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Who Has the Right to Self-Defense and Life in So-Called “Post-Racial” Society?

Today’s guest blog post is written by AAA member, Dr. Faye V. Harrison. She is a Joint Professor in Anthropology and African American Studies at the University of Florida.

The outcome of the George Zimmerman trial is symptomatic of the extent to which an insidious post-racial ideology has influenced US society.  The court’s refusal to recognize the part that racial profiling played in Trayvon Martin’s death belies the reality of structural racism in a society in which anxieties over crime and security are inextricably entangled with racialized perceptions and projections of danger and disorder.

Besides having examined the media coverage and some of the scholarly literature on racial profiling, I am also familiar with the phenomenon on other grounds.  I am the mother of three sons who, on many occasions, have been deemed to be guilty while driving, walking, and shopping black.  Moreover, their father and uncles, despite being a generation older and established members of their community, have also had more of their share of being racially profiled.  In one instance, my husband and his older brother, both university professors, were stopped while driving in an area of town where police claimed to be on the lookout for two black male robbery suspects.  After the police stopped them, asked them to get out of the car and searched them and the car, it should have been clear that these two African-American men did not fit the description of the younger suspects.  Instead of letting the men resume their drive home, the police called in for reinforcements, escalating the situation.  The presumed danger the police encountered was nothing other than black men’s verbal indignation for being targeted and disrespected because of race.  Fortunately, the confrontation subsided without an arrest, injury, or death.  However, that incident, like so many others around the country, demonstrates the existential and structural vulnerability of not only working-class, working-poor, and unemployed black youths, who bear the brunt of this targeting, but also of a wider class and generational cross-section of African Americans and other racially-subjected people.

While meanings that encode danger and predatory criminality are frequently attributed to the bodies and intentions of black males, racial profiling also affects other populations, as illuminated in the online Native News Network in which Navajo/Yankton Sioux filmmaker Jacqueline Keeler recently posted a relevant commentary, “My Dad Was Almost Trayvon Martin” (July 17, 2013).  However, indigenous and other ethno-racial minority males are not the only targets.  For example, Black women are commonly profiled as drug mules and sex workers and, as a result, subjected to invasive strip searches, sexual harassment and even rape.  The devaluation of their lives also results in incarceration and loss of life, but with less media attention and public engagement than in the case of males.

A combination of personal testimonies, academic research, and investigative reports from civil rights and human rights organizations clearly demonstrate that racial profiling, whether emanating from policing or the practice of vigilante justice, is a severe problem in this country as well as in many other parts of the world.  The problem in the US has been documented and debated domestically and transnationally.  In 2008, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism investigated racism in the US. In his report, racial profiling was a major issue he addressed in the contexts of law enforcement, immigration, counterterrorism, and post-Katrina conditions.

The nearly all-white and all-female jury that found Zimmerman not guilt in the second-degree murder or manslaughter of 17-year old Martin accepted the defense attorneys’ claim that racial profiling was not operative in the case.  They accepted the argument that Zimmerman had justifiably criminally profiled Martin, whose hoodie supposedly made him suspicious in a neighborhood where black males had allegedly committed robberies.  Since the verdict was announced, people of diverse backgrounds have demonstrated against the acquittal, and they have demanded a federal investigation of civil rights violations and a repeal of stand-your-ground laws.  All around the country protesters are contesting the court’s post-racial interpretation of Martin’s demise.  That both the defense and the prosecution discounted race indicates the extent to which colorblindness has taken hold of a considerable portion of the populace.

Trayvon Martin’s death is the most visible in a larger pattern in which police and armed citizens have been acquitted—if arrested and arraigned at all—for killing blacks, particularly black youths, after invoking conventional self-defense claims or stand-your-ground law.  Although Florida’s stand-your- ground law had no official role in the trial, its existence and the popular support for it among gun owners contributed to the ideological climate in which the jurors operated.  In her CNN interview with Anderson Cooper, Juror 37 asserted that Zimmerman had the right to defend himself.  She referred to stand-your-ground law as a justification for her selective interpretation of the evidence.  In her view, Martin’s part in the scuffle that led to his death was not self-defense but the life-threatening violence through which he caused his own death.  Such blame-the-victim logic is pervasive in the criminal justice system and the school-to-prison pipeline that feeds into it.

Anthropologists can contribute useful insights into the complex dynamics germane to the lived experience of and the ideological-political struggles over racial profiling.  For instance, we can illuminate the shifting contexts in which some minorities and new immigrants are subjected to racialized and racially-gendered policing and litigation while others are conferred the prerogatives of whiteness with the right to armed self-defense.  We can also find the means to express practical solidarity with those who are standing up for change.

8 Responses

  1. For me, looking from a psychological vantage-point, GZimmerman’s “softness” led him to act out his amplified fears in an attempt to conquer them. Up until that fateful encounter with a teen who was trying to get home before anything bad happened to him, GZimmerman’s performance of manhood was untested. He was seeking self-assurance of his testosterone-based adequacy. That’s why he felt so relaxed and confident after shooting and killing the boy. In his mind, he just “passed the test.” People who carry a gun with common sense and training know not to nullify the advantage the gun gives them by getting so close they get into a long physical altercation and get their ass kicked because they’ve been watching too many “tough guy” movies. His inability to recognize/admit how “soft” he was [".5 on a scale of 1-10"], his wish to prove he was a man, and his lack of knowledge and experience of physical engagement (getting into a fight) were a bad mix. Same for a lot of people who blow someone away with a gun, regardless of race, color, creed, and political affiliation: Didn’t go to the army, didn’t learn to respect firearms, didn’t learn the scope of effective defensible postures, didn’t know what it feels like to wrestle someone who made the football team, didn’t know how punch something besides shadows: He was out of his league on every count. His decision to kill someone was made the moment he got his hands on a gun. He wasn’t going to “win” any contest without it that night. He just could not admit it to himself. The decision of the jury to provide him absolution from stupidity makes sense only in their own experience of America’s traditional overwhelming fear of the Black male. I wonder how young TMartin would have to have been before a jury refused to buy the argument that it was reasonable for GZimmerman to have that much fear…?

  2. For me, looking from a psychological vantage-point, GZimmerman’s “softness” led him to act out his amplified fears in an attempt to conquer them. Up until that fateful encounter with a teen who was trying to get home before anything bad happened to him, GZimmerman’s performance of manhood was untested. He was seeking self-assurance of his testosterone-based adequacy. That’s why he felt so relaxed and confident after shooting and killing the boy. In his mind, he just “passed the test.” People who carry a gun with common sense and training know not to nullify the advantage the gun gives them by getting so close they get into a long physical altercation and get their ass kicked because they’ve been watching too many “tough guy” movies. His inability to recognize/admit how “soft” he was [".5 on a scale of 1-10"], his wish to prove he was a man, and his lack of knowledge and experience of physical engagement (getting into a fight) were a bad mix. Same for a lot of people who blow someone away with a gun, regardless of race, color, creed, and political affiliation: Didn’t go to the army, didn’t learn to respect firearms, didn’t learn the scope of effective defensible postures, didn’t know what it feels like to wrestle someone who made the football team, didn’t know how punch something besides shadows: He was out of his league on every count. His decision to kill someone was made the moment he got his hands on a gun. He wasn’t going to “win” any contest without it that night. He just could not admit it to himself. The decision of the jury to provide him absolution from stupidity makes sense only in their own experience of America’s traditional overwhelming fear of the Black male. I wonder how young TMartin would have to have been before a jury refused to buy the argument that it was reasonable for GZimmerman to have that much fear…?

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  3. […] Who Has the Right to Self-Defense and Life in So-Called “Post-Racial” Society?. […]

  4. I’ll be the first to agree that we’re not post-racial. Not by a long shot. Though I’d like to think we’ve made advances, Black Americans still get mistreated by the justice system all the time. (http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/rd_sentencing_review.pdf) This is a problem that needs fixing.

    Yet, I’m often left wondering why people exemplify such injustice with Zimmerman’s trial? For example, this article assumes that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, but fails to cite any evidence demonstrating such. Racial profiling is one Heck of an accusation, one that directly weighs on the accused’s charges, so it requires… you know… evidence. Which I’ve seen nobody provide.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that judicial racism is less overt than it was during Jim Crow. Yet, we cannot realistically assume that every interracial confrontation happens because of racism.

    So I ask: on what premise do we assume Zimmerman racially profiled Martin?

    — Ashkuff

    • My question to AshKuff is what do you think racial profiling is? Please explain how you define racial profiling. I am thinking that you are not familiar with the term.

      • Darn good question!

        Racial profiling, as I’ve been taught, is “using race as grounds for suspicion.”

        If Zimmerman had provably racially profiled Martin, that may’ve constituted the “spite” necessary to make 2nd degree murder charges stick. (http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-76667456/) Which, like I said, is a big accusation.

        So I’m still left asking: on what premise did Zimmerman racially profile Martin?

        — Ashkuff

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