There’s lots of talk about why George Zimmerman was acquitted on Saturday of the murder of Trayvon Martin. The reasons rest with the jury, the defense strategy, the recent history of self-defense legislation in Florida, and in the much longer history of racism as a political tool in the United States.
Since the victim was an innocent black youth whose killer may have had racial motivations and was not convicted of a crime, one may be tempted to classify Trayvon Martin’s killing as a lynching. Was it?
In one important respect, it’s worse: It’s legal in a way that lynching never was. The mob that killed Sam Hose in 1899 was never brought before a court at all. Emmett Till’s killers claimed they didn’t do it, and, even though it was clear that they did, they were acquitted in an hour by the all-white jury.
The Zimmerman jury took longer, but in the end their decision was that Zimmerman was justified in killing an unarmed man minding his own business on a public street. Something about that young man endowed him with a nameless, menacing quality that somehow equaled the threat of the gun held by the other man. To the extent that Trayvon Martin’s death is the result of white fear, stoked by those who have something to gain from it, it has a lot in common with the long history of lynching in this country.
I know white fear. I’ve felt it. I remember a nightmare I had as a youth, in a racially volatile time and place. In shadowy and skewed nightmare lighting, my mom closed the front door of our shotgun house, which had been opened to a Frenchmen Street coursing with oddly silent black shapes. My nightmare “logic” told me what my mom didn’t say: The black people were rising up, going door to door and killing all the white people in their homes.
Unlike most white Americans, I had experienced very direct expression of what William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs termed “Black Rage” in their 1968 book of that title. Having grown up with black neighborhood and school friends, and their families, I was befuddled by the racially explicit anger directed at me — verbally and physically — as soon as I was old enough to grow my downy “yat moustache.”
My experiences involved frequent threats from strangers on streets and buses, a few schoolyard-level beatings and a couple of death threats made by men actually pointing guns at me. Every time, my race was explicitly acknowledged as the reason.
Fortunately, I worked through my own white fear and resentment. I realized that my black friends, neighbors, schoolmates, and teachers were not the same people as the equally black persons who had treated me so uncivilly on a few striking occasions.
White fear and black rage are linked. When white fear exacts a victim — like Trayvon Martin — black rage understandably flares, thus fueling more white fear. What remains a mystery to me is why so many white people, those who have not themselves experienced black rage, have such a palpable sensation of white fear. The reason requires us to acknowledge that neither black rage nor its supposed result, white fear, were new in the 1970s.
The causes of white fear are open to debate even if its depredations are not. I’ve come to believe that white fear is rooted in white guilt, which shows that white guilt really does have more negative consequences than benefits. It can be summed up in Thomas Jefferson’s grim, apocalyptic hunch about the future of race in America, now inscribed at his memorial in the nation’s capital: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
White people have fantasized about being a persecuted minority since Reconstruction. Eric Foner’s 1988 classic history of the period, subtitled “America’s Unfinished Revolution,” argues forcefully that the political rhetoric unleashed against Reconstruction formed the basis of post-slavery American political racism. Foner quotes Claude Bowers, who in his 1929 bestseller “The Tragic Era” opined that, under Reconstruction, white people experienced “torture” at the hands of “emissaries of hate” who inflamed “the negroes’ egotism” and inspired them to “lustful assaults.”
In Bowers’ self-righteous indignation we can hear the origins of today’s familiar political trope of black lawlessness enabled by a hateful government. Even today, many white Americans view black empowerment as something that comes at their expense. They believe that the government is somehow forcing them to compromise their own rights by guaranteeing the rights of others. This is the legacy of 150 years of race-baiting politics.
Like other early white historians of Reconstruction, Bowers got his portrait of the era from virulently anti-Reconstruction newspapers that mirrored the rhetoric of anti-Reconstruction political forces. It was in this period that the politics of white fear was honed and nurtured, and in the same era the consummation of white fear also became obvious: black corpses.
This was carried forward in literature and movies, including “Gone with the Wind” in 1939. It, like “Birth of a Nation,” posits that innate black lawlessness necessitates white vigilante reprisals. And like Reconstruction-era political racism, it infantilizes “good” black people, portraying them as mental children who aren’t ready for civic participation.
If you weren’t tuned to Turner Classic Movies the last couple of weeks, you might have seen an updated version of racist rhetoric coming from Seminole County, Fla., and produced by George Zimmerman’s defense team, Don West and Mark O’Mara. White fear was the main theme: that an unarmed man should be considered armed and dangerous, because black. According to masters West and O’Mara, Zimmerman’s victim had the power to transform the sidewalk into a deadly weapon comparable to the vigilante’s gun.
In the category of infantilizing a black person, see the episode in which West demeans Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, for hours. West’s masterful portrayal is one of the great episodes of racist manipulation in our time. His effortless evocation of restrained indignity that Jeantel was allowed to testify is deserving of a David Duke award. While Martin was portrayed as uncontrollably aggressive, through sly asides West emphasized that Jeantel’s black, working-class demeanor and language disqualified her from being taken seriously. He asked Jeantel to “speak up,” to enunciate more clearly, to describe the “sound of wet grass.” He even smarmily inquired if she was “OK today.” Race-baiting isn’t limited to fear-mongering. Some of it points to innate black incompetence rather than uncontrollable black aggression.
White fear is a perfect political tool because it offers a way out of white guilt, through denial. If white people are the ones truly being persecuted, what’s to be guilty about? This white fear, though rooted in white guilt, is desperately anxious to wash its hands of any culpability in the long history of mistreatment of black people.
As has often been the case with race-baiting politics, racism isn’t the end but a means. In the chain of events that eventually facilitated the legal murder of Trayvon Martin, racism was the pitch to sell guns. Florida politician Dennis Baxley, a sponsor of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, described his allies in the NRA this way: “They’re people who live in my district. They’re concerned about turning back this lawless chaos and anarchy in our society.”
No, race isn’t directly mentioned, but coded racial language has always been the genius of the “southern strategy,” and the 911 transcript shows that George Zimmerman learned the lingo. “Fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away,” he told the 911 operator that night. In places where there are few poor African-Americans, the person hearing that might imagine a different color of bogeyman. But it’s clear which race was on George Zimmerman’s mind as he waited in his car for someone who would match the image in his mind of one of these under-penalized “punks.” His confrontation of Martin was simply his effort at “turning back lawless chaos and anarchy” just like Ashley Wilkes and his southern gentlemen friends did in “Gone with the Wind.”
This excused murder does not exorcise white fear. It just creates another poster child to go along with Bernhard Goetz and Charles Bronson and the guy in “Walking Tall” and other righteous white killers. Baseless as it is, white fear won’t go away because it’s politically useful for a certain political party that can’t envision a future without it.
It’s interesting to consider what could have happened had race-baiting politics not been re-invented in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Perhaps the extreme racial discomfort of the 1970s would have been more fruitful, more like reconciliation. Instead, it renewed assertions by resentful white people that black people don’t have legitimate reasons to be angry. African-Americans can add one more reason, in addition to 400 years of older ones, to loathe and distrust that lone white man they see sitting in a car on an unfamiliar corner.