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Reflections on the Killing of a Black Boy

Today’s guest blog post is by Dr. Steven Gregory, Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies at Columbia University:

All black males are [potential] criminals.
Trayvon Martin is a black male.
Trayvon Martin is a criminal.

This flawed syllogism rests at the crux of the Zimmerman trial.  It was at the heart of the defense team’s case, the reasoning of at least one juror (B-37), and the public pronouncements of many Americans who believe that the acquittal of George Zimmerman was just.  It was this erroneous major premise that the prosecution failed to refute, largely as a consequence of Judge Debra S. Nelson’s incomprehensible ruling that  “racial profiling” could not be argued in court.

As a direct consequence, the killing of Trayvon Martin was ripped from its social and historical context and reduced to Zimmerman’s alleged fear.  The facts presented in evidence—forensic analyses, inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s various accounts, the fact that Zimmerman stalked Martin, and Rachel Jeantal’s ear witness account—all this paled in comparison to the transcendent truth of white fear.  White fear was taken to be self-evident, prima facie, and not requiring evidence to be found “reasonable.”

I know that Zimmerman’s mother is Peruvian.  But whiteness is a subject position and not a fact rooted in biology.   In another context Zimmerman could, himself, have been profiled as an “illegal Mexican,” as was Bronx-born Salsa superstar Mark Anthony at the All Star Game held recently in New York.  “How are you going to pick a got dam Mexican to sing God Bless America,” twittered one twisted baseball fan.  But when George Zimmerman got out of his car, tracked down and fatally shot Trayvon Martin he became white in the minds of American racists and in the minds of the indifferent.   And in that vicious and murderous act of transmutation the victim became victimizer, white racism became white fear, and a dead black boy was found guilty of his own murder.  As for Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantal, they, as Frantz Fanon put it, had no “ontological resistance” for the supporters of the acquittal.   They were whatever white anxiety, anger and racism could conjure forth.

Here, I suppose, I should ask the question, “What can anthropology do to address the death of Trayvon Martin?”  My immediate, heartfelt response to this question is that I am not sure that I care.  As a black man, I cannot afford to care.   As a black man, there are things that I must do that trump ruminating over a panel idea for this year’s AAA meetings.  Let me explain.  In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, many black people (including the President of the United States) are remembering, indeed, reliving occasions when they have been racially profiled and, not infrequently, confronted with deadly force.  I suppose that this phenomenon is akin to the forgetting that occurs in cases of people who have been sexually abused as children.  And how could it be otherwise?  Black people have lives to live, and they must live them as if they will not be gunned down or dragged to death behind a truck on a country road.  Black people have no choice but to live in a fragile, fictive bubble of normalcy.  And this is what so many white people do not understand.

When I was a sophomore in college my bubble burst.  It was neither the first time nor the last in my lifetime.  A friend and I had just left campus in my car.  We had picked up film equipment for a project that we planned to do latter in the week.  Just when we reached a busy intersection, two unmarked cars appeared out of nowhere and cut us off.  In what seemed like seconds a fleet of marked police cars arrived on the scene, sirens wailing.  A mob of barking police officers surrounded the car, guns drawn and pointed at us.  Amid hollers of “Get the fuck out the car or we’ll blow your fuckin’ heads off!” they gave us a contradictory command: they told us to put our hands out the window and get out the car.  I can remember the split second of terror and paralysis when I made eye contact with my friend and we realized that we could not do both simultaneously. With guns pressed to our heads, they dragged us out of the car, handcuffed us, and threw us face down on the hot asphalt.

They did not ask any questions.  They searched the car, ripping the seats out and tossing them to the ground.  Then they went through the trunk.  They opened the camera case and threw the Arriflex 16 mm. camera and lighting equipment to the ground.   After about forty minutes, a captain showed up and spoke out of earshot with the dozen or so cops who remained.  “A case of mistaken identity,” he said later to us, or something to that effect.  He then told us sternly to get our stuff together and clear the intersection.  There was no apology or expression of regret.

This is what I recall when I reflect on the Zimmerman verdict.  It does not inspire me to write a scholarly article or book.  It does not motivate me to tweak out some novel theoretical angle or buzz word for a conference.  And it does not inspire me to organize a “teach in” within the cloistered precincts of Columbia University, where I work.  But it does inspire me to take action in concert and solidarity with all those people in the streets, the community centers, and in the houses of worship of this country who could have been Trayvon Martin on that tragic night.  It inspires me to fight back.

There is no question that anthropology has done a great deal to change the way that some Americans think about race and racism.  And that work needs must continue.    But the racist does not act out of ignorance; he acts with willful ignorance.  Ignorance, mendacity and white rage are weapons for the like of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Don West, and all those who believe that black life has no value.  And this, in my opinion, is the battlefield upon which we must struggle for justice for all.  And that battlefield begins right in our backyards.

13 Responses

  1. This is brilliant…thank you for sharing.

  2. This is brilliant. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Beautiful article. I appreciate the sharing of experiences by those considered academic professionals that shows black teenagers are not some different species from black professionals, one becomes the other. More needs to be discussed of the existence of white rage instead of pretending it does not exist in American society. Anthropologists shining a spotlight on these issues in our own country can do much to temper our denial.

  4. I am an anthropologist. I am not pleased to be, twice in a week, lectured by other anthropologists, who have access to media coverage, about the necessity to express publicly an
    “anthropological” outrage about racial conditions in the United States, based on the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin, and the trial of George Zimmerman. Last week, the President of the American Association of Anthropologists, Leith Mullings, posted a long offensive message concerning the issue of racism in America, which was, in tone and perspective, not different from street outrage among some black activists. And now, just a few days after, here is again, published on the blog page of the American Anthropologist Association, a message by a Dr. Steven Gregory, Professor of Anthropology, African America n Studies, Columbia University. The link to that message is: http://blog.aaanet.org/2013/07/22/reflections-on-the-killing-of-a-black-boy/

    I gasped when I read the following words, which I felt must come to the notice of the people named by this individual:

    “There is no question that anthropology has done a great deal to change the way that some Americans think about race and racism. And that work needs must continue. But the racist does not act out of ignorance; he acts with willful ignorance. Ignorance, mendacity and white rage are weapons for the like of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Don West, and all those who believe that black life has no value. And this, in my opinion, is the battlefield upon which we must struggle for justice for all. And that battlefield begins right in our backyards.”

    I profoundly disagree with such words, denoting a totally unnecessary indignation. and feel that such language indeed stains the profession and ethics of anthropology.

    • Thank you, Helene, for a welcome burst of sanity on this topic. I am ashamed to be a AAA member after reading this blog post and the message from Dr. Mullings.

      Both of these rants seem designed to incense the reader and the final words from Dr. Gregory are easily interpreted as a call to commit violence.

      Dr. Gregory is particularly uncharitable in his caricature of Limbaugh et al. and clearly makes false statements that can only be meant to antagonize those with views that differ from his own and thereby further inflame an already tense situation. For example, if you ask Limbaugh or the others Dr. Gregory mentions whether or not “black life” has any value, would they truly answer in the negative?

      So much for trying to bring people together and promote peace and understanding.

      I do not agree with the politics or views of Limbaugh, etc. but if the AAA is willing to publish inflammatory and obviously false statements from Dr. Gregory about these people, perhaps the AAA should also provide a forum for Limbaugh and others to defend themselves?

      I could not agree more with Helene that the language and tone of Dr. Gregory’s blog post and Dr. Mulling’s message “stains the profession and ethics of anthropology”.

    • Dr. Hagan,

      I feel that you may have misunderstood Dr. Gregory’s point. As I understand his words (though it should not be seen as me speaking for him), he was suggesting that though we may be anthropologists, we are people. Action for change must be appropriate to one’s idiom and circumstances, and sometimes, anthropological responses are less than useful. Some of us don’t have the luxury of not feeling targeted by racial regimes. If he argued the point of view of “human rights”, might you have felt more comfortable with it? In short, he wasn’t expressing “anthropological” outrage. He was expressing his personal outrage.

  5. Reblogged this on Loco's Patronus.

  6. This article hit the mark and addressed truths about this case, and about what it means to black in America that I had never considered before. Most poignant, ” the fragile, fictive bubble of normalcy,” that black people are forced to live within. That idea is gonna keep me up thinking tonight for sure. Thanks for this!

    • Dr. Hagan, you just dicounted any shred of credibility you had with this post.

  7. A moving piece. We should not act toward each other as anthropologists, but as ethical human beings. It was very clear from Juror #B37’s comments that she failed to see Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantel as fully human. The work that needs to be done is in civil society as the essay points out. Trayvon Martin’s death should not be in vain.

  8. Thanks Steven Gregory, a well-written, well-thought-out and timely peice. I’m very surprised at the strength of the push-back against folks who speak out against the verdict. It tells me that there is something powerfully cultural at work behind the denial of racism in this country.

  9. “I profoundly disagree with such words, denoting a totally unnecessary indignation. and feel that such language indeed stains the profession and ethics of anthropology.” Really? Then what would totally necessary indignation sound like in this case? Or, lest others feel offended by cries of pain, must the outraged “other”, whose views may elicit personal discomfort, be silenced? And calling Gregory’s reflections on the need to struggle for social justice antagonistic, uncharitable “rants” that call for violence? Please.

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