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Trayvon Martin & the Myth of the Criminal Black Man
File this one under "Defensive Intellectual Weaponry for Black People."
Knowledge is power.
Trayvon Martin and the Myth of the ‘Criminalblackman’
By Kevin D. Miller March 22, 2012
22 facts that opened my white students’ eyes to the lie of colorblindness and the reality of racial bias in the American criminal justice system.
The Trayvon Martin tragedy is perhaps the most-talked-about news story of this past week, yet a casual scan of Facebook pages and other social media suggests the outrage over Martin’s death does not extend that far beyond the African American community. That’s unfortunate, because this is a story that should upset all Americans, regardless of race, especially those of us in the Christian community.
Trayvon, an African American teenager, was walking down a Central Florida sidewalk when he was targeted by an overzealous neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. Some sort of confrontation ensued and Trayvon, who was unarmed, was slain by Zimmerman, who claims he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense. The shooting has raised enough suspicions about the incident being racially motivated that the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have opened investigations.
Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told CNN, “I think that’s an issue that Mr. Zimmerman himself considers as someone suspicious — a black kid with a hoodie on, jeans, tennis shoes. Thousands of people wear that outfit every day, so what was so suspicious about Trayvon that Zimmerman felt as though he had to confront him?”
The charge brought to mind a recent college class I taught in which I was interrupted in the middle of my lecture by a student who challenged a fact I had just presented about the frequency of highway drug arrests. “I don’t believe it,” he stated. “I was in a car that was stopped once by the cops and we weren’t arrested even though they found marijuana.”
“Where were you, how many of you were in the car,” I asked, “and what races?”
The answer was that he and the four male teens were in a rural area of Ohio not far from their homes, and they were all white.
“So do you think your race and location had anything to do with not being arrested?” I asked. He didn’t.
I knew then I needed a set of facts to convey the reality that he and the other all-white class of students in my college course weren’t able to see — precisely because they were white and had never been viewed suspiciously in their hometowns because of the color of their skin. Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, provided those facts.
22 Facts That Challenge Perceptions
As we worked through Michelle Alexander’s book over the course of the next couple of weeks, my students began to rethink their assumptions about how post-racial we as a society really are, even in an era of civil rights and a black president. This happened as they began to understand the reality of what Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, coins the “criminalblackman.” In condensed form, here are the 22 statistics from her book that — cumulatively grasped — served as the scalpel for removing the colorblind scales from my white students’ eyes:
• To return to 1970 incarceration rates today, we would need to release 4 of every 5 inmates. (p. 218)
• Federal law requires that states permanently exclude anyone with a drug-related felony from receiving federally funded public assistance. (p. 153)
• Inmates work in prison for less than minimum wage, often for $3.00 an hour but as low as 25 cents an hour, even though child alimony and other payments continue to accrue. (p. 152)
• In the last 25 years, multiple fees have been added for those awaiting trial. These include jail book-in fees, jail per diems to cover “room and board” while awaiting trial, public defender application fees, and bail investigation fees. (p. 150)
• Post-conviction fees include public defender recoupment fees, work-release program fees, parole fees, probation fees. Example: Ohio courts can order probationers to pay a $50 monthly supervision fees as a condition of probation. (p. 150)
• Four of five drug arrests are for possession, not sales, of drugs. (p. 59)
• More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. (p. 59)
• There were 3,000 SWAT deployments a year in the early 1980s, but 30,000 by 2001. Driven by federal grants based on arrests, special tactic teams often act in military fashion as they “blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.” (p. 74)
• Forfeiture laws (which allow local police departments to keep a substantial portion of seized assets and cash) are frequently used to allow those with assets to buy their freedom, resulting in most major kingpins getting short sentences or no sentences while small-time dealers or users incur long sentences. (p. 78)
• Tens of thousands of poor go to jail each year without ever having talked to a lawyer. In Wisconsin, 11,000 indigent people go to court without legal representation since anyone who earns more than $3,000 a year is considered capable of hiring a lawyer. (p. 83)
• Prosecutors routinely “load up” defendants with extra and questionable charges to force them to plead guilty rather than risk longer prison sentences resulting from the trumped up charges. (p. 86)
• Some federal judges have quit in protest over minimum sentencing laws, including one conservative judge who quit after being forced by minimum sentencing requirements to impose a five-year sentence on a mother in Washington, D.C., convicted of “possession” of crack found by police in a box her son had hidden in her attic. (p. 91)
• Most people convicted of a felony are not sentenced to prison. In 2008, 2.3 million people were in prisons and jails, but another 5.1 million were under probation or on parole. (p. 92)
• Even those convicted of a felony for a small amount of drugs are barred from public housing by law and made ineligible for feed stamps. (p. 92)
• By 2000, about as many people were returned to prison for parole violations as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. One can be returned to prison for any number of parole violations, including being found in the presence of another convicted felon. (p. 93)
• “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” (p. 97)
• White young people have three times the number of drug-related emergency room visits as do black youth. (p. 97)
• In 2006, 1 of every 14 African Americans was behind bars, compared to 1 of every 106 European Americans. (p. 98)
• A study of Maryland highway stops found that only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore were black, but black people comprised 70 percent of those stopped and searched for drugs. This was the case even though the study found that whites who were stopped were more likely to be found actually carrying contraband in their vehicles than people of color. (p. 131)
• States typically have mandatory sentencing for drunk driving (a statistically “white” crime with 78 percent of arrests being white males) of two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense, but the “black” crime of possessing even tiny amounts of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. (p. 201)
• White ex-offenders may actually have an easier time gaining employment than African Americans without a criminal record. “To be a black man is to be thought of as a criminal, and to be a black criminal is to be despicable — a social pariah. To be a white criminal is not easy, by any means, but as a white criminal you are not a racial outcast, though you may face many forms of social and economic exclusion. Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.” (p. 193)
The one statistic, however, that finally broke through the rural white Midwestern defenses was this one: “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color” (p. 7).
HOODED TARGET: "This guy looks like he's up to no good or on drugs or something," George Zimmerman told a 911 dispatcher as he followed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman had already pegged him as a "criminal black man."
These facts, taken together, convinced the students of the reality of the “criminalblackman” stereotype that Alexander describes, as well as the dubious nature of a criminal justice system that mass produces black felons at a higher rate than our higher education system graduates young black men.
The Absurdity of ‘White Crime’
One other item from Alexander’s book helped make the issue of black male stereotypes real to my students. Alexander recommends trying this social experiment:
Say the following to nearly anyone and watch the reaction: “We really need to do something about the problem of white crime” (p. 193).
We decided to take her advice literally, and the students put the phrase to at least four different individuals from different walks of life, compiling a set of notes of the responses. The number one reaction to the statement was pure bafflement. This confirmed Alexander’s point that “the term white crime is nonsensical in the era of mass incarceration … In the era of mass incarceration, what it means to be a criminal in our collective consciousness has become conflated with what it means to be black, so the term white criminal is confounding, while the term black criminal is nearly redundant.”
One student happened upon further evidence of how this stereotype of black criminality and white innocence has inscribed itself into our collective consciences. When she made the “white crime” statement to a person sitting at a computer, the woman also showed the typical signs of confusion but then quickly googled the phrase “white crime.” She found plenty of hits for “black-on-white crime” and “white-collar crime.” But nothing on white crime itself. In class we replicated the experiment with the same results, but when we typed in “black crime,” the Google results were pages of sensible usages and references to black people and crime.
The old racism of the Jim Crow generation (largely my students’ grandparents) had been made illegal and publicly taboo. But the dawning realization among my students that it hadn’t disappeared but had instead permutated and morphed into a form that was under their nose, but that their eyes could not bring into focus, helped them realize that even they, the supposedly first post-racial generation of Americans, had themselves been subtly infected by racism.
Once blind, now they could see how the social construct of the criminalblackman was connected to the mass incarceration of people of color in their own day.
Inheriting Bigoted Stereotypes
Near the end of the course, one particularly quiet female student in the class recorded a childhood memory in her reflection paper:
As a young white woman, I was raised to take caution when any stranger approached me: male or female, white or colored. However, my parents and particularly my dad made an extra point to stress the importance of staying away from strangers who were black men. I remember being particularly young, possibly about seven or eight years old, and having my dad kneel down close to me in a shopping mall and point out a black man that had just walked past. He got close to my face and said, “That man is a jigaboo, and you don’t ever talk to people that look like him. They’re jigaboos and they just want to cause problems.” This and other snippets said by my dad will be remembered forever. I know that he meant well and just wanted to protect me, but it originated from having a racist attitude towards black men.
She went on to write that it was because of this memory that she now wanted to research the theory of white fear and look into the white person’s assumptions of black violence. These experiences and others like them, she said, keep the theories of violent or dangerous black men alive in the minds and hearts of many white people.
Like this young woman, the vast majority of my students were raised in evangelical Christian homes and care deeply about their faith and even about social justice. But their faith has failed to draw a connection between the social injustices of institutional racism and their biblical moorings.
At one point — early in the course before I had Alexander’s book in my hands — I asked the students if they thought it unjust that although there are six times as many whites who use and sell drugs as blacks, almost half of state prisoners sentenced for drugs are black. Appealing to their Biblicist convictions, I had piled on Isaiah 61:1, the same passage of Scripture Jesus later recited as he inaugurated his public ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”
Wasn’t this prophetic statement relevant to the disproportionate incarceration of black people for drug offenses, especially for Christians? They didn’t think so, was the consensus, since “those people” shouldn’t have been doing drugs in the first place. Their pat answer was to imprison every offender, regardless of race. That was their version of social justice, but one that for all its surface fairness was in the final analysis deeply skewed toward a myopic view of society.
The conflation of criminality with blackness — the “criminalblackman” — is, as Alexander points out, the result of an asymmetrical use of colorblindness. This means the color of the individual black male is seen and made visible by white society at key moments that serve to preserve white privilege, such as when marking all young African American males as “potential criminals,” but not doing the same for their white suburban counterparts who “experiment” with drugs or are caught driving drunk. For whites, it’s just “the recklessness of youth.” At these white moments, color abruptly evaporates.
Making It Personal
One reason Alexander’s quote on white youth drug offenses so effectively opened the eyes of my students was because it hit home personally and racially: the statistics “suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color” (p. 7). Until they saw themselves in the equation, no Scripture passage or social science statistic could penetrate the moral sensibilities of those students.
Their brand of Christian faith and its underlying status quo theology was itself color-coded to intercept and neutralize any numerical fact or biblical precept one might put to them. I could quote Isaiah and pair that with an incarceration statistic, but until my students could begin to realize that how they read Isaiah in light of that statistic was already conditioned by their whiteness, the prophetic Word and the statistic could not be brought to bear on each other. Their conflation of criminality and blackness — and their inverse equation of innocence and whiteness — were of one logical piece already implicit in their white Christian theology.
Reading Alexander’s deeply ethical framing of the new Jim Crow of our era, and the white colorblindness that makes it possible, primes the pump for a richer re-reading of standard-fare evangelical theology and doctrine. In Race: A Theological Account, J. Kameron Carter describes the conjoined birth of whiteness and European theology, from which mainstream American evangelical theology gets its footing. He makes the case that the “modern invention of race or the story of its naturalization is a problem that is pseudotheological or religious in character.” He argues that
"behind the modern problem of race is the problem of how Christianity and Western civilization came to be thoroughly identified with each other. … Remade into cultural and political property and converted into an ideological instrument to aid and abet colonial conquest, Christianity became a vehicle for the religious articulation of whiteness, though increasingly masked to the point of near invisibility."
A generation earlier, in the heat of the civil rights debates, theologian James Cone stated it more bluntly: “American theology is racist.” Lacking basic human compassion, it is impervious to the sufferings of oppressed peoples. “How else,” Cone asked in 1970, “can we explain the theological silence during the period of white lynchings of black humanity in this nation?”
The equivalent question facing us now is this: Why the unholy silence today about the racialized inequities in our criminal justice system?
And, more to the point this week, why the general indifference among white evangelicals regarding the death of Trayvon Martin?
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