What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now?….. Brick by brick, wall by wall, we will make this system fall….. Take a stand, not a picture….. Out of the shops, into the streets….. Zimmerman walked, why can’t we?….. Who’s streets? Our Streets?……We are Trayvon! Trayvon! Trayvon! Trayvon!
For the thousands who I walked and rallied in solidarity with almost all of yesterday, these were the chants that carried our feet, mouths, and hearts. I was not surprised by the verdict but the state of mourning mixed with outrage fueled my desire to find kinship at the rallies all over New York yesterday. There had been a few times when I caught myself during the trial feeling assured that Zimmerman’s verdict would be guilty. I had to quickly remind myself that U.S. courts have always co-signed and maintained Black genocide. Given the recent history of Florida, I was more surprised that the Miami Heat took the championship than I was with an almost all-white female jury acquitting Zimmerman. With Wisconsin as the seeming first post-verdict incident, it looks like we will see more dark days ahead. As Raymond Santana of the Central Park Five reminded crowds yesterday, there is a historical context here.
When I was an undergraduate student, Sylvia Wynter— taking her cue from the Africana theorist, St. Clair Drake— called such protests, rallies, and petitions the “street tasks.” She was referencing the 60s and, later, the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles after the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. She commended every move and decision black communities and college students made in those moments and also impressed upon us that there was a flip side to the coin that St. Clair Drake was always emphasizing: the intellectual tasks. The closest to what they meant is what we might call today blending the micro and the macro. However, Drake and Wynter are talking about more: they are talking about the ways that social action must ignite an “epistemological break” from the categories that govern our current social systems, not merely an amendment or addition to existing policies and programs. And that break has to be epistemological— the way that a social order knows itself and thinks about/institutes the world.
There are deep intellectual tasks ahead of us. I noticed yesterday that many young college students seemed to insist upon a colorblind rhetoric, North American-ness (and therefore hegemony), and middle class politeness/etiquette: this is not about race; I am not Black/Arab/Latino because I am ____-American; stay in school; let’s all pull up our pants and be good fathers; this is not a Black-White thing. And yet we have Zimmerman who was never even handcuffed when the police came; no one went door-to-door to ask who this slain young black boy was so Trayvon Martin was John Doe for many days, even though he was killed six houses away from home; the defense attorney opened with a knock-knock joke; and common sense defied any notion of self-defense (I was stunned by all the references to concrete when every photo shows Trayvon dead on the grass.) You could go on and on here. The resistance to name race and interrogate whiteness and white supremacy by so many young people has been stultifying. In the words of Sylvia Wynter: what is wrong with their education?
In every major social protest led by black college students, those students were always connected to radicalism outside of their campuses. It should go without saying that Black college students have always witnessed brutal murders of and threats to their peers:
- SNYC, Southern Negro Youth Congress, was established in response to the Scottsboro Case and always raised money for civil rights activism, such as the case of a 16-year old African American girl sentenced to years of hard labor for allegedly stealing 6 ears of corn from a field.
- When Barbara Johns led her high school peers in the protest that led the way for the only student-initiated case to be incorporated into Brown v Ed, she had to be immediately sent to another state to live after all of the death threats made against her.
- Ibram Rogers reminds us that 12 black college students lost their lives in peaceful protest in the Black Campus Movement.
It seems historically safe to say that black college students have taken radical politics off-campus and made that radicalism come alive. So maybe young people’s lack of analyses today simply reflects we grown folk and the radical intellectual activity that we have allowed to be displaced by media cartels and allied commercial academic/celebrities. Indeed, what is wrong with their education? Where have WE gone wrong?
I have been fascinated by the way the Zimmerman family has been welcomed and embraced by the White Conservative Right. The early insistence by conservative whites that we recognize Zimmerman as a person of color has all but faded. In fact, on my way to the rallies, one of the triggers that sent me out into the streets, was finding myself terrified. In my newly-gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn, white men started waving American flags on their cars and homes— as far as they were concerned, all things were right with America again. And here we have young people of color insisting on colorblindness because Zimmerman has a Latina mother. The critique of whiteness seems nowhere to be found: maybe we can’t call this man white but we can surely call him a white supremacist and his choice in this regard has been no accident (I said white supremacist, NOT racist). For all of the pollyanna-ish talk about mixed-race children complicating today’s racial categorization models, no one seems willing to recognize that the race issues that murdered Trayvon Martin are as old as the white founding of this country. Now more than ever, I wonder what mixed-race children are embracing when they say they embrace their “white side.” It seems pretty clear for the Zimmerman children. I am not talking here about representing individual white parents; I am taking about social and historical forces of racism that no one gets exempt from and that some groups deliberately choose to benefit from.
What has struck me most about this case is the implicit and explicit invitation made to white-skinned ethnic people: embrace white supremacy and you too can be white…. come one, come all. We seem to forget that it was the courts that have decided who/what is white and who/what is not. Do we need the reminder that Armenians were legally classified as Asian until they became white in 1909? Did we forget that Syrians were legally white in 1909 and 1910, then non-white in 1913, and then back to white again in 1915? From the perspective of a race-based historical continuum, the courts anointed Zimmerman this past weekend also, a man who cannot even really phenotypically pass for white. This is hardly a man with blue eyes, pale skin, red/blond hair (it seems that even Homer Plessy, the octoroon who chose to be the lead plaintiff in the 1896 case of Plessy v Ferguson, looked whiter than Zimmerman) who will still need a few more generations of miscegenation to reproduce pale-featured children. But, when Zimmerman murdered Trayvon, he got anointed as white. If we know that race is not biological, then we need to take seriously the ways the courts, as just one institution, have socially constructed race and racism. Every time someone from the Zimmerman family even makes a public statement, they speak solely within the terms of white supremacy; it is almost as if I am seeing and hearing Bull Connor in 1950s Alabama. And yet I hear NO rallying cry from the media about family values and questions of how these Zimmerman children were raised— no one asks how or why a Latina mother and white father raised children to hate and murder young black men in the streets without remorse. Black and Latin@ parents never get this kind of pass if their child commits a crime or even acts a fool in public, but, gee whiz, something seems so different with the Zimmermans.
To go back to Wynter’s words in my previous post, when we construct the optimal human to be white, of Euroamerican culture and descent, North American, middle class, college-educated and suburban, Trayvon Martins must fall out of “the sanctified universe of obligation.” This is why my favorite slogan in the rallies that I have witnessed is: WE ARE TRAYVON. That’s a powerful statement if we really mean it, truly the intellectual task here. To take on THAT statement means an ideological position. It means choosing to fall outside of and think outside of our current “sanctified universe of obligation” which will require more than protest rallies, petitions, delusions of color-blindness, and the fear of naming whiteness.