Christians believe that Jesus taught his followers to love and accept everyone, even as we all fall short before the eyes of God, so it is particularly shocking that some Christians would use the murder of Trayvon Martin as a sermon on God’s supposed intended punishment, using racial code words. Pat Robertson used his media platform to engage in racial code words:
Racial code words such as “criminal” and “thug” – and now, perhaps “hoodie” – are lodged in the minds of the American public and associated with black males as people to be feared. When these code words are used in a context such as the Trayvon Martin case, they are intended to make someone like Martin out to be a menace with criminal intentions who got what he deserved.
This logic and reasoning is profoundly insensitive and disturbing, as it is contrary to many of Christianity’s central teachings. But the pounding and twisting of Christian thought to fit a particular worldview is nothing new. We have seen this behavior many times before, from the Crusades to the transatlantic slave trade. With each event in world history, the name of God was invoked as a source of inspiration for unspeakable acts of pure brutality and hatred. This is, perhaps, why it is not so shocking when folks like Ann Coulter tweet, “Hallelujah,” shortly after the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict. Her undiplomatic remark gives the more self-righteous and like-minded followers of Jesus a license to inflame their narrow-minded passions.
But when the religious extremist, Shirley Phelps-Roper, opined on Twitter that, “God will require Trayvon’s blood,” it exposed a different and uglier side of Christianity. Other twitter users followed suit, sending forth hate and virtual judgment. One twitter user tweeted, “I want to thank god…. for that bullet that killed trayvon martin.” And yet another man who claims to be a Reverend and going by the name of Pastor Ron tweeted, “Thank God for George Zimmerman. He is a hero. Trayvon was a piece of crap.”
In my view, this is certainly not the Jesus of the Holy Bible, who would see such behavior as reprehensible and denounce it. Christ’s earthly ministry was radical in nature, accepting sinners and publicans while calling out hypocrisy at every turn and replacing the Old Testament notion of “an eye for an eye” with a new gospel of brotherly and sisterly love. This is something that some modern-day Christians have failed to fully embrace and practice, much like their ancient counterparts, and it is particularly evident when issues of race emerge. For some, God’s divine hand was at work throughout this trial and Zimmerman’s acquittal. Even Zimmerman believed that this was all a part of “God’s plan.” Therefore, he is able to wipe his hands clean of sin, as if it was part of his earthly errand to take Trayvon’s life (a modern-day mercy killing). The alarming nature of such uses of God and His will in reference to Trayvon should give us great pause.
“…there is a religious message here for all Christians. If there ever was a time that demonstrated why racially and culturally diverse congregations are needed — that time is now. The body of Christ is meant, instructed, and commanded by Christ to be racially inclusive. If white Christians stay in our mostly-white churches and talk mostly to each other we will never understand how our black brothers and sisters are feeling after a terrible weekend like this one. It was the conversation of every black church in America on this Sunday, but very few white Christians heard that discussion or felt that pain.”
But evidently, for a great many of believers, God has spoken and revealed his word through an inspired legal system where He touches decision makers. The irony of a 5-white and all-woman jury seemed to escape this extreme version of Christianity; God has spoken and a decision was made.
The Zimmerman jury’s legal conclusion to the untimely death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin told young black men everywhere what we already knew—that our place in American society is precarious, at best, and not guaranteed. Never get too comfortable and too complacent. Black men have always stood at odds with an insecure white power structure. Since slavery, black men were seen as threats to white manhood, which provided justification of incredible violence directed at them, whether in the cotton fields or working in the big house. Black men have paid a heavy price in all manner of civil society.
Although there are flickers and flashes of great expressions of stalwart black male mobility in life, black men remain an exploited group, relegated to the margins of society, alienated and overly criminalized. Trayvon’s tragic death, and more significantly, the so-called Christian response to his death and the acquittal of his killer reify this point. But if we are to call on God’s name in any way from this trial, it should be to forgive us for our pre-judgments, unfounded fears, and deep insecurities so that we may be lead on the path of enlightenment and righteousness.
~ Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. You can follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.
Many people are asking what they can do in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. This ‘action kit’ created by the anti-racist action group Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) offers some guidelines for steps designed for white people to take, but open to all.
Actions You Can Take: Table of Contents and Links
Below are actions you can take in response to the Zimmerman verdict and violence against people of color, ranging from one minute to a lifetime of action. Please join us in making a commitment to take one or more of these actions in this important time.
As white people, it is not too much to commit our lives to ending racism. It is, in fact, only right in the light of our history, and through our collective vision and action it is possible. In my shock and grief I can only recommit myself and work hard for a better world for my daughter — and all the children who deserve safety, love, security, opportunity, and the basic right to walk home in a hoodie and not get shot. ~ Audrey Ward, Mother & Organizer at We are Guahan
Read about and watch videos on the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial and discuss them with white friends, family, and organizations. Check out these links:
On this day I consider myself utterly lucky to have had the company of many people who refused to accept these misgivings, rather than do what is considered “polite” in our culture and passively ignore them, or worse to join me in slipping into a denial where they can believe wholly that they are not any kind of problem.
Because this evening has made it very apparent to me that I would rather be called out, embarrassed, shamed, flunked, fired, pummeled in the street, or called the worst of the worst — a racist — by my closest friends, colleagues, or people on the street than to be allowed by them to continue nurturing ideas, intentionally or unintentionally, taught to me from birth or not, that support a system where an armed white man can stalk an unarmed black teenage pedestrian from the protection of his car, get out of it and confront him against the orders of the police department, respond to that teenager’s alarm and defensiveness by murdering him, and not only walk the streets as a free man after a rigorous trial in our court of law, but set a precedent that allows others to do the same. ~ Erin Zipper, Graphic Artist
ONE MINUTE ACTION: Join SURJ
SURJ is a national volunteer-led organization of white people engaging other white people in racial justice work. We have chapters across the country and are always looking for new members. To join, go here and we will connect you with other people in your area.
TWO MINUTE ACTION: Sign petitions
Petitions are one way for us to show a united force. Please take a minute and sign these important petitions.
Has anyone ever followed you with a gun because you looked like a threat to their neighborhood? #WeAreNotTrayvon #JusticeForTrayvon #Showup4RJ
It’s not about being “surprised” by the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the brutal murder of a child, an innocent Black teenager named Trayvon Martin. On a conceptual level, I understand that – more than baseball or apple pie — racism is what defines the United States of America. But I will never stop being shocked and heartbroken at this nation’s absolute and profound disregard for the lives of Black people. ~ Harmony Goldberg
5 MINUTE ACTION: Spread the Word Through Art
Share an image (like the one below) on your Facebook page and write a message about why it is important to you as a white person. Thanks to the artists who have offered to use their artwork for this project. Visit their websites to see more of their art. Paste the link onto Facebook, Twitter or Instagram if you post the picture.
10 MINUTE ACTION: Donate to a racial justice organization
There are thousands of organizations that are working to combat structural racism in different ways, nationally and in local communities around the country. These organizations depend on the donations of people: 85% of funding for non-profits comes from individuals. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it is a valuable action to contribute your money to make sure that this organizing, educating, and mobilizing continues.
Think about the work that you find most inspiring. Do you think national or local work is more important? Legal strategies? Education? Mobilization? Policy change?
Look for organizations that are led by and working with people of color.
Ask a trusted friend which organizations they think are doing good racial justice work.
Make a gift. Write a check. Put it on your credit card. Sign up as a monthly donor. Whatever you can give will help them do their work more successfully.
Here are a few networks of great racial justice coalitions with local members across the country:
15 MINUTE ACTION: Write a Message and Snap a Photo
We are not Trayvon Martin: Spend a few minutes writing about how you have benefited from your whiteness. This can be in terms of education, housing, medical care, travel, police conduct, etc. Post it with your photo at We are not Trayvon Martin.
30 MINUTE ACTION: Talk to people in your life about race
Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do or think what you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today. ~ Malcolm X
It is tempting to separate ourselves from other white people who disagree with us on this or other racial justice matters. It can be painful to know that someone you know or care about holds views that you know to be biased. However, as white people committed to racial justice, a powerful way to create change is to engage other white people in dialogue, to see talking about race with them as our responsibility.
Think back to how your analysis and perspective were shaped:
Listen well to what the other person is saying, and why they see things the way that they do.
Ask questions to help clarify.
Withhold judgement. The goal is to move them forward, not to prove something about yourself.
How did the people in your life move you through dialogue? When was it about the presentation of facts that you didn’t know, and when was it about shifting a framework, asking questions, or a deeper connection?
The following are some suggestions for how to respond to conclusions white people often come to around George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin. The goal is not to read these as a script. Feel free to modify as makes sense for your conversations and life:
Comment: “But the legal system worked the way it is supposed to. If Zimmerman were guilty, he would have been convicted.” Response: “The legal system is biased against people of color. For example, African Americans are twice as likely as whites to receive the death penalty. If Trayvon had been white, Zimmerman would have done time.” Follow-up Question: “How do you see bias in the criminal justice system playing out in your neighborhood, town, region?”
Comment: “The problem was the Florida law, with its broad definition of self-defense. It would not have happened in another state.” Response: “The only thing different about this case is that we heard about it. People of color are being shot and killed all the time, under so-called fair laws. Question: “What long did it take for past unjust laws to end or change (like Jim Crow, slavery, DOMA)?”
Comment: “The prosecution was incompetent.” Response: “That may well have been true, but the real problem was that the judge prohibited any talk about race and racial profiling. That’s what the case was about.”
Comment: “But George Zimmerman is Latino. So it can’t be about race.” Response: “It’s about race because his actions and decisions that night and the coverage and prosecution of the case reflected and held to racist ideology, that automatically deems a young man of color a suspect, and then guilty of his own death.” Question: “How might structural racism impact the views of people of color differently than white people?”
Comment: “Well, it’s all over now. Time to get on with our lives.” Response: “It’s not all over. Trayvon’s family can still file a civil suit, which has a more relaxed standard of evidence. And these laws are still on the books around the country. What would it be like if this had happened to your child? Question: “What do you think would keep this real in white peoples’ lives when the headlines fade?”
Comment: “Then why not let the legal system play itself out.” Response: “That can take years. What about all the African Americans and other people of color who face the threat of vigilante attacks and biased arrests every day?” Question: “What do you think could make the legal system work for all people?”
Comment: “Even if people are upset, holding rallies doesn’t help anything.” Response: “White people need to stand up for racial justice in a public, visible way. Only action can prevent more Trayvon Martins. What can we do today?”
Question: “What can we do today to engage more people more deeply?”
Comment: “I think there’s been too much focus on this one case. It’s time to move on.” Response: “People aren’t concerned just about what happens to George Zimmerman, but about the ways in which the outcome here continues our society’s precedent of devaluing black life. It makes young black people more vulnerable to being a target for anyone who sees them as a threat.” Question: “How do you think we can show that all lives–including African Americans and other people of color– matter?”
Comment: “But George Zimmerman is Latino/ Hispanic. How can he be racist?” Response: “In this country, white skin/light skin people get certain privileges. While Zimmerman is Latino, he benefits from a system that prioritizes white people. Question: ”How have you seen white people benefit in terms of education, housing, health care, immigration? I know in my family history, some people received _____ advantage. What about it yours?”
ONE HOUR ACTION: Do some writing
Letter to the Editor: Write an LTE about why this is an important issue for you and what needs to change. Send it to your friends, family, organizations, and to the local papers. Post it on our Facebook page.
As a white person, this case matters to me because…
The fact that a jury ruled that it was lawful for George Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon Martin demonstrates…
Trayvon Martin would still be alive today if…
Now is an opportunity to check ourselves through some honest reflection and let that lead us to thoughtful action. ~ Claudia Horowitz, Stone Circles
1 HOUR + ACTION: Take a day off your usual grind and spend a few hours in the street!
(Sign from SURJ contingent in NYC march for Trayvon Martin, July 14, 2013)
For any action, meeting, or in-person event please take pictures or a short video and upload it to the SURJ Facebook page.
Go to a local action: There (was) a National Day of Action this Saturday, July 20th, and there will be many more to come. See if there is a local action near you and go with some friends. Make some signs to get your message out. Great messages to use:
Black lives matter
Showing up for Racial Justice
Racial justice, not racial profiling
Abolish “Stand Your Ground”
At the action: Engage with other white people. Talk to them about why they are there and whether they’re involved with local racial justice efforts.
Hold a house party: To discuss the Zimmerman trial and its connections to other issues such as racial profiling, the mass incarcerations and criminalization of people of color, and/or the impact of stand your ground laws in your state.
Use video to spark conversation: Use YouTube videos, a short movie, or an article on the Zimmerman trial to spark conversation with people in your community. Or go to a movie with a racial justice theme — like Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant by the transit police in Oakland, California — and meet for discussion afterwards.
In addition to the videos listed earlier, here are some possible videos to show:
With the Supreme Court’s recent decision to invalidate key sections of the Voting Rights Act there is a strong need to make sure everyone has access to a vote- particularly in communities of color. Support the Voting Rights Act. There will be national week of action August 24-28th with local actions around the country in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Join a Day of Dignity on August 28th. More details to come.
ONGOING ACTION: Join a local organization; get involved with SURJ!
We meet a lot of white people who care about the issue of equity and justice, but often feel alone and isolated in their neighborhoods, communities, and families. Within SURJ, many of us have also felt ostracized for not going along with the “norm” of how racism happens. That is part of why we come together–so that we have a like-minded, like-valued community who deeply cares that every single human being deserves to be treated with love and respect–and that with a supportive community we are able to take a stand, speak the truth, and be part of creating a better America and beyond.
Contact us to be connected to a local SURJ group or tell help form a local chapter.
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. ~ Australian Aboriginal activists
This is a historic moment. There is an opportunity to decide what type of person you want to be — someone who stands up against injustice in all its forms or someone who sits back and watches. What values do you want your peers and colleagues, family members and spiritual community, children and grandchildren to learn from you? As a white person, you have the opportunity to dig down deep and find the person you want to be and live it out loud.
Will you stand up for what is right? Will you dare to speak above the status quo? Will you rise to the challenge of being your best self?
PLEASE DO! We need you! We need your voice, your brilliance, your heart, your soul… we need you to be part of this moment, right here, right now, to create the world we want to all live in. Be bold with us, be courageous with us! No one is free until we are all free!
Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) was formed in 2009 by white people from across the US to respond to the significant increase of targeting and violence against people of color in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama. The case of George Zimmerman is the latest in a long series of extrajudicial (outside the law) killings of people of color in the United States. We mourn the loss of life, see the impact on communities of color and believe that white people must partner across race and other differences to create social change. SURJ is here to provide resources and support for white people to make this happen.
We look to each other to change the world we live in one conversation and action at a time, and our efforts are to build a broad and deep movement of engaged white people to work in partnership with communities of color for real racial justice in the US and everywhere. Please join us as we build on a long tradition of white people engaged in racial justice work in our local communities, our states, and around the world.
President Obama’s poignant comments on the white-racist discrimination that Black men regularly face were pathbreaking for this country. First, in the history of the U.S. never has such a high government official so forthrightly called out key elements of white racism and condemned persisting patterns of racial harassment and profiling of Black boys and men.
One cannot imagine any white president saying, or being able to say, what Obama has said in his two explicit commentaries on U.S. racism. He certainly did not say enough about this racism, but his commentaries so far have been pathbreaking, especially for a white population much of which is in terminal denial of that racism.
Obama assessed the killing of Trayvon Martin from a Black perspective, one rarely taken seriously by most white Americans. Now, for a time, it has to be taken seriously and provides the basis to expand on his analysis later on.
Obama made his first comment to an African American family that has suffered much white racism over their lives, and like many such families lost a young male to unnecessary violence. Saluting the Martin family, he underscored
the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.
Then his assessment moved to an approach rare in this country’s public forum—-he accented our historical and contemporary societal context of white racism. That critical context, he made clear, includes many decades of racial profiling, harassment, and killing of Black boys and men. And it means long decades of frequent and very painful Black experience in dealing with an array of discriminatory realities:
When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me–at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
This eloquent statement about recurring Black experiences sums up what millions of Black men, women, and children have been telling this country’s whites in many ways, for generations. Obama underscores a key aspect of the Black counter-frame, the deep understanding of the great racial inequality in the operation of our “justice” system:
. . . those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.. . . The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
He accents the importance of understanding the long history of unjust impoverishment of African Americans in creating problems of violence in communities—something few whites wish to do. The Black community understands
that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
He thereby gives us a sense of how and why African Americans saw the Trayvon Martin killing early on as very much a racial matter:
And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
He ends his comments, as he often does, with a pragmatic statement about what we should do next. He calls for much better law enforcement training at state and local levels:
When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation. . . . it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize . . .. So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.
His second suggestion is to reassess notorious “stand your ground” laws, one of which was at least implicitly involved in the Zimmerman case. He made a dramatic point that has provoked even a conservative commentator like David Brooks to rethink this problematical law and what happened to the teenager:
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
His third suggestion was, once again, very positive. He called for much action to
bolster and reinforce our African American boys. . . . is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them? . . . And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society. . . .
A bit vague, but again a rare moment of insight about Black male needs at this public level. His last suggestion was also rather vague but echoed Dr. King:
I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. . . . in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?
Not surprisingly, he concludes on an optimistic note of hope about the younger generation:
better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
On the whole, a pathbreaking speech that only an Black president could have so effectively delivered. It is sad, and often noted in Black America, that Black Americans too often end up as the major teachers of whites about how white racism operates and its devastating and painful impacts. Obama has used that “bully pulpit” to give white America some significant lessons about the reality and damage of that white racism. It will long be remembered as a watershed moment, one requiring great courage.
No president, including Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, has accomplished more progressive policy goals, especially on racial issues, since the 1960s presidency of President Lyndon Johnson. This includes putting at least some aspects of white racism on the national discussion and policy agenda.
President Obama’s historic remarks yesterday about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdit were striking for their clarity on on race and racism. Addressing how the Zimmerman case unfolded, President Obama said:
“If a white male teen would have been involved in this scenario, both the outcome and the aftermath would have been different.”
All of this, of course, set the right-wing media machine into overdrive, calling President Obama’s remarks “race-baiting,” a claim that boggles the mind for a second term president, but no matter. You can read the full transcript of his remarks, and we’ll have more to say about these in the coming days on this blog, but the place I wanted to start with is near the end:
“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.”
Yet, when it comes to soul-searching memoirs by white people about race and racism in the U.S. there are just many fewer of these and they are mostly disappointing endeavors. There is Clara Silverstein’s White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, in which the author uses her experience to undermine the entire project of integrating schools.
Debra Dickerson asks, “why are white people suddenly so interested in race?” and goes on to point out, memoirs such as DeWolf, Ball, and Carr’s:
“do what America never will; participate in all the truth and reconciliation we’re ever going to have—piecemeal, caveated, hazy, [and] statute of limitations-expired…”
Dickerson is right. There’s been no truth and reconciliation process in the U.S. for the centuries of chattel slavery, rape, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, discrimination, and ongoing extra-judicial killings. Beyond these few titles, there’s a paucity of writing by whites who are doing any of the really difficult “soul-searching” about the past or the present in the U.S.
I recently watched the documentary, “Hitler’s Children,” which chronicles the stories of descendants of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime. One of the people featured is Niklas Frank, who wrote a book about his father, Hans Frank, convicted and hanged at Nuremberg as a Nazi war criminal. Frank’s book Der Vater: Eine Abrechnung(“The Father: A Settling of Accounts”), was published in English as In the Shadow of the Reich, is a scathing account of his father’s participation in the Third Reich’s genocide of six million. The interviews with Frank in the film capture his unflinching courage at looking at the legacy of his father. In one of the most touching scenes, Frank has a conversation with this daughter and asks her if she ever thinks about Hans Frank, her grandfather the Nazi war criminal. She responds that she rarely thinks of him because, she says to her father, “You were a fortress against that. Because of what you wrote, I felt like I was protected somehow.” It’s moving encounter that reveals so much about why this sort of soul-searching is necessary.
Yet, this sort of grappling with hard truths is mostly missing in the U.S. context. It’s part of what prompted me to start work on my own memoir.
In my experience doing research for my first book about white supremacist groups, I did some of my own personal, familial history and soul-searching. I learned that my paternal grandfather, in addition to being the mayor of the small town of Eden, Texas, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. This was especially startling given the family mythology I was raised with which was that we were, on my father’s side, descendants of Native Americans (tribe unknown).
(My father, Jim Tom Harper, with his parents, George and Bernice.)
If your ancestors, like mine, were actively involved in making sure that systems of inequality were entrenched and continued in perpetuity, then going back and looking at – not to mention looking for – that history is can be a painful exercise in shame. The tendency for most people when confronted with that kind of history is to dismiss, deny, ignore. My tendency, for whatever reason, is to poke, prod and reveal.
Uncovering the history of racial privilege can affect the present. When I learned the facts of my grandfather’s participation in the KKK, I used this newly discovered fact about my grandfather’s involvement to situate my own work about white supremacy in the preface to White Lies. As a result of this discovery, I also changed my given name to Jessie Daniels. For me, seeing that my last name (Harper) was the same as my grandfather who was in the Klan, seemed wrong. And it seemed especially wrong to be on a book in which I was critical of white supremacy.
When my father read a draft of that piece, he threatened to stop publication of the book and had me briefly committed to a psychiatric ward. After the seventy-two hour hold, my older brother came to the hearing considering my release, testified that I was mostly sane, and got me sprung. That first book was published, I moved far away and lived under my new name, teaching about racial privilege to college students on the East Coast. My father died two years after the book was published, and we never spoke again. The last time I saw him was at a hearing where he wanted to have me locked up for telling the truth about our family. I think my father’s reaction was extreme, but in many ways, it was not. As I learned, there are powerful cultural and social forces – like fathers and judges and hospitals – that can align to keep family secrets about racism.
It’s important that we do the kind of “soul-searching” that President Obama called for. Whites in the U.S. in general are incredibly naïve about race and about their own complicity in creating and maintaining this system of racial inequality. My naïvete was in not realizing how profoundly upset my father would be about these revelations. Even with my difficult experience with my father, I still think it’s important for whites to go back and look at what their genealogy of racial privilege is as painful and unpopular as that might be.
Ask your grandparents about the G.I. Bill – did your grandfather go to school on that government subsidy? Did he buy a house with help from the G.I. Bill? Were there “deed restrictions” on the house you grew up in? Ask about the college admissions policies when your parents or grandparents went to school – who was excluded? Ask about the employment policies – who was hired — who was not? How many whites know the answers to these questions going back even a generation? Two generations? Three generations? Very few.
My point here is not to remain in the shallow eddy of thinking about race that is “white guilt,” but rather to use this sort of “soul-searching” to move the conversation forward in some small way. Only then can we begin to step up and take responsibility for what our ancestors have wrought and more importantly, take some responsibility for dismantling the system of inequality they put in place and from which we still benefit.
~ Jessie Daniels, PhD, is a CUNY Professor, and is writing a memoir called, No Daughter of Mine.
The trial of George Zimmerman for the tragic murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin has yielded some excellent journalism and critical commentary, and it’s also been an opportunity for some to profit from selling images of Trayvon that trade in racism.
“Trayvon is angry and nobody can stop him from completing his world tour of revenge on the bad guy who terrorize cities everyday.”
The notion that “Trayvon” here is “angry” and “on a world tour of revenge” speaks to the pervasive representation of black men as inherently, ontologically violent, aggressive and intent on attacking putatively innocent white people.
(Screen shot just before 3pmET on 7/9/13)
There was some pretty vigorous pushback against the game, much of it on Twitter and Facebook and a Change.org petition, as people let the game developers, Trade Digital. While it was first reported that the game app was removed, it then re-appeared and was still for sale as late as 3pmET yesterday, but appears to be down now. It bears paying attention to see if it comes back again. Well done, Interwebs, I say. From my perspective, this is precisely how racism online should be handled.
(Screen shot after 3pmET on 7/9/13)
For its’ part, Trade Digital, said it planned to purge “Angry Trayvon” entirely from the web, according to CNET. I’m not sure why they feel the need to do this bit of web washing, given that in a statement they claim the game wasn’t racist. According to a statement on the company’s Facebook page (since removed but quoted in Fast Company):
The people spoke out therefore this game was removed from the app stores. Sorry for the inconvenience as this was just an action game for entertainment. This was by no means a racist game. Nonetheless, it was removed as will this page and anything associated with the game will be removed.
This denial of the obvious racism in the “Angry Trayvon” game is rather stunning, really, and I suspect a bit disingenuous. It’s not that the game developers didn’t realize they were trading on racism in creating this, they were just surprised that it was unpopular. It’s the only thing that makes this nonsensical statement make any sense. It’s one of those “I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody,”non-apologies for racism that is so popular among white people when they (/we) get called out for racism. What the game developers at Trade Digital expected, and perhaps well within reason, is that their game would be as popular as any of the other racist games on the market. The way neoliberal, colorblind racism works you can develop and sell, buy and play racist games, you just can’t call it that. The Trade Digital game developers actually had good reason to anticipate brisk sales for their app, based on previous efforts to profit from racism that focused on Trayvon.
Back in May, 2012 an anonymous online seller offered these images as gun range targets and did a brisk business in them.
Everyone knows the story of Zimmerman and Martin. Obviously we support Zimmerman and believe he is innocent and that he shot a thug. Each target is printed on thick, high quality poster paper with a matte finish! The dimensions are 12″x18″ ( The same as Darkotic Zombie Targets) This is a Ten Pack of Targets.
The unidentified seller based in Florida told a WKMG news team over e-mail: “The response is overwhelming. I sold out in two days.” WKMG did not identify the seller, and said it found the ad on a popular firearms auctioning website.
As a white anti-racist I’m very consciously reminded in moments like this that I, too, am a problem. I am not who DuBois had in mind when he posed the agonizing question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Yet I ache under a weight of suspicion as I reflect on what the barometer reveals about the path I’ve chosen for my life.
When I speak publicly about systemic racism and analyze incidents like the Martin killing from that lens, I know that meanings and beliefs about who I am and what compels my actions will be mapped onto me – with or without my approval. To be sure, sometimes they are positive. I’m keenly aware that I’m often privileged to speak critically about race and have my voice and perspectives valued in ways that my friends and colleagues of color can rarely assume. To many, I’m a curiosity – a white person speaking frankly and passionately about race – how about that? And, I’ve been rewarded to be embraced as a sister, friend and ally in the struggle for racial and social justice, freedom and self-determination.
Nonetheless, I know too, there’s a flipside.
I mark myself when I speak critically about Racism. White Supremacy. Whiteness. And yes, White People.
And, I will pay costs for doing so. Certainly, I will pay less of the direct, material costs that people of color pay for their activism; let alone their simply “being non-white” in the world – costs they don’t choose but which have been chosen for them. But at a bare minimum I can count on paying psychic and personal ones.
I often feel deeply misunderstood: curiosity-turned-grotesque; ally-turned-enemy. My academic and experiential knowledge – that which I’ve dedicated my life’s work to – is dismissed by many people, particularly many (most?) white people. I know that the racialized socialization most white people experience both ensures this will happen (often with near-automation) and provides many tools for my invalidation. Rationalizations, justifications, retorts that explain away racial causes for racial outcomes and solidify our collective white privilege – all plentifully available. To these folks I am at best, unrealistic idealist working from the “unreality” of the ivory tower – at worst, I am crazy, misinformed, brainwashed, hateful, evil. Fill in the blank. I know these are costs that have long been born by people of color; choosing to be a white anti-racist means they are my costs now too.
Unlike people of color, I’m much less likely to have a “natural” community of support around me, to encourage me in my efforts – and indeed, love me for them. Choosing to be a white anti-racist scholar-activist has meant that I often feel alienated, particularly from fellow whites who I wish to call “brother” and “sister.” Always difficult, this alienation is most painful when it distances me from the people in my life I deeply love, including family. Even when it doesn’t include direct animosity (which it often doesn’t), please know, feeling at all outside of the circle of family I call “home” hurts.
If I need advice on financial matters I call my brother. He’s an analyst. If I need to know something about home or car repair, I call one of my other brothers. Between them they know how to fix just about anything. I call my sister for any number of the hundreds of things about which she has knowledge. And what of my expertise? I have long been regarded by my family as someone who has a good head on my shoulders, who possesses both intelligence and common sense. I know white worlds well and have been privy to the worlds of people of color in ways that most white people I know have not. I have 20 years of an awareness forged by scholarship and deeply intimate relationships – things learned in and outside of classrooms, in the real worlds of workplaces and homes and countless public spaces. Nonetheless, I sense my knowledge as something to be tolerated, but rarely sought, rarely praised; at times, resented. Perhaps they feel I don’t understand them. Perhaps they feel they don’t understand me. I’m not sure. And then again, they’ve never asked, what in the world did make you choose this unusual path? People of color ask me that all the time.
Usually the white people in my social circles can ignore my racially politicized self as we play out a sort of implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of our own. I imagine they may think “You know, that’s just Jenni – she studies race, she hangs out with black people, she listens to hip hop – she’s just like that.” And then we all agree to pretend that doesn’t matter. But racial barometer moments make the work of ignoring personal racial politics harder to do, for me and therefore, for them.
There was a time I listened to a voice of fear in my head and managed the expression of my politics (little ‘p’) with some of the white people in my life, including my family. If I wanted to post a race critical article or idea on Facebook, for example, I sometimes excluded certain people in my white networks from the posting. Even though I knew this was a direct violation of my personal politics, I did it. Not with a lot of people, but with some. Not all of the time, but on occasion.
And then Trayvon Martin was killed. Parents mourned. African American families anguished, outraged, protested. Precious life and potential wasted; signs of an all-too-familiar and well-documented miscarriage of justice afoot.
(Photo by the author)
I’m not new to the game. I can offer a sharp, race critical analysis of probably any social issue, including the structural patterns that both define and create a tragic outcome like this. Nonetheless, this societal racial barometer was a personal one too. It forced me to call my failed integrity – however “minor” and “reasonable” – into question. I decided then that I had to be, as Audre Lorde encouraged, “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
I knew I must crush any remaining shred of fear that might ever silence me. Because mothers and fathers panicked for the lives of their sons and daughters. Because the many people of color I love, too, struggle to raise their children healthy and happy and productive and in love with themselves in a world that devalues them and “encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies,” (as Joyce captured so perfectly and tragically). Because there are those in this world that will desperately and unflinchingly and dispassionately explain away their murders as the result of anything other than racism. Because these are, quite literally, matters of life and death. Who was I to be called sister/friend/ally if I was complicit in any way with shielding anyone from these truths? And so many, many more.
I don’t hate white people – or myself. I do not operate out of a sense of guilt. I don’t have some blind or romanticized or misappropriated love for people of color. And though as a sociologist I am trained to examine the social forces that impact people’s lives, I am never blinded from recognizing the power of personal responsibility, of using personal agency to direct the course of our lives positively, to the best of our abilities as people. As I recently told my sister, I am only doing what I believe is just and right, and I’m never going to stop. In that way, I’m certainly a product of the background I share with my siblings, who are giving, kind, wonderful, beautifully-intentioned people. We are each the product of our parents, who taught us to live out our integrity by their example.
In riding the wake of these personal reflections I came to a sad conclusion: that many of the white people I care about in my life will love me (hopefully) in spite of what I do, but maybe never for it. I know the more fearless I become, the more of a problem I am. Even if there is no direct confrontation, the very way I life my life may be experienced as an implicit challenge. But, as I’ve learned through personal experience in the past, the challenges of our lives often create potentialities.
I think of what DuBois wrote about the famous abolitionist John Brown, written into history as a crazy, fanatical murderer, put to death for his criminal actions in working toward the cause of justice. DuBois wrote that as people at the time watched his trial unfold “wider and wider circles were beginning dimly and more clearly to recognize that his lawlessness was in obedience to the highest call of self-sacrifice for the welfare of his fellow men. They began to ask themselves, What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?” I often meditate on this thought. I try to hold onto the hope that in continuing to seek and speak truth and work toward justice, even as I pay different costs for doing so, some might ask “What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?”
I’m no John Brown. No. But I will stand forever, side-by-side, with all my brothers and sisters in the struggle, whoever they may be.
~ Jennifer Mueller is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Texas A&M University.
This is a long (45 minute), but good, interview from Democracy Now with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and activist Alice Walker about the root causes of the Trayvon Martin killing. Worth a listen:
Walker observes that “We are a very sick country. And our racism is a manifestation of our illness and the ways that we don’t delve into our own wrecks. … As a country, we are a wreck.” Powerful words.
Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed black teenager was shot and killed last month in a gated community in Florida, after a man saw him walking down a street and thought he looked “suspicious.” The case has attracted a great deal of attention because George Zimmerman, the man who has admitted to shooting Martin, has not been arrested. Melissa Harris-Perry has more in this short (4 minute) video:
Update: Here is part of a letter you can sign that is being sent out by color of change to the US Attorney General and Florida Attorney General, that updates some of the information on the police (lack of?) investigation:
At the crime scene, the Sanford, Florida police botched their questioning of Zimmerman, refused to take the full statements of witnesses, and pressured neighbors to side with the shooter’s claim of self-defense. Sanford’s police department has a history of failing to hold perpetrators accountable for violent acts against Black individuals. The police misconduct in Trayvon’s case exemplifies the department’s systemic mishandling of investigations involving violence against Black victims. And now the State Attorney’s office has rubber-stamped the Sanford police’s non-investigation, claiming that there is not enough evidence to support even a manslaughter conviction for Trayvon’s senseless and entirely avoidable death.