As George Zimmerman is acquitted of murder, the myth of a ‘post-racial America’ is debunked once again

Trayvon Martin

On 26 February, 2012, a boy was fatally shot on a residential street on his way home from buying sweets, but his killing was not murder. Prisoners (the majority of whom are black men) pick cotton in the sun for pennies per hour, watched by (almost always white) guards mounted on horseback and armed with rifles, but their labour is not slavery. Four-year-old black girls are shown images of cartoon girls, identical except their range of skin colours, and asked to point to the pretty girl; they overwhelmingly point to the palest, but these children have not been abused.

On Saturday 13 July, George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on the grounds of self defence.

When I woke up this morning to the news of Zimmerman’s acquittal, I didn’t share my Facebook friends’ “WTF?!” reactions. Except one: “This is what our lives are worth.” I feel unsurprised and exhausted by a story that feels, to me, desperately old.

Once when I was little, probably six or seven, my father left the house one evening – after dark, but not late – and didn’t come back.

He noticed he was being followed as he walked to the bus stop in the predominately white suburb where we lived at the time. He’d stop, and the man following him would stop. He turned to confront the man following him, and the man backed up. He soon found himself surrounded by police alerted by a conscientious neighbour to the presence of a suspicious individual – the black man minding his own business that is, not the white man following him menacingly through dark streets.

I’ve always known that Walking at Night While Black and Male is a crime in America, one on a long list, with a range of punishments and militias who feel tasked to enforce the subtle rules of race and mobility.

‘Racial problems are greater because we think we don’t have them.’ Toni Morrison

Some commentators have tried to downplay the role of racial profiling in the killing of Trayvon Martin, many pointing out that Zimmerman, as a hispanic-American, is also a member of a minority group. Indeed, George Zimmerman’s defence team was able to show that he did not have any history of racist behaviour.

The question of race as a motive and motif in this case is not down to the shooter’s individual beliefs. While George Zimmerman’s history may not be racist, American history is.

In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn notes that pseudo-scientific theories which held that blacks’ essential ethnic inferiority not only justified slavery as part of a “natural order” but also served as a narrative of subordination to fragment the working class in the American colonies along racial lines.

Zinn goes on to say that “American slavery [was] the most cruel form of slavery in history” because of two distinct features: “the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.” (p. 28)

So far so good in terms of instilling racism among the property-owning classes. However, as Zinn points out, among poor whites rhetoric of racial difference was often ignored. Exploitation of labour was rife and distribution of wealth grossly unfair in colonial and post-colonial America. Within this environment, poor whites often found that they had more in common with blacks than their white oppressors.

By granting greater liberties and more access to wealth to poor whites, the ruling class passed on a feeling of superiority over blacks (although their access to suffrage was far from universal and they remained distinctly poor). Suddenly the rhetoric of racial superiority was more tangible, and the masses which might have overthrown the new American capitalist elite were divided and neutralised.

Zimmerman’s hispanic identity should not cause confusion. This is absolutely about race. Racism seeps into every segment of life, a tool of the ruling classes to keep us fearful of each other – even when the Other is a boy with a bag of candy – and allows individuals to experience a sense of social legitimacy when defending the normative order.

Stand Your Ground

Under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws, you don’t have to wait around to be attacked in order to act in a way that can be deemed self-defence. Individual citizens can preempt a perceived threat. As we’ve seen, Walking at Night While Black and Male is threatening in a society is based on harsh hierarchies and buttressed by myths of equality.

“That child had every right to do what he was doing, walking home,” said John Guy, a prosecutor in the case. “That child had every right to be afraid of a strange man following him, first in his car and then on foot. And did that child not have the right to defend himself from that strange man?”

Stand Your Ground is all about the freedom to be terrorised no longer, to say enough is enough. Blowing away a burglar or batterer is dramatic, heroic even.

But where is our defence, how do we Stand Our Ground against the subtle, slow drip of teachers quick to exclude you, store detectives who follow you (around the store, certainly, but also sometimes through its doors and down the street), cops who harass and molest, kick and punch, a beauty industry that tells you that, for a price, you can be prettyforablackgirl, a national history that treats you as a problem?

The answer doesn’t lay in entry into the middle class or within the existing lexicon of capitalist legitimacy. We – and I mean We All, maybe even We the People – have interrogate the system in the form of our own fears, anxieties and assumptions, everything that seems like a reflex, anything we’ve been taught is “human nature” asking each one, “Where does this comes from?” and “Who profits when I feel this way?”