Race and racism are more contested in contemporary society than ever in the five hundred years of racist constructions leading to and coming from the modern world system. While some see an election of the United States’ first African American president as the last nail in the coffin of its racist policies, others see it only as the covering over of racist systems that are no longer profitable or desirable in a globalized world driven by neoliberal values that deny racism and distort its centralized past. Observing this in relation to Joe Feagin’s racial “framing” (The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing), and seeing the weight they might have in finding our way forward during times of hegemonic decline, we need to identify the racial icons that arose in rationalizing systems of racism, and observe their contemporary usage in our society.
Two recent events demonstrate the ongoing power of these racial icons ranging from the individual to the institutional levels. These are the highly racialized claims of “self-defense” or “stand your ground” by George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the systemic claims of defending “ethnic rights” of Europeans against “multiculturalism” as incursions against civilization by Anders Breivik in the mass murders of Norwegians at a “liberal” summer youth camp.
Although in both cases the killer clearly perpetrated the actions leading to the targeted death of those they killed, one as an individual and the other as a representative group, both claim they were (or are) actually defending themselves or their societies. In both cases, on the individual and institutional levels, their “defense” requires seeing those they killed as a threat, even before there is any interaction on any level between the perpetrator and the victims.In Zimmerman’s case as a self-appointed neighborhood “watch” man, he saw Martin as “on drugs” and as “up to no good” precisely because Trayvon was young and Black and wearing a hoodie, with no other evidence of any wrong-doing (which Zimmerman had no legal right to address anyway).
In Breivik’s case as a self-appointed social regulator against “Islamic colonization”, he saw the youth camp as a group representative of “multi-culturalism” values that would threaten Norwegian society, with no evidence that there was any threat or that these individuals were connected to that hypothetical situation (which Breivik had no right to counter anyway).
Both of these cases, while apparently different in scope and victimization, require a “dangerous other” to make the “defense” claim. Although many see that the number (77) and age (mostly youth) of victims with the Norwegian case see it as a despicable case of an “individual psychopath” but definitively wrong, they also deny the claimed linkage to ethno-racial domination with remarkable similarity to recent laws passed by the state of Arizona. Apologists and deniers will not make the claimed inference that there are ideologies in Norwegian and American societies that support and engender such claims of threats. And, of course, these are firmly landed in histories of legalized racial and ethnic domination.