Killing the black male body

Young black men find little justice in an inherently flawed judicial system, particularly in Stand Your Ground states.

Rallies for Treyvon held in most US cities against ''non-guilty'' verdict for Zimmerman
"There remains an experiential, perceptual and knowledge gap between US blacks, non-blacks and some segments of the immigrant community about how racism operates in the United States," writes France Twine [Reuters]

On July 14, a Florida jury of six that included 5 white women and no blacks, found George Zimmerman, the son of a German American father and Peruvian mother, “not guilty” of all counts in the death of Trayvon Martin. For blacks in the United States and their anti-racist allies, Zimmerman, who was initially classified as “White” and later reclassified as a “Hispanic White”, is a symbol of institutional racism. This case calls attention to racial disparities in jury verdicts and the legalisation of “vigilantism” in the form of Stand Your Ground laws .

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, then the 28 year white son of a retired judge, shot to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17 year old black teenager. The Florida police refused to arrest Zimmerman for 44 days because Stand Your Ground laws allow residents of that State to use lethal violence to kill another person in self-defence. This is not unique to Florida but could have happened in any state with Stand Your Ground laws. Thirty-one US States, in every region of the US except New England, have passed Stand Your Ground legislation.

Trayvon Martin family’s lawyer talks to Al Jazeera

There is a bigger problem than whether George Zimmerman was driven by anti-black racism to pursue a teenager unknown to him, provoke an altercation and then use lethal violence on an unarmed black teenager. And that is a legal system that has sanctioned the outsourcing of policing and the use of extrajudicial violence.

These laws cannot be understood outside of a long history of white supremacy in which state sanctioned anti-black violence was routine during slavery and continued after the emancipation of slaves. The “outsourcing” of surveillance and policing extends centuries-old practices used to control and police black residents, both slave and free.

The racial gap in exposure to extrajudicial violence

John Roman, a senior analyst at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, found dramatic racial disparities in the verdicts handed down for homicides when he compared states that had Stand Your Ground laws to those that didn’t. Using data from the 2011 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports, Roman found that in Stand Your Ground states, white people who shot and killed blacks were 354 percent more likely to be found “innocent” or “justified” in the killings by a jury when compared to white people who kill whites. A white person is 5.8 times more likely to be killed by another white person than by a black person. The white fear of blacks is not based on facts but rather cultural myths about dangerous black men. What is clear from these statistics is that black children can be killed by whites with legal immunity and a jury evaluates the shooter more leniently when compared to a white victim. The dramatic racial disparities in verdicts in homicide cases revealed by this study illustrates how anti-black racism operates in the Post-Civil Rights era. It also shows that black life is accorded less value. Thus Stand Your Ground laws, which are race-neutral in language, have nevertheless produced dramatic disparities by race in the verdicts handed down to white killers.

Trayvon Martin’s parents lead rallies in US

The racial gap in the exposure to violence from the police, white vigilantes and white supremacists has rendered black male bodies particularly vulnerable.  The death of Trayvon Martin has generated a new term “walking while black” to the lexicon of routine racism and micro-aggressions that blacks endure in the United States. Black and brown men are “racially profiled”, that is, they are targeted and treated as “suspects” before there is any evidence that they have actually committed a crime. Their bodies are routinely violated by invasive searches and higher levels of surveillance when compared to their white counterparts.

As black and brown people drive, shop, walk, play in public spaces, when compared to people socially classified as “white”, they can be subjected to disproportionate surveillance and violence – including extrajudicial violence by individuals not authorised by the state to use lethal violence. Extrajudicial violence, such as the lynchings of black men by white mobs, was relatively common during the period 1870-1970s. In the early 21st century, the use of lethal rather than non-lethal violence seems to have increased when it comes to police and vigilantes. Rather than shooting an individual in the knee, legs, or groin, they are simply shot to death. Black males of all ages who are stopped by the police are more likely than non-black citizens to be subjected to brutal and excessive violence and/or killed.

Anti-black racism in the age of Obama

Since the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the first US president of African ancestry, anti-black racial attitudes have increased. In a 2012 Associated Press poll designed to measure racial sentiment, 51 percent of Americans surveyed expressed explicit anti-black attitudes. The Age of Obama now appears to be an era of continued and heightened anti-black racism, that has generated a legal structure that justifies the shooting of unarmed black people in the United States. This is supported by the almost weekly shooting of unarmed black men in all regions of the United States.

In the United States, particularly outside of urban black America, we have a citizenry that lacks racial literacy. I use the term racial literacy to refer to the ability to name, recognise and understand how contemporary racism operates. This includes 1) not conceptualising racism as something that exists only in the past, 2) understanding that racism assumes multiple forms, 3) possessing the grammar and concepts to discuss it, 4) developing strategies to counter it and 5) not employing the discourse of colour-blindness to avoid recognising one’s racial privileges. In the absence of racial literacy in a nation where the rhetoric of individualism and meritocracy is employed to deny, conceal and block meaningful discussions about racial and class inequality in the United States, it is easy to demonise and criminalise black youth. This enables Americans to avoid painful discussions and tough questions about social suffering and white privilege.

Racial justice and an anti-racist curriculum:

There remains an experiential, perceptual and knowledge gap between US blacks, non-blacks and some segments of the immigrant community about how racism operates in the United States. The persistent racial and ethnic gaps in naming, identifying, and understanding what racism is, is reflected in the polls in which a vast majority of whites do not think that racism is a contemporary problem. They are living in a completely different universe – a parallel world that some would call apartheid. Unless one has a black family member, black spouse, children of African ancestry or close black friends, it seems that non-blacks don’t develop empathy with blacks and lack a basic awareness or understanding of the social suffering that blacks endure in the US as they negotiate daily forms of micro-aggression and racism. 

Witness – Permission To Engage

The inability to “see” racism has an impact upon all Americans including those who serve on juries. The US government has failed to require children to learn the “real” history of US colonialism, hundreds of years of state sanctioned racism and particularly the unique forms of racial violence that  US blacks (and other minorities) have endured for centuries. The issue of racism is often discussed in the mainstream US media as something that occurred in an earlier period. Jim Crow segregation ended in the 1970s – within the living memory of a segment of the US black population. Racism – although dressed up in more modern clothes – exists and has a direct impact upon access to education, legal representation, jobs, and to social networks that provides racially privileged children with forms of cultural, social, economic and symbolic capital that may be invisible to them.

It is possible to graduate with honours from a US high school and a public or private university without learning about the history of state racism and on-going racial inequalities. Instead this topic is typically ghettoised in a system of informal academic apartheid in which non-blacks must be inspired to take a Black Studies course and be fortunate enough to take a Social Justice class, but they are not required to learn the particular history of violence to which black bodies are routinely subjected. The “Diversity” requirement that some universities require can be fulfilled by a wide range of courses that may or may not include learning about what Michelle Alexander has eloquently written about in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness

What is desperately needed in the Post-Civil Rights United States is an anti-racist national curriculum that, instead of embracing colour-blindness, acknowledges the ongoing institutional racism which structures the lives of blacks, and poor darker skinned Latinos at all income levels. We need mass anti-racist education, because clearly people evaluate and determine whether an individual is suspicious based not simply on whether they are engaged in a criminal activity but upon their accent, skin colour, clothing, dress, and their presumptions about entire categories of people. Black citizens, like undocumented workers, are routinely targeted for searches or “profiling” and not protected from violence from either police officers or their vigilante proxies.

Black male bodies as a national sacrifice zone

On New Years Day in 2009, Johannes Mehserle, a white Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer, shot and killed Oscar Grant, a 21 year old unarmed black man. He shot him in the back while he was prone on the ground at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland. This shooting was captured on video by witnesses who recorded the event as it unfolded, which were subsequently circulated through social networks. Police officers are rarely held accountable for the deaths of the unarmed black men who are routinely shot and killed. Although Mehserle was convicted of manslaughter, he only served one year of a two-year sentence and was held in a separate cell to protect him from other prisoners.

Although California is one of the few states that does not have Stand Your Ground laws, this does not exempt the police from using excessive force and lethal violence in the killing of unarmed black men. The case of Oscar Grant is an example of a larger problem that will remain, even if the Stand Your Ground laws are revoked in the thirty-one States that currently have them.

The United States has become a country where the bodies of black male youth have become a national sacrifice zone where they can be shot and killed with impunity. Stand Your Ground laws have essentially legalised a form of vigilantism and routinised violence that authorises fear-driven Americans to use lethal violence to kill. It “outsources” policing to civilians and empowers them to pursue “suspects”. And what do they appear to be the most afraid of? Black male youth.

Black male youth, whether they reside in California or the other 18 states that do not have Stand Your Ground laws, can be stopped and frisked by police or shot dead for looking suspicious. Just last week, another unarmed black man was shot to death by the Oakland Police. Black male youth are among the most vulnerable bodies in public spaces. If shot by someone who is not a police officer, the shooter, if white, can be declared “innocent” of murder or manslaughter by juries simply by convincing them that “I was afraid”.

Although anti-black racism can’t be fixed over night, repealing the Stand Your Ground legislation is a good step in the right direction. Eliminating such legislation won’t stop the Oscar Grants from happening again, but it could prevent another Trayvon Martin.

France Winddance Twine is a documentary filmmaker and a Professor of Sociology at University of California at Santa Barbara. She teaches courses on the sociology of racism and antiracism, gender inequality, and qualitatiave research methods at. She has held tenured professorships at Duke University and the University of Washington in Seattle. Her recent publications include Girls with Guns: firearms, feminism and militarism  (2013) and Geographies of Privilege (2013).