On February 26, 2012 Trayvon Martin, a Black, 17 a year old, unarmed, high school student, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a White Hispanic man acting in the self-appointed position of neighborhood watch captain (click here for more details).
The case has become a symbolic battle ground for two important issues: gun laws and racism. Although both of these issues are inextricably entwined, for purposes of simplicity, I will focus here only on the issue of race.
As Jessie Daniels importantly points out on Racism Review, battles over racism have shifted into the realm of social media, where digital and physical race relations persist in an augmented relationship. We see this in both the progressive anti-racist discourses, and the racial smear campaigns surrounding the Martin/Zimmerman case.
Although it is important to expose the overtly racist tactics utilized by some of Zimmerman’s defenders—of which there are plenty—I want to talk here about a more subtle, and so perhaps more problematic form of racial discourse. Specifically, I will talk about how a prominent strategy of protest—coming out of the liberal left—may inadvertently perpetuate, rather than challenge, racial hierarchies in their most dehumanizing form.
The tactic of which I speak is one that has made the rounds on my own Facebook Newsfeed, and one in which I—prior to more critical thought—actively participated. I am talking about the images and texts that couple Black bodies with prestigious social positions, and ask viewers/readers to problematize the racialized assumptions that often lead to faulty first impressions—which in turn lead to physical danger for the racialized subject. This tactic comes in two forms: political memes and case examples.
The memes, such as the one pictured below, are direct and general. They argue that Black bodies are assumed dangerous unless proven otherwise. In the case of this specific meme, they warn us that we might, in our assumptive haste, treat a doctor as a criminal purely based on the color of hir skin.
The case examples, such as the one pictured below, are more in depth, but accomplish a similar task. They picture a clean-cut, male, Black, body. They list his credentials, and then tell the tragic tale of his physical abuse at the hands of scared, racist, white, figures of authority.
Activists who use these memes and case examples strategically link them to Trayvon Martin’s story, highlighting his clean record and child-like face. This protest tactic honors Martin (and other Black boys and men who have been hurt because of a racist culture). It also spotlights the problematic racialized lens with which Americans largely operate. Further, and let me be clear, both forms of this protest tactic tell an empirically accurate story. The messages of the memes and case examples are not incorrect. Martin’s death, just like Jordan Trent Miles beating, is absolutely linked to race. The presence of Martin’s Black male body in a public space was enough to elicit Zimmerman’s suspicion, which resulted in a child’s death.
Simultaneously, however, the memes and case examples are gross oversimplifications with insidious consequences. As they are presented, these oversimplified protest tools perpetuate oppressive hierarches that lie at the intersection race and class. Specifically, they work to differentiate the “good” from the “bad” kind of racial minority—and imply that the life of the former is somehow more valuable than the life of the latter.
As in the case of Jordan Trent Miles, we are warned that our racial assumptions may lead to the wrongful and tragic harm of a “good” racial minority—reinforcing the devaluation of poor, under-educated, ghetto-dwelling, over-policed and under-protected, people of color. Indeed, as the left vehemently fights against accusations that Trayvon Martin sold drugs, we forget to ask: “SO WHAT IF HE DID!?” Would he somehow be less human? Would his murder be less atrocious? Would his family feel less pain? As the left justifiably decries the invasive and accusative investigations into Trayvon’s life, their (our) protest tactics effectively present the opposite side of the same coin.
The empirical reality of Blackness in America is that it often intersects with poverty, which in turn, intersects with crime. A poor Black man with a criminal record is an artifact of a deeply embedded racial system. The memes and case examples discussed above perpetuate the devaluation of the Poor Black subject, marginalizing him against those who are upwardly mobile. In utilizing this protest tactic we remain on the surface, failing to penetrate the grittier realities of race in America that led George Zimmerman to perceive an anonymous, unarmed, Black boy as a threat. As a result, we not only ignore these realities, but become silently, dangerously, and naively complicit in their reproduction.