Guest Post: Of Children and Inkblots: Trayvon Martin and the Psychopathology of Whiteness
Written by Tim Wise
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Trayvon Martin is not an inkblot, the meaning of which is yours to interpret.
He is not a walking Rorschach, whom one is free to see however one wishes.
He was not put on this Earth to be deciphered by you, dissected by you, problematized by you, labeled by you, slandered by you, or shot by one who had done all those things to his seventeen-year old black body before you even knew his name.
He was a child. A child dearly loved by his parents and sibling. And the fact that he was black doesn’t complicate that. The fact that he wore a hoodie doesn’t complicate that. The fact that he had a tattoo, a partial gold grill on his teeth, and liked to play-act in front of a web cam from time to time, posing as a man, flashing cash and acting tough doesn’t complicate that either. It is the rare boy who doesn’t tough-pose in a mirror, making muscles for some imaginary admirer, or perhaps just for himself. But it is the rare child who, having done so, finds himself suddenly the recipient of so much contempt for his cold, lifeless body — a body whose now inanimate state has been blamed for that condition because of his swagger, his clothing, his minor disciplinary problems in school, anything so as to shift attention from the real issue; namely, that Trayvon Martin is dead because George Zimmerman decided to confront him. And George Zimmerman decided to confront him because he was black, and for no other reason.
That’s right: for no other reason. The fact that Martin, according to autopsy reports, had trace elementsof THC (the chemical found in marijuana) in his system means nothing. The amount of the compound was so minimal as to suggest that not only had Martin not likely smoked weed that day, but whatever he had smoked, whenever he’d smoked it, would not have been sufficient in quantity to have in any way affected his behavior the evening of his death. Which is to say that Zimmerman’s uneducated conjecture on that 9-1-1 call, to the effect that Martin looked like he was “on drugs” carries no weight whatsoever. All he was doing was walking, looking around as he did so, and talking on the phone to a girlfriend.
He wasn’t casing townhouses.
He wasn’t peeking in windows.
He wasn’t blazing up a blunt in the courtyard.
He wasn’t doing anything at all.
But being black. And male. And wearing a hoodie (in the rain, imagine).
And yes, I know: the autopsy report indicates Martin was shot at relatively close range (certainly less than a foot away given the stippling around the entrance wound in his chest), and Zimmerman’s wounds appear consistent with his claim that he shot Martin during a fight. And yes, at least one witness seems to confirm that Martin was, at one point prior to the shooting, on top of Zimmerman, punching him.
But is that all it takes for so many white folks to cavalierly dispatch with the otherwise inviolate right to life, which they would have extended (one hopes) even to Martin, prior to the release of that information? Does a black child, followed and confronted by an adult, have no right to be afraid of them? To fight back upon being accosted? To stand his ground? The claim that Zimmerman had given up on the pursuit of Martin and was returning to his vehicle when Martin blindsided him is corroborated by no one, was not believed by investigators on the scene, and is utterly discredited by Martin’s girlfriend, who heard the words exchanged between the two, and then the sound of shoving, 2-3 minutes after the end of Zimmerman’s 9-1-1 call. If one chooses to believe Zimmerman on this absurd point, it can only be because one finds the story so plausible based upon one’s own preconceived notions of black aggression, that the facts in evidence no longer matter.
Finally, does one have the right to kill a child, just because, having initiated all the drama to begin with, the first party suddenly finds himself not nearly as big and bad as he had long believed? Is getting one’s overly suspicious, meddling ass beaten a legitimate excuse for homicide?
Apparently so, if the victim is young, and black, and wearing a hoodie, and has a tattoo (even if it is a tattoo of his mother’s name), and a partial gold grill, and occasionally poses with macho swagger on a webcam, and has been known to smoke weed. Although none of these are officially listed as penalty enhancements within our nation’s justice system, let the word go out from this point forward that they have been elevated to virtual capital offense status on the streets, by a frightened, racially-anxious white public, always seeking to rationalize every death of black men, at the hands of cops, or just folkspretending to be cops.
It would be humorous were the consequences not so deadly: watching so many white folks pour out their psychological neuroses onto this dead black child.
“Have you seen him? He was huge! A football player!” came the voices of some. You can find any number of internet posts in which hysterics chime in that he was 6’2, or 6’3, intimating in the process that black males are not allowed, apparently, to be tall and still innocent of whatever wrongdoing we seek to ascribe to them. Look at the 7-11 security camera! come the shrieks from others. My God! Look how he towers over the store clerk! What rational person wouldn’t recoil from such a giant, and who among us, were we to find ourselves in the all-important role of neighborhood watch captain, like poor George Zimmerman, wouldn’t presume one such as this to be a predator of the most dastardly kind?
Which is to say that at some point between that sojourn to the corner market, and the moment at which the county medical examiner stretched out his tape measure alongside the stiff body of this hulking menace, Martin must have become a human shrinky-dink, because he was put in the ground at a mere 5’11, and 158 pounds. Not a linebacker, and not a weight-lifter; rather, a somewhat taller-than average, skinny child, confronted by a self-appointed security guard with no legal authority whatsoever; someone whom, it should be noted, would not likely have been nearly so brazen about confronting Martin had the latter truly cast the imposing and dangerous shadow being painted by many of Zimmerman’s apologists.
Again, Martin would be alive but for George Zimmerman’s suspicion of him. Period. That is not remotely arguable. Had George Zimmerman remained in his vehicle, as he was instructed to do by the 9-1-1 dispatcher to whom he spoke (and had he not taken it upon himself to follow Martin, which any neighborhood watch captain knows is not what the police want them to do), the latter would still be alive, and Zimmerman would have remained just a pathetic wanna-be, rather than a murder defendant. Even the lead investigator on the case believed Zimmerman should be charged with manslaughter and that his decision to pursue Martin was the proximate cause of the evening’s tragic events.
And among reasonable people there is also no doubt that it was Martin’s race that prompted Zimmerman’s suspicions of him. Though such a thing can probably never be proven beyond any doubt whatsoever — and ultimately the matter is not pertinent to the murder charge itself — it seems readily apparent that racial biases, be they overt or implicit, animated Zimmerman’s reaction to the presence of Martin in the neighborhood. His prior overuse of the 9-1-1 system to report on black males in the neighborhood (and only black males, even as young as 9 years of age); his reference to how “these assholes” always get away (which, given his prior calls about black males in the community suggests he was referring to the types of people about whom he had called previously); and reports from a former co-worker that he regularly made racially-insensitive remarks, together with racially-charged commentson his MySpace page, all seem indicative of someone beholden to any number of negative stereotypes about racial others.
And honestly, given the media portrayals of African Americans — and especially the overrepresentation of such persons as criminals, relative to their actual rate of offending (Rome, 2004) — can anyone really deny that Zimmerman likely viewed Trayvon Martin in such a fashion? Or that he would have responded the same way had the young man that evening been white? To believe such a thing strains credulity to the breaking point. Even those who seek to justify Zimmerman’s actions as he no doubt would — as a response to the previous break-ins in the community by black males — are admitting by definition that Martin’s race was the key determiner of suspicion, that “statistical discrimination” is legitimate (despite the clear and convincing evidence that it is not, and is actually dangerous to engage).
But if the shooting of Trayvon Martin served to give us insights into the soul of George Zimmerman alone, it would be of far less interest and worthy of far less commentary than has been afforded it thus far. Far more telling is what the case tells us about race in America, and more to the point about white people in an era of change, in an era when demographic shifts have already rendered us less than half of all new babies born, and in which, within three decades, we will cease to be an absolute majority of persons in the United States. If you think the loss of numerically dominant status (together with a thoroughly multicultural pop culture and economic anxiety unlike that faced by whites since the Great Depression) isn’t implicated in white America’s reaction to the Martin tragedy (and indeed all race-related matters in this country), you might want to check the THC levels in your blood, lest someone shoot you tonight and then try to blame you for being high.
Check out the Trayvon commentary at sites like American Renaissance — the nation’s leading highbrow white supremacist organization — or, for that matter at far more mainstream conservative websites like Free Republic or FOX Nation. The blatant bigotry, the unhinged hatred for all things black that leaps from the comments sections of those sites, under stories concerning Martin and Zimmerman, is enough to make decent people retch. It would be enough to make decent conservatives denounce those sites and all of their followers, if, that is, there were any significant number of conservatives left who truly disagreed with them, who weren’t themselves caught up in only the most thinly veiled racial resentments and anxieties. There’s a reason that John Derbyshire remained a conservative in good standing for so long, despite his year-after-year habit of making blatantly racist remarks, which only recently became a bridge too far for the folks at National Review.
There’s a reason that privileged white frat boys at Cornell University threw bottles at black students last week while chanting taunts about Trayvon in the process. There’s a reason that a white Miami firefighter thought nothing of taking to his personal Facebook page and saying that Martin, and for that matter pretty much all “urban youth,” are products of their “failed, shitbag, ignorant, pathetic, welfare dependent excuses for parents.” There’s a reason a white police officer in New Orleans likewise thought it perfectly appropriate to all but gleefully bray about Martin’s death, intoning on Facebook, “Act like a thug, die like one!” There’s a reason a firearms dealer in Florida made a financial killing selling a shooting target made to resemble Trayvon Martin, whom the target-maker calls a “thug,” and whom the entrepreneur feels deserved to die.
There is a reason that the vast majority of whites think Zimmerman was justified in shooting Martin, while few blacks agree; this, even though most whites and blacks agree that we can never know for sure what happened that night. In other words, even though we can never really know who did what to whom and why, two out of three white people are convinced the shooting was appropriate, that the ending of this child’s life was justified. The only explanation for such confidence is that whites presume black people to be scary, dangerous, suspicious, and worthy of a lower threshold of evidence before one takes action against them. There is no other explanation.
And please, let us dispense with all the self-righteous lectures about how we on the left and in the “race industry” have been quick to jump to conclusions about guilt or innocence in this case, before all the facts were in.
To begin, I know of no one who has ever said that George Zimmerman’s legal guilt was so self-evident that he ought not even have a trial. Quite the contrary, we were the ones demanding he be arrested precisely so the facts could come out, a charge could be brought and a trial commenced as soon as possible. We have weighed in as to his moral culpability, to be sure. We have inveighed against what we believe to be the racial biases that animated his acts, though very few (and certainly not I) have called for hate crime charges to be filed. Legal guilt or innocence is for a jury to decide, and it may very well be the case that the legal standard for second degree murder cannot be met in this instance. It may well be true that if a fight ensued, even if Zimmerman started it, his decision to shoot Martin may be more tantamount to manslaughter, legally, than anything else. So be it.
But this has nothing to do with the legal presumption of innocence. While there is no doubt that the presumption of innocence is a crucial component of the legal process — and indeed should be expected of all jurors in such cases — to point to those of us who have opined as to Zimmerman’s culpability as somehow shredding this sacrosanct principle, and uniquely so at that, is utterly preposterous.
The fact is, none of our perceptions are truly objective. None are free from one form or another of bias. And not only with regard to this case, but any case. I doubt seriously, for instance, that the persons now clucking their tongues at those of us whom they accuse of “presuming Zimmerman guilty” before all the facts were in, actually waited until the defense rested in the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson before deciding whether or not he had killed two people. If we’re being honest, we would have to admit that most of us had already made up our minds about that one while O.J. was still in the back of the white Bronco, sixteen months earlier, or shortly thereafter.
I doubt they react with such dispassionate impartiality when watching the evening news and seeing a young black man, arrested for some crime or another across town, being brought in by police. It is simply a truism that, generally speaking, we tend to believe that people who are accused of crime probably did it, whatever it may be. But how likely we are to feel that way can and will be intensified, or diminished, depending upon the pre-existing narratives that we tend to accept about our society. So if we believe, based on our reading of the evidence or from personal experience, that the justice system is overly-punitive of black men, we will be less likely to presume guilt for black defendants than others might. Likewise, if our internal ideological narrative is one that says widespread corporate malfeasance is a real problem, we’ll probably be more likely than others with a different narrative to presume the guilt of an Enron executive, or a Wall Street banker. Conversely, if our ideological narrative is one that presumes widespread cultural dysfunction among members of the African American community, we’ll likely see guilt when confronted by an image of a black criminal suspect or defendant. According to academic research, whites are highly likely to view blacks as violent and dangerous (Peffley and Hurwitz, 1998: 90), and adherence to these stereotypes is highly correlated with a tendency to presume guilt, evidence notwithstanding, whenever the adherent is confronted with a crime that fits their mental schema regarding black criminals (Hurwitz and Peffley, 1997: 384). Likewise, if we have a positive perception of police officers, we’ll be less likely to presume that the officer accused of brutality or corruption is really guilty of either.
Basically, we all see what we’re predisposed to see. In the instant case, for those who fear black people, they will see Martin as a thug, whom it was logical to fear and to follow, given his race, his attire, and a half-dozen or so prior burglaries in the neighborhood by other black men. For those who believe anti-black bias is all too common, we will see evidence of it in Zimmerman’s actions: his initial suspicion of Martin despite the latter doing nothing indicative of pernicious intent; his previous and repeated use of the 9-1-1 system to report on the presence of black men, even children as young as 9; and his utterance of what sounds like a racial slur during his infamous call to police mere minutes before he shot Martin. For those who think some of us are too quick to allege racism, they will give credit to Zimmerman’s “black friend” who vouches for his racial ecumenism, they will hear that 9-1-1 call differently, and they will focus on the presence of Al Sharpton at the side of the victim’s family and conclude that something must be amiss with the allegations of racism, because of their pre-existing dislike of Sharpton personally.
So let’s just admit it, OK? Let’s stop pretending that we wait around for all the evidence before coming up with some general conclusions about the guilt or innocence of criminal suspects. We don’t. We all jump the gun, and the direction in which we jump relates to the direction of our general political and philosophical tendencies.
But insofar as many jump to conclusions that cast millions of people in a suspicious light, and label them deviant, dangerous and worthy of death at the slightest misstep, all because of the color of their skin, their jumps are more inexcusable, more evil, more destructive of a decent society than the conclusions to which the rest of us may leap from time to time.
Trayvon Martin is not an inkblot. But he does provide an interesting window into the psychopathology of the white conservative mind. And what one can see through that window does not bode well for this country or its culture in years to come.
Hurwitz, Jon and Mark Peffley, “Public Perceptions of Race and Crime: The Role of Stereotypes,”American Journal of Political Science, 41 (2), 1997: 375-401.
Peffley, Mark and Jon Hurwitz, “Whites Stereotypes of Blacks: Sources and Political Consequences,” inPerceptions and Prejudice: Race and Politics in the United States, ed. Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley (New Haven: Yale University, 1998), 90.
Rome, Dennis. (2004). Black Demons: The Media’s Depiction of the African American Male Criminal Stereotype. NY: Praeger.