By W. Yusef Doucet
America loves its “nigras,” except when America hates us, which is most of the time since America loves to hate its “nigras.” The appalling Trayvon Martin murder is only the latest example of how U.S. American hatred of Black people remains the default attitude the general population of the United States, including internally colonized communities, holds toward identifiably/identified African people. Of course, U.S. hatred of Black people is not unique or isolated but rather constitutes a major sector of the African hating modern world. U.S. Americans show their hatred for Black people not only through the random killing of Africans, whether by the state in the form of the police and penal system or by private citizens like George Zimmerman, but also through the inevitable character investigation/assassination of the Black victims and their families. U.S. Americans are even easily disposed to hate the Black people they seem to love the most, collegiate and professional athletes, always ready to adore them for their on-field or on-court brilliance and to condemn them for their “arrogance,” “thuggishness,” or insufficient gratitude in the same moment. So no one should wonder that while most Black folks in the U.S. see a plain case of search and destroy racial profiling by Zimmerman against Martin, many white people and others have vigorously rationalized Zimmerman’s actions or questioned Martin’s actions and character.
It simply goes against the wiring of U.S. political culture to defend Black people without looking for fault in the victims, their families, their communities or their culture. To do otherwise would mean admitting how badly Africans have been treated in the U.S. and for how long Africans have been treated badly by the U.S. and its citizens. Nor should we ever underestimate the enthusiasm with which some Black people will join in the choruses of condemnation. Black people have also learned and internalized the lessons of hating Black people. There lingers an accusation ever fouling the air of the U.S. social environment: somehow we Black people deserve our mistreatment, if for no other reason than we had the bad judgment to be born African.
We have seen this all before this case. Of course Trayvon has been held responsible for his own murder. His hoodie, his online persona, his insufficient humility when facing his pursuer, all of these mark him as responsible for his own death because the mainstream already reads these as the accessories of his feared black, male body. One does not have to search that far back and can draw an unbroken timeline of the abuse of Black people being blamed on those same Black people. We should remember that many people seriously believed Rodney King posed a threat to the circle of police officers beating him. People have defended the public arrests and handcuffing of Black children younger than ten years-old as a form of tough love, good for them in the long run. A six year-old Black girl in Georgia was just arrested and handcuffed for throwing a tantrum at school April 13 in Georgia. Also, many folks had choice words for the Black New Orleanians caught after Katrina hit and the levees broke. Regardless of the circumstance, Black people are held responsible for their own poverty and their own degradation, not the system nor its managers and enforcers.
Fifteen years ago, right about when Black churches were being torched, white 18 year-old Jeremy Joseph Strohmeyer committed a vicious crime against 7 year-old Black Sherrice Iverson, raping her and killing her in a Nevada casino bathroom. Strohmeyer was not characterized as a monster in the mainstream media, but as disturbed young man clearly in need of help and even compassion. The greatest venom was reserved her father. Her parents’ grief and their loss could offer no resistance to the accusations of child neglect. The reflexive rationalization of Strohmeyer’s mental state became more important than the heinous crime he committed. His friend David Cash, who saw Strohmeyer take Sherrice into a bathroom stall and did nothing to stop him, served no time. The fault had to lie with Mr. Iverson, and his humiliation had to be public because Black people, especially working class Black people, must be portrayed as unsympathetic. That Mr. Iverson may have failed as a parent had to matter at least as much as Strohmeyer’s crime if not more. Sherrice was mostly forgotten in a great deal of the public discussion. Black people must be held responsible for their own victimization.
These same kinds of concerns for George Zimmerman’s safety and his mental and emotional fragility have re-emerged. The anguish of Trayvon’s family was of such little note that the police infamously failed to notify them for three days. Yet, we are not allowed in public to think that white people and others treat Black people viciously simply because they hate Black people. Defenders of the mainstream quickly characterize accusations of racist motivations for Black maltreatment as the real problem of racializing events, and warn against assuming the collective responsibility of white people. Warnings go out about the futility of rioting, and the police in the already over-policed Black neighborhoods go on high alert. Under no circumstance are black people to get angry and get organized. The Jena, Louisiana, Black community put the local police and district attorney’s office on blast nationally, and folks flocked to Jena to demand justice for the six young men caught up in the criminal injustice system. Since then, as Jena fell from the news cycle and consciousness, Jordan Flaherty has reported on sweeping police reprisals against Jena’s Black community through the ubiquitous vehicle of the drug war. Collective responsibility must be reserved for Black people, not collective action.
So now that George Zimmerman has been arrested and charged, albeit with a lesser charge than first degree murder, what happens to the anger? Can a million hoodies translate into a campaign against mass incarceration of U.S. Africans, against ongoing police murder and abuse in Black communities, or self-defense training? Can that empty signifier, the hoodie, expose the contradictions inherent in U.S. society, or has it given people the mistaken idea that wearing a hoodie and posting a photo on social media in and of themselves somehow challenge the status quo without needing to organize, continue to demonstrate, and show up in force in the courtroom when Zimmerman is tried. In the now two months since Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death, unarmed Rekia Boyd in Chicago was shot by an off duty police officer, and the unarmed Kendrec McDade was shot by the police in Pasadena, California. Police have just recently arrested two private white citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for hunting and killing Black people. How does a million hoodies march deal with civilian violence against Black people? And what justice can Black people really expect from a system more accustomed to prosecuting them rather than protecting and serving them?
Hating Black people in the United States is more American than apple pie, a legacy of the Dutch in North America. Perhaps organizers of the million hoodies marches would do well to read or re-read Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She wrote to expose the political and economic interests behind lynch-law in the U.S. Wells-Barnett pointed out the economic boon that came to white businessmen as a result of the terror eliminating Black competition. Contemporary gun sales and private prison corporate shares indicate that demonizing, fearing and loathing Black people remains lucrative business. Wells-Barnett also had some pointed responses to the white terror of her era: economic boycott, migration away from the regions of the most intense violence (although the move from the South to the West barely mitigated the violence), publicizing the crimes through media, and of course, “…a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” Too often for Black folks then and now, the law and its representatives constitute the perpetrators of the violence.
Economic boycott remains an effective tool but needs a focused target and goal. Other than leaving North America, an idea not to be dismissed out of hand, there is nowhere in the U.S. to which to migrate. Our great-great-grandparents and great grandparents did that and found new forms of the old hatred waiting for them. Black media does bring these tragedies to Black national consciousness while mainstream news regurgitates the latest in bread and circuses or the most recent narrative floated by corporate and government power. The challenge there is to maintain the Black narrative and also connect it to the U.S. system of exploitation and degradation, rather than reporting on these events as isolated. Now, nothing makes U.S. Americans, white or otherwise, more nervous than the thought of armed Black self-defense. But under conditions in which persons can and do treat Black life cheaply, in which persons disregard Black grief and anguish, and in which mass media depict Black people as deserving of our oppression while they neglect to report or under report that Black people constitute by far the largest number of victims of hate crimes, no sector of state comes to the defense of our lives and limbs. If we cannot or will not defend ourselves, no one will. If we do not have the right to stand our ground, as the unarmed Trayvon himself may have done, as anyone should be able to do when one is being followed by a stranger with ill or at least questionable intent, then we do not have the right to live. Is the U.S state and are its citizens ready to admit publicly that they believe at their core that Black people really do not have the right to live? That is probably too much honesty for the post-racial United States.
W. Yusef Doucet is a faculty member of the Santa Monica College English Department. He co-founded and facilitated the Dyamsay Writers’ Workshop in Santa Monica, CA, the Third Root Writers’ Workshop in Pomona, CA, and a poetry reading series at the Velocity Café in Santa Monica, CA. Yusef is currently working on a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University. His research interests include Fanonian analysis, the policing effect of integrationist/post-racialist ideology and anti-blackness in the modern symbolic order. Yusef keeps a blog at freeignace.wordpress.com.