Black, White and Beyond: A Personal Reflection on Trayvon Martin

From the May 2012 PNL #814

Aly Wane

Over 1,000 people gathered in Clinton Square on March 30 to call for justice for Trayvon Martin. Photo: Nicola TenagliaOver 1,000 people gathered in Clinton Square on March 30 to call for justice for Trayvon Martin. Photo: Nicola TenagliaThe basic facts of the case are clear: George Zimmerman, a man of half-Jewish, half-Peruvian ethnicity, approached a young African American teenager, Trayvon Martin. A struggle ensued, and Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin dead. George is usually described as “White” in the media, or at least “White Latino.” This occurred in Sanford, Florida. The Sanford Police Department made a cursory investigation which relied primarily on Zimmerman’s testimony, and let him go. Martin’s parents, however, spearheaded a campaign that finally resulted in the re-opening of the case, and Zimmerman was charged with Second Degree Murder. If it weren’t for a month of sustained grassroots protests, this would have been another case of “just another dead Black teenager.”

Black Boogeymen
I hesitated to write about the Trayvon Martin killing because, frankly, it’s too painful. This issue hits too close to home. But I thought this deserved more than silence; this is a moment ripe for dialogue about the issue of Black masculinity in the US.

I was not born in this country. I am from Senegal. Nonetheless, I had to “learn” how to be a Black man in the US, a country deeply marked by a legacy of racism and white supremacy. I remember vividly “the shift:” the transition that occurs in every Black man’s life when he moves from being a cute kid to a kind of societal boogeyman. By the time I was around 11, I started to notice that people would look at me with more wariness and distrust. I started to get followed in stores, watched by security guards, etc. By the time I was a late teen and an early adult, I got used to being stopped by the cops on a regular basis for “fitting the description” of a criminal.

The worst incident happened in Chicago a few years ago. I was walking back home in the Rogers Park area of the city when a police car screeched to a halt in front of me like a scene from an action movie. The cop got out of the car, pointed a gun at me and yelled at me to “get on the f-ing ground.” Of course, I complied, and he proceeded to search my bag, whereupon he found my copy of Gandhi’s autobiography which I was reading at the time. Quizzically, he asked, “What the hell is this?” Apparently, the idea of my reading a book about nonviolence didn’t square with his image of me. He did release me, but he spat out the words: “I’ll get you next time.” Later on during my walk, I saw two African American men in handcuffs next to a police car, and I presumed they were the ones the cop was after. Both of them were much taller than I was, and neither wore glasses, as I do.

This incident is typical; I have learned to live with the state of affairs, but it illustrates why the Trayvon Martin case was so emotional for many people of color, especially Black men. We are so accustomed to being profiled, interrogated, and harassed by cops for little to no reason that we cannot fathom having the privilege of a George Zimmerman: being able to gun down another human being and then being let go without a charge by police officers. As Black men, we are conditioned to know that we are seen as dangerous criminals and that we are the face of fear. Oftentimes, we even fear each other.

On the other side of the coin, many “whites,” especially older white males, tend to become very defensive about George Zimmerman. The claim of “justifiable self-defense” is often made, usually accompanied by a desire to point out that Trayvon Martin was far from a “perfect angel.” In fact, there was a not-too-subtle campaign in conservative media outlets to make Trayvon out to be yet another “dangerous Black male.” Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, a conservative Internet site, revealed that Trayvon Martin had been suspended from school and then proceeded to speculate about all of the things Trayvon could have hypothetically been suspended for. It was actually for possession of a small quantity marijuana, hardly an atypical teenage “crime.” Conservative author Michelle Malkin’s site was one of the first to feature purported pictures of Trayvon flashing gang signs from his Facebook account. It turns out that those pictures were of another Black teenager. Here, the need to create a boogeyman image of Trayvon Martin was necessary to defend Zimmerman’s actions. After all, who would feel guilty about slaying a monster?

The Illusion of Race
The most interesting aspect of this case, however, is that George Zimmerman is indeed of mixed race. Half Latino, half “white.” Yet, we know now that race is simply a sociological construction, rather than a biological reality. The terms “Black,” “white,” “brown,” etc. are much more rooted in socioeconomic power and assumptions than in genetic reality. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, many Jews (as well as Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans) were not considered “white” because they did not belong to the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) group. Back then, George Zimmerman would not even have been considered “white.” Even more interesting is the fact that most of Zimmerman’s defenders are rushing to emphasize the fact that he is Latino. In this particular case, his “Latino” identity is used to counter claims that he could be racist, which illustrates clearly how race is a malleable concept used to denote power and/or lack of privilege.

My hope is that we try to strike a balance in our analysis. The idea of a “post-racial” society is absurd. These sociological definitions still affect us in our daily lives and feed our biases, both positive and negative. The only way to increase racial harmony is to have the types of painful dialogues that opportunities like this offer. We should try our best to truly hear each others’ stories, to unpack how these racial categories affect us.

See SPC in Action for details on the SPC Radical Reading Group’s plans to discuss The New Jim Crow.See SPC in Action for details on the SPC Radical Reading Group’s plans to discuss The New Jim Crow.We can’t, however, let the illusion of race keep us from solidarity in fighting the socioeconomic structures that oppress us all. In this case, the growth of a racist prison industrial complex that feeds on the bodies of people of color in a disproportionate manner (as shown in Michel Alexander’s 2011 book, The New Jim Crow). This same system seduces many white rural communities into opening their struggling economies to for-profit prisons. How would we begin to fight this system through a lens of mutual support instead of racial division? One laudable example would be “Milk Not Jails” (www.milknotjails.wordpress. com), a grassroots project which makes the link between the decline of NY state dairy farms and the growth of the unsustainable and toxic prison industry in rural communities. Efforts like this help us build cross-racial solidarity which addresses the economic pressures both urban and rural communities face.

Solidarity requires patience, mutual understanding, and deep structural analysis that go beyond individual tragic cases like Trayvon Martin’s. Let’s hope that the tragic death of Trayvon Martin pushes all of us to check our biases, listen to each other and learn how to recognize the systems that oppress us all.


Aly is an immigration reform activist and a member of the Peace Newsletter Editorial Committee.