is all of our faults. We participate in a culture that props up the stereotype of the violent and dangerous black male. A culture that ties that image directly into crime and encourages people of all races to fear this archetypal "thug." through our news media, our movies, our music, our television shows... the stereotype is pervasive and damaging.

If nothing else, that stereotype likely made it just a little bit easier for Zimmerman to notice Trayvon, to decide to follow him, to pull the trigger... to end an innocent life.

(This video helps to explain the point I am trying to make pretty well.)

I understand that there had been a series of robberies in that town, committed by a group of individuals who eyewitnesses identified as black males. However, this does not excuse racial profiling. This does not excuse murder.

When a crime committed by a white person gains popularity in the media (take, for instance, the Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombings) we don't, as a culture, tend to jump to the conclusion that ALL white people are now suspicious. However, crimes committed by people of color are constantly used to excuse racial profiling. (Take, for instance, the increased suspicion and hate directed at Muslim Americans following 9/11.)

Racism is what made Trayvon Martin, a seventeen year old kid walking home with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, look "suspicious" that night. Zimmerman, like the rest of us, was trained to see black men as suspicious by his culture and he acted on that training in a devastating way.

Why DIDN'T George Zimmerman look suspicious? This question is even more crucial, in my opinion. Why didn't George Zimmerman look suspicious to the police? Lets take the bare, agreed-upon facts: Zimmerman, a self appointed unofficial neighborhood watch captain (AKA a vigilante) called the police to report an individual that he found "suspicious" for no real, concrete reason. Zimmerman is told to go home and not follow Trayvon, the police would handle it. Zimmerman then follows Trayvon, in his van and on foot, hunting him down until an altercation ensued.

Skipping over the physical altercation for a moment - since that is where there is the most conflict between different versions of the story -when the dust cleared and Trayvon lay dead in the street the police took Zimmerman at his word.

Despite the fact that they knew that Zimmerman CHOOSE to ignore their advice and follow Trayvon (provoking a confrontation) he was allowed to invoke the "Stand Your Ground" Law and claim that he had killed Trayvon in self defense.

The police let him go that night, without even taking his gun or his clothes to be tested as forensic evidence. 

The police let him go that night without taking a drug test - but Trayvon's body was drug tested.

This, in my eyes, is indicative of the institutionalized racism that permeates our culture. Even in death Trayvon, the young black man, is subject to more character scrutiny than Zimmerman - a comparably lighter-skinned man whose parents were both part of the very same judicial system that initially believed his story and let him off the hook. If that isn't privilege, then what is?

How does this fit into a larger conversation?
The majority of the popular big-picture conversation in America right now has revolved around black families and the talks that many parents need to have with their sons:
Reading about Trayvon reminded me of the list of the “don’ts” I received after my sheltered existence in Hazlet, N.J., was replaced with the reality of Newark when my mother remarried in the 1980s.
“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.
“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.
“Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse
There was also being mindful that you are being watched in stores. Watched turned to followed as I got older. To this day, if a sales person is overly attentive to what I might be looking for I leave the store. Never to return. And then there was keeping a distance of deniability from white women when walking on the street. Lest you be accused of any number of offenses, from trying to snatch her purse to sexual assault. [...]
All this might seem paranoid. After all, I was taught these things almost 20 years after Jim Crow by African Americans who experienced its soul-crushing force first hand. And this is 2012. So much has changed for the better since then. But then comes along a Trayvon Martin to remind us that the burden of suspicion is still ours to bear. And the cost for taking our lives might be none.
This is an example of one account in a conversation that continues to grow as many Americans try to wrap their heads around the context in which Trayvon lived and was murdered.
This short blog post is just a scratch at the surface. I could go on and talk to you about internalized racism and how that concept can muddy the discussions about racism. I could talk about Malik Williams or Ramarley Graham or countless other people whose murders were facilitated by racism, we could wonder why these deaths haven't gotten the same media representation as Trayvon's, we could discuss how race fit into their specific circumstances. We could talk for hours just about the way young black men are represented in the media and how this colors the way people see them in real life. We could talk about white privilege and wonder if Zimmerman had any, based on his appearance. We could talk and talk and talk... but why? Where are we trying to go with all of this?

This article, which uses a classroom metaphor to argue that it is time for America to do the reading before trying to have a discussion about racism, sums up my feelings about this situation pretty well.

It happens after every major news story involving race, and we fail miserably as a nation every time. We now find ourselves asking questions about the lives of young black men -- including the lessons that black parents hand down to their sons about how to move in the world that finds them suspicious -- and, to a lesser degree, about the perceptions we all hold of black men. While that may sound as if we're on the right track, given how much experience we have already had with unarmed black men being gunned down for no reason, it raises the question: Why don't we know the answers yet?[...]

A national conversation on race is pointless if we have to keep starting over. [...] This isn't about being able to see the world through the eyes of the oppressed; rather, it's about paying attention when the oppressed tell their own stories and believing them.
If we're going to have this conversation then we need to actually have this conversation, no excuses. I started off the process by doing some reading and thinking, above. Now I want to hear what you're reading and thinking, about Trayvon and about the bigger picture, because Its time we had this conversation, for real. Its time that we figure out - why don't we have the answers yet and how many more years of racism will it take until America wakes up and deals with our issues?

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