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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.

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