Wednesday, March 28, 2012

'You Got a Problem? Well, Now You Do': Why Black Young Men Have It Coming

Trayvon Benjamin Martin (February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012) 
was the son of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin
Trayvon Martin was just 17, and maybe he hadn’t yet put together his own strategy for dealing with life as the object of America’s nightmares. So when he found himself being stalked down a dark street, having just been suspended for a crime that his middle class white peers laugh about, perhaps he improvised. He doubled back on white supremacy and tried to catch it off guard with a mixture of Nat Turner and N.W.A. You got a problem? Well, now you do. That got him killed. But you know what Trayvon? I feel you. At least you came at the problem head on.

If Zimmerman and the cops are to be believed, Martin did what so many of us know we can’t. Like when someone asks if it’s safe in your neighborhood, and you want to reply, sure, expect for the white women we keep as sex slaves. Or when the school counselor says your kid has an anger problem and special needs. Or when the cop tells you to quit loitering on your own damn block. You got a problem? Well, now you do.

That was Trayvon Martin’s approach. Hey, he was just a kid. He hadn’t learned the subtle art of disarming the racism that can come flying at you when you’re walking home from the store. The fact that the racism in this instance came flying from a Latino man isn’t relevant. Martin’s killer could’ve been black and it wouldn’t change the circumstances. All of us live in a country in which black men are defined as pariahs. All of us consume that message in ways both overt and implicit and, on some level, far too many of us use it to excuse the brutality we can see all around us.

Like I said, Trayvon Martin was marked for death already, statistically at least. As a black infant, he was more than twice as likely to die as his white peers. In his teens, he was at least one and a half times as likely to meet an early death as his white peers. Homicide is the leading cause of death for black men his age, and comes at a rate many times every other racial or ethnic group. If he had reached his 20s, he had a 1 in 8 chance of going to prison, because that empty bag of marijuana he had at school would have meant something very different for him than it does for the middle class white kids who use drugs at higher rates. He’d have gone on to live in a country in which nearly 4 in 10 black children live in poverty, in which 1 in 4 black households lack food security.

The fact is the U.S. often seems like it’s built to kill black people. This is not to say racism is equally lethal today as it was even a single generation ago. But it is to say that the same set of deeply ingrained ideas about what black people have coming to us justified the brutality of yesterday and today alike. And one particular manifestation of those ideas routinely leads to the early death of men like Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin.

Of course, this violent manifestation of white supremacy is not visited upon black male bodies alone. Indeed, as Tea Party candidates like Nevada’s Sharron Angle reminded us in the past election cycle, we must very much begin to see Latinos in the same way—lurking, dangerous, illegal. Fear and loathe them. If you encounter them on a dark street be ready to go to arms. And so Latino men have a lengthening gruesome roll call, too.

Surely all these people have done something to bring the murder, the poverty, the brutality down upon themselves! That’s America’s unique twist on systemic oppression. We cage people, then call them animals. We starve people, then jibe them for being malnourished. We write laws that allow people to gun down unarmed children and then make the child the aggressor. And so now Trayvon Martin will be all manner of sinner—a pothead, a dropout, a ne’er-do-well with a temper problem who had it coming. But what he will indisputably be is dead, like too many before him and surely many after him. He had it coming, as a black man in America.
 Read the rest of Kai Wright's March 27 article in Colorlines here.

Comment: A couple of decades ago I was in a gym in Baltimore when a group of black teenage boys walked in and started to work out minding their own business.

Apart from the youngsters, there were about five other people in the gym: all of whom were white men in their mid to late twenties except for one older woman (mid 30s) who was working out solo.

Soon after the black kids entered the gym the woman approached a couple of the white men complaining that she did not feel safe.

They immediately rose to 'defend' her from her self-inflicted fear by puffing their chests and glaring in the direction of kids.

It just seemed so odd to see a grown woman acting the fool at the intersection of submissive white woman and racist fool avenues.

One of the white men started to talk loudly voicing his disapproval of the conduct of the black teenagers - none of whom were doing anything more than working out.

The kids ignored the rising hostility proving that -even in their tender years- they had mastered enough of the threat of whiteness to know how to survive inside the racist scenario that was unfolding.

I have thought about this incident over the years especially in circumstances where the fear of the black drug/thug has raised its ugly head.

Black women fair no better in these circumstances.  A black administrator where I once worked ended up losing her job after a hod-podge investigation into her alleged anger issues that included unfounded accusations that she may have brought a gun to the workplace to threaten her white female supervisor.

It must also be pointed out that though more is said about the criminalization of black men/women there is significantly less said about brown or Latino/Latina criminalization and almost nothing about Indian criminalization.

Even in well meaning articles like the one above where an attempt is made to say that the black body is not unique in facing the criminalizing wrath of whiteness there is not a hint of the manner in which Indian men/women are similarly reduced/erased.

Indian life is too often cast in terms of laziness, delinquency, and of course drunkenness.  But for the most part Indian life is erased from the consciousness of American life.

And now the Muslim Other is reduced to terrorist threat, uncivilized raghead, hajjee, sand nigg*r, etc.  Muslim women wearing the hijab have been beaten in malls and other public places across the US.

In recent days an Iraqi women wearing Hijab in San Diego succumbed to a brutal beating in an attack that bears the hallmarks of a racist hate crime.  A note telling Shaima Alawadi that she was a terrorist and admonishing her to go back to her country was found close to her body.  Mrs Alawadi was attacked in her home.

The consistent thread through all of this is triumphant whiteness which assumes its superiority in rising above the beast - any beast it imagines.

When and where will all of this end?  How many more lives must be laid to waste?

I think we are no closer now to one humanity than we were in the years of transAtlantic slavery.

Whiteness clearly cannot just disentangle the racist stereotypes it uses to dehumanize the Other because it is the capital value on which white identity is predicated - it is also the means used to make racial oppression systemic.

This is so even though the better alternative is a greater humanity.

But then a greater humanity would mean that we are all just the same and such a radical idea would be too dangerous for whiteness.

And we are not free.



eccentricyoruba said...


Excellent commentary as always. What disturbs me even more is how it frequent the deaths of people of colour at the hands of racist whites happens. Apart from Trayvon and Shaima, recently a woman, Anna Brown died after being dragged from a hospital. And what makes it worse is how little sympathy comes from white folks towards these deaths, especially on blogs and forums.

Kweli said...

I was glad that some people made the connection between Trayvon's death and Shaima's---some folks even connected the two to a black Kenyan woman who died in China after being denied medical attention three times in the span of a few days.

The trope of the "disappearing Indian" is very deliberate. It is an effort on the part of racist folks to erase whole nations of people in order to legitimize continuing colonization and imperialism. Indians are all around us, but they are deliberately "blind-sided" (just like that idiot movie) and erased.

I'm amazed at how speaking of Indians summons a "history" that functions as a past rather than a continuing interaction of forces, ideologies, agenda, militarisms, policies, etc. I'm amazed that at the mention of Indians people start looking back and perform pseudo-regret, pseudo-apologies. I'm deeply disturbed by this deliberate location of Indians in the past. It is a rationalization of the violence that continues---because it erases Indians as fully embedded and interacting with the present.

I hear you, brother. The struggle continues. We must make the connections: the struggle is various.

I'm gonna link this over there on my vacuous Twitter :D

Ridwan said...

WSLM eccentricyoruba:

Thank you for your kind words about my analysis my sista. :0)

I read about Anna Brown this morning and it shocked me just how cold hearted and racist her treatment was.

A black homeless mother is of no value to the American system and when she cried for medical attention they threw her jail anyway.

I wonder how the authorities will explain her death - to me it is a homicide brought on by racist/classist/sexist negligence.

You are right about the comment forums that carry stories like this - it is shocking what people will say.

I was reading a few under a story of Trayvon and it disturbed me deeply. I think your advice not to read the comments is the way to go but it is like a bad car accident one is drawn to look at the carnage.

I wonder if we are more heartless now than at any other time?

Maybe the speed with which stories get around and the instant access to commenting is only confirming what has been all along.

I don't really know but when I was reading some comment by folks who were praising the Kandahar murderer of 16 innocents it made me wonder if hope in any sense was just futile.

I trust you are well my sista.

By the way, I read your posts over at your blog often and one day I will have something remotely relevant/intelligent to say :0)

Be well.

Peace and struggle,

Ridwan said...

Hey there brother Kweli:

Thank you for your comment boet - you raise excellent and perceptive points.

I did not hear about the Kenyan sista in China. That is just awful.

You are so right about the manner in which Indians are erased in the US.

Your point about keeping Indian identity locked in the past and in the terms of white colonial history captures the dysfunction.

When Indians are conjured they are stereotyped into plains Indians who speak in halting language - the ennobled beast syndrome in white racism.

Little is said about their near extinction other than to attribute their absence to the 'commonsense' of personal dysfunction.

And even those among us who spend a lot of time tearing racism apart find little reason to recognize just how absent Indians are in black/brown anti-racism movements.

In this sense the race problem in the US is wrongly assumed to be a black-white clash with a splattering of brown.

In fact it bothers me that black struggle in the main has been unable to find the analytical and conceptual space to be more inclusive of indigenous people in the US and on the African continent.

The fixation on replicating race even to the extent that it is made the vehicle for liberation is a major reason why we remain so stuck and wedded to the oppressive terms of whiteness.

Boet I wish you well with Twitter. I think when we meet somewhere in August this year you will have to school an old dawg on new media.

Be well up there.

Peace and struggle,

eccentricyoruba said...


I've lost hope for the most part.

By the way, I read your posts over at your blog often and one day I will have something remotely relevant/intelligent to say :0)

Thanks! It's good to know that you read my blog, reading it is enough for me :D

Ridwan said...

Hang in my sista. Life is an inevitable balance.

Peace eccentricyoruba.