Making Racism Invisible in Post-Racial America: Trayvon Martin’s Death Goes Unpunished

The Zimmerman trial and verdict is symptomatic of the “post-racial” racism that characterizes US society today. Although open bigotry is legally banned, a deeply-embedded discrimination still exists that evokes the subterranean legacy of slavery. It is embodied in racial coding leveraged by Republican political propaganda and through social perceptions that find young black men threatening.

Some argue that the verdict proves nothing has changed since Reconstruction. I would disagree: there is a difference, in that the assertion of color-blindness is integral to the way white privilege and power is being renewed in the context of a changed demographic that makes people of color a majority in America.

The trial judge’s prohibition of any mention of racial profiling served to suppress jurors’ perception of Trayvon Martin’s real fears at being pursued, as a young black man, and enabled Zimmerman’s defense team to introduce coded racial markers to justify Zimmerman’s story of being in fear of his life. It also diverted attention away from the circumstances that led to their struggle, allowing Martin’s own fear to remain unimagined and Zimmerman’s guilt to remain unpunished.

Lisa Graves told Democracy Now that, although the defense did not resort to it, the judge’s instructions to the jury embodied Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. She said: “… the exact instruction to the jury was that Zimmerman had ‘no duty to retreat’ and had a ‘right to stand his … ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.’ That’s a direct quote from the jury instructions. Those jury instructions incorporate the Stand Your Ground law.”

Although it was Zimmerman who stalked Martin and precipitated the confrontation, juror B-37 explained how they took these instructions into account when concluding that he was not guilty of murder or manslaughter: “Because of the heat of the moment and stand your ground, he had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened his life was going to be taken away from him or he’s going to have bodily harm then he had a right. That’s how we read the law, that’s how we got to the point of everybody being not guilty.”

She said she didn’t believe Zimmerman followed Martin because of his race, and that Martin was partly responsible for his own death. “I think George got in a little bit too deep, which he shouldn’t have been there, but Trayvon decided that he wasn’t going to let him scare him and get the one-over, up on him or something,” she said. “I think Trayvon got mad and attacked him.” By not walking away from the confrontation, “I believe he played a huge role in his death.”

Her sympathy for Zimmerman contrasted with her unconsciously racist assessment of Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak to Martin and an important witness for the prosecution. She saw Jeantel as uneducated and stumbling in her testimony: “She just didn’t want to be there, and she was embarrassed by being there because of her education and her communication skills, that she just wasn’t a good witness.” In an interview after the trial, Jeantel explained to Piers Morgan it was difficult for her to answer aggressive defense questions because she was still dealing with the death of her best friend.  “It’s not that I didn’t want to be there. I was dealing with a lot of stress for 16 months. I was grieving.”

In court, Jeantel recounted her final phone conversation with Trayvon Martin, describing how Martin asked his pursuer “Why are you following me for?” and ended with him saying “Get off, get off.” Defense attorneys attacked her credibility and her use of slang terms, which were not understood by the jury. As James Baldwin wrote:  “It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not [her] language that is despised: It is [her] experience.”

What the court has now officially confirmed is whites’ legal privilege over African-Americans in Florida. Obama, who describes his own policies as color-blind, issued a statement after the verdict was announced to deflect protests onto the issue of gun violence. His surrogate, Eric Holder, called for a “hard look” at Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, but not at the endemic racism of the courts, suggesting that parents having to advise their children how to behave if they are ever confronted by whites “is a sad reality in a nation changing for the better in so many ways.”

Author Michelle Alexander addressed this systemic racism on Democracy Now. She said the mindset that viewed young men of color as a problem to be dealt with has infected the whole social system and created a prison apparatus unprecedented in world history.  “It is the Zimmerman mindset, the mindset that some people, viewed largely by race and class, are a problem that must be dealt with harshly and just locked up and, you know, the key thrown away, that has helped to drive the adoption of many of these mandatory minimum sentence laws. … Although Attorney General Eric Holder does not have the authority to repeal mandatory minimum sentences and undo the legislation that has, you know, helped to create the prison-industrial complex, what he can do is … say that the passage of these mandatory minimum sentences was wrong and that it was done with a discriminatory mindset, that it was done with an attitude of overwhelming punitiveness towards poor people, in general, and poor people of color, in particular …”

Leftists have argued that the ideology of a post-racial society in which a black individual can become president serves to redirect attention away from structural inequality and racism. But, more than that, the notion functions to suppress the civil rights concept of social justice aimed at redressing the historical effects of poverty and discrimination. Jim Crow practices are renewed and implemented today through this post-racial myth, which was employed for this very purpose in the Supreme Court decision rolling back the Voter Rights Act.

White Americans view pro-gun laws and stand-your-ground laws as upholding the rights of all, but in practice they are applied by the police and courts to consolidate the hold of the rich and white on power. The de facto segregation of towns and suburbs through unequal wealth and the mass incarceration of black males exacerbates this social dysfunction.

In cities across America, from New York to Los Angeles, citizens have protested the verdict. The protests have been mostly multiracial and peaceful, and like the Occupy movement, reflect the demographic and political changes of the last ten years. Sociologist Darnell Hunt pointed out that the same community that celebrated Obama’s election as president was joining the protests. “People were hoping their view of justice would be served, and it wasn’t,” he said. “They’re having a hard time believing in the American dream and the idea that African-Americans had finally become full-fledged citizens.”

Immediately after the verdict the NAACP’s website crashed as thousands rushed to sign a petition calling for Zimmerman to face federal prosecution. It’s likely there will be more and larger protests on Saturday, and Martin’s parents have called on Obama to review the case “with a fine toothcomb.” Trayvon Martin’s death will not be in vain as millions of Americans join them in demanding answers about Obama’s post-racial society, one that actively targets Black and Brown youth.


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Filed under African Americans, Obama, political analysis, Stand Your Ground law, Supreme Court, Trayvon Martin

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