August 5, 2013 — While writing this, I hear gunshots. Soon a police helicopter circles the Louis Armstrong Projects next door; its spotlight sweeps their rooftops like a submarine inspecting an ocean floor.
I turn off the lights so the shooter won’t see me, move the curtain and study the roof where the gunfire echoed. There’s no one there. Scanning the city beyond, I know mostly Black and Latino men are shooting or being shot.
Lightheaded with adrenaline, I close the curtain. In Bed-Stuy, the fear of violence never fades but throbs under the surface of everyday life. On my stoop, a young man was shot dead. His father sits there nearly every day, as if waiting for his son to return. Between the killings are random shots like tonight that send me peering through the window.
Many of our young men are like open barrels of kerosene. One wrong look or word and they ignite into a blind fury that ends with death in the streets. And we who knew them, raised them, are also at times scared of them. And our fear is being turned against us because a whole outside world is also scared of them.
Walking downstairs, I sit on the stoop, remembering how tense it gets during the annual block party when men from other neighborhoods show up drinking and smoking. Every year, a late-night fight breaks out and someone is thrown against the car and pummeled. The sad truth is that the way George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin is the same way that many of us, men of color, profile each other.
When I see conservatives on Fox News say Black and Latino men should be profiled, I know the difference is they are simply afraid of them while we, people of color, who are their family and friends, are also scared for them. We knew them as children. We know they were born with targets on their backs and they’ve been hit from birth with abuse, neglect and racial slurs. And the buildup of pain finds its voice in the flash of a gun barrel. Each new crime means another Black or Latino face snarls under a headline of violence, which adds to the social prejudice that deepens their segregation, which creates more poverty, which becomes more crime, which feeds again the great fear. We are trapped in a cycle of violence.
Sitting on the stoop, I watch the police helicopter circle above. Its light sweeps the buildings, a small circle of visibility, searching in the darkness.
The Many Trayvons
February 26, 2012 — Neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman studied a young Black man wearing a hoodie in the rain, strolling through a Florida gated community. He called the police, who told him not to follow the young man. In the 911 call released later, a man can be heard screaming, “Help,” and then a gunshot.
Trayvon Martin lay bleeding in the grass. He was 17 years old. He was visiting his family in the gated community. He died with Skittles and an Arizona iced tea. He was young, Black and male; those three elements made him background noise in the daily toll of American violence. His family hired attorney Benjamin Crump and spread the news. On March 7 Reuters published a story: “Family of Florida Boy Killed by Neighborhood Watch Seeks Arrest.” Rev. Al Sharpton took up the cause on his MSNBC show PoliticsNation. But what echoed in the minds of millions of people was the chilling scream for help, cut by a gunshot.
As media across the political spectrum reported his death, he multiplied into many Trayvons. Liberals and leftists saw him as a victim of racist profiling in which bigots project stereotypes onto people of color. It is common for minorities to be acutely aware of how the majority group sees us. Your life depends on it. Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois called it “Double-Consciousness”; it is, he writes, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
The image we see is the Ghetto Brute — an animalistic man of color who targets helpless whites. Life inside this image is dangerous. One can act on it in bitter pride or wear a safe mask for others even if it means not recognizing yourself in the mirror.
And the Ghetto Brute image lands harder the further down we are in class and the browner we are in skin tone. In a nation of 313 million people are 39 million African-Americans. Of them, 10 million live in poverty. Those of us born too dark or too poor live under the weight of a stigma that shapes us from birth. It’s why we rallied in the hundreds at Union Square for a Million Hoodie March, saying in unity, “I am Trayvon!”
He was a symbol for us because like Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo, both innocent, both killed by the NYPD, Martin’s death gave us a sharp contrast between his innocence and the violence that killed him. It made visible the injustices we daily endure. Sharpton said on PoliticsNation, “To many in the African-American community the killing of that teenager is emblematic of a grossly unjust system, of a thousand unequal steps, from stop and frisk to disproportionate drug laws to racially motivated sentencing.”
On the other side, conservatives saw Martin as a tragic victim of justified profiling. Zimmerman’s perception was not, they say, caused by bigotry but the pathologies of Black culture itself that creates high crime rates and hence the association of young, Black men with criminality. A few said Blacks are animals that must be segregated. Whether one explained the source of the crime as Black pathology or biological inferiority, the blame was displaced from Zimmerman onto Martin and by extension onto Black America in its entirety.
The need to prove that Martin’s murder was justified profiling drove Fox News, National Review and the Nazi site Stormfront to “blacken” Martin by critiquing his clothes and teen posturing. The day after the Million Hoodie March, Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera blamed Martin’s choice of wearing a hoodie: “When you see a kid walking down the street, particularly a dark skinned kid … what’s the instant association? It’s those crime scene surveillance tapes, every time you see someone sticking up a 7/11 it’s a kid in a hoodie.”
Right-wing sites released photos of Martin smiling with a gold grill. Other photos showed him giving the finger, exhaling a mouthful of what could be pot smoke. His Twitter account, @NO LIMIT NIGGA, had bawdy adolescent rambling like, “Hahaha hoe you got used fo yo loose ass pussy! Tighten up! #Literally!”
In March 2012, Twitchy.com used a photo assumed to be Martin standing with shorts sagging, flipping off the camera. It was not Martin but another Florida teen. They issued an apology but on Stormfront a forum member said, “Glad he’s gone. One less welfare monkey breeding.”
The goal was to make Martin look like a young Ghetto Brute who’d commit real crime, implying it was good that he was removed now. This violent suspicion comes from a “Security Obsession” that sees life as “survival of the fittest,” in which a political or racial majority must protect its purity and culture against encroaching minorities. It sees the Other as irredeemably different, unable to assimilate and ultimately a threat.
It is a long tradition of fear that has scarred history. We see this mindset in Hitler’s Mein Kampf when he writes, “In every mingling of Aryan blood with that of lower peoples the result was the end of the cultured people” or Pat Buchanan’s The End of White America, “Those who believe the rise to power of an Obama rainbow coalition of peoples of color means the whites who helped to engineer it will steer it are deluding themselves. The whites may discover what it is like to ride in the back of the bus.”
The Security Obsession is translated into street-level racism by people like Sgt. Ron King of the Port Canaveral Police Department, who offered his colleagues “Trayvon Martin” paper shooting targets. It showed a dark hoodie, its sleeve holding Skittles and Arizona iced tea. They declined to use it. He was fired. But when a local reporter contacted the seller, he emailed, “The response is overwhelming. I sold out in 2 days.”
Of course before the liberal or conservative image of Trayvon Martin existed there was the young man, a real, living, human being. As the men at the shooting range fired bullet after bullet at the Martin target, Sybrina Fulton, his mother, was in court listening to a man scream for help in a 911 recording, then a gunshot. She said, “That’s my son.”
The Resurgence of White Supremacy
June 25, 2013 — A text beeped on my phone; it read, “Supreme Court just sent us back to the plantation.” It linked to a breaking story: conservative justices struck down as unconstitutional Section 4b of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which forced states with a history of discrimination to clear changes in voting rules with the Department of Justice.
Shaking my head, I imagined Republicans rubbing their hands with glee, thinking about the voter suppression techniques they’ll use in the next election. They want to choke off democracy to the rising tide of voters of color who are part of the “coalition of the ascendant.” Sixty-six million voters, mostly youth, minorities and college-educated whites, in particular women, enabled President Obama’s second term. The resistance we get as the face of a changing nation is as old as the nation itself.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “that all men are created equal.” As the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, African slaves toiled in the fields of his plantation. It was a great contradiction to demand freedom but own slaves. The Founding Fathers resolved it by defining “Negroes” as not human. When independence was won, a deep line was drawn between citizen and Other, the former were propertied white males and the latter, poor white males, women and non-whites.
The history of America is the great churning conflict between the ideal of democracy and the practice of racism, sexism and classism, each one driven by capitalism. Eventually, states dropped property requirements and all white males could vote. But it was a “whiteness” seen most clearly against the backdrop of blackness.
The struggle between white supremacy and democracy waxed and waned. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Black people pushed out of the South into the West, Midwest and North. In the cities, they pushed to integrate housing, work and public life. But one constant tool used by racists to stop progress was fear of Black men as criminals. In Thomas Dixon’s 1905 book The Clansman, a rapist ex-slave Gus is on the prowl; it was remade into the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Just the accusation of Black male criminality was enough to enrage Southern mobs to roast a man alive, cut his genitals and take photos.
In each decade, people pushed across that line between citizen and Other. In response, conservatives held up the Black criminal to scare voters. The Ghetto Brute was in Nixon’s 1968 Law and Order campaign, in female form during Reagan’s 1976 campaign stump speech on welfare queens, in George Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad and in McCain’s 2008 campaign painting Obama as a Muslim terrorist. Using Black criminal imagery, Republicans tried to dismantle welfare and the New Deal by portraying them as giving white taxpayer money to the undeserving poor, aka Black brutes, sambos and jezebels.
In the 21st century, the white majority is shrinking, its voting base split by class and gender. Working-class males lean Republican and women and college-educated whites go Democrat. The electorate is becoming more diverse, but we’re reeling from the century and a half of fearmongering about Black criminals. Crime is the Republican code word for race, which is why we fight over Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and the portrayal of Obama as a Muslim terrorist. And it’s why we fight over Trayvon Martin. In stripping him of innocence, conservatives attacked us. In affirming his right to live, we safeguarded our own.
“Police are more cautious when approaching a black man,” Bill O’Reilly said on his show. “Overwhelmingly violent crime is generated by young black men.”
But a chorus of progressive writers pointed out that gun violence is down nearly 50 percent since the 1990s, most crime is intra-racial, next door and itself is the result of socio-economic pressure, not just race. The image of rampant Ghetto Brutes is not real, Black and Latino men are not attacking whites. The sad truth, I thought, is that we are killing each other. But many of us looked at President Obama and thought we were entering a postracial America, one that could help our youth, not criminalize them.
July 13, 2013 — A friend and I bought tickets to see Fruitvale Station, a film about Oscar Grant, a young Black man shot dead by an Oakland transit cop, when a text beeped on my cell phone. It read: George Zimmerman acquitted. Swaying on my feet, I stared at the text feeling rage and grief roll through me.
The Cycle of Violence
August 5, 2013 — Returning home, I tried to make sense of the Zimmerman verdict. Mass protests had dissolved. No social movement pushed ahead. Instead we’re left with a conservative debate on “black-on-black crime” as the legacy of Martin’s murder.
Is “black-on-black crime” real? Yes it is. A Huffington Post report said, “Young black men are six times more likely to die from homicide than white men.” Nothing new here. What is “black” about it? Don’t poor whites kill each other too? Yes, but race is different from class. Racism locates the cause of social problems in the body and, in subtle and loud ways, we are taught to see ourselves as inferior.
Missing from Du Bois’ definition of Double-Consciousness as “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” is the next phase, where one internalizes that gaze and sees others the way you were seen. Being hurt, we hurt each other. The blind fury of a male aiming a gun is the end of escalating stages of violence that begin when he first learns the weight of Blackness. It begins when he feels desperation in his mother’s voice, when the word “nigga” is stapled to his skin and he becomes a moving target. It grows when he learns that his life is not worth much. And the life in commercials is one he can never live.
The violence of racism hits in a thousand unseen ways that add up to the “depressing clouds of inferiority” that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It becomes visible when I ask students of color if they made fun of or were made fun of because of dark skin color. Every time, nearly all of them raise their hands.
Above the warped racial identity is the economic, political and legal infrastructure that constricts life into narrow channels of opportunity. The budget-starved public schools, the endless stop-and-frisk, the unfair rates of arrest and high sentencing, the lack of jobs, the hypertension causing hearts to stop, the lack of healthcare, the constant media reflection of racist Hip-Hop caricature, the lack of gun control, our American machismo and materialism; it adds up into a grinding contradiction that explodes.
And that is why “black-on-black violence” is a symptom of white supremacy. Trayvon Martin and the young man killed on my stoop were both victims of the same system. The perpetrators were different, one a “white” Latino, the other a young Black male, but they aimed their guns at the same Ghetto Brute image, regardless of the fact that inside that image was a human being who was innocent.
Is this the blind spot of leftist ideology? Do we focus so much on privilege and top-down power dynamics that we miss how that same hierarchy is reflected among the oppressed? Is the true sign of white supremacy not just the Zimmermans but the youth of color who die each day, unknown, unnamed and unseen? As I tried to make sense of these questions, I heard from across the street, gunshots.