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Trayvon Racism

The Invisible Blacks of ‘Mad Men’

Amid the Trayvon Martin debate, the hit TV drama’s deliberate treatment of blacks as props—far more authentic than Hollywood’s usual one-dimensional caricature of racism—forces us to look at the invisible specter of race in America.

The boys of Madison Avenue are up to their old tricks again. The fraternal club of privilege, sex, alcohol, and work no one ever seems to do, has returned to AMC.

Mad Men (Season 5)

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) return in Season 5 of Mad Men. (Frank Ockenfels / AMC)

The power of Mad Men and the creativity of the show’s producer, Matthew Weiner, is the ability of Mad Men to highlight the ethos of an era, coupled with a subversive critique. The show surrounds the viewer in nostalgia, but simultaneously refuses to delve into the romantic. The stylistic approach and critique, whether intentional or unintentional, owes much to the work of Danish filmmaker, Douglas Sirk, whose films disrupt the façade of middle-class suburban life by quietly peeling back the underbelly of the myth of moral stability promoted by 1950s Hollywood with such films as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life.

Weiner’s Mad Men employs the same quiet, subversive attitude as the Sirk films. Men, patriarchal and white, are framed as privileged, arrogant, and unaware of the offense and power they wield. They hold power and injure all who come into their view, not with overt malice, but adolescent ignorance. Women are objects of desire and reluctant partners, while black people are invisible to all who live with unannounced privilege. Black people are the props of the show, giving the drama an aura of authenticity unlike many network shows determined to rewrite the past and avoid the dramatic ugliness of American society.

The opening scene of season one demonstrates the invisible prop qualities of black people within Mad Men. Don Draper inquires of a black busboy why he chooses to smoke Old Gold cigarettes. A white bartender, who asks, “Is Sam here bothering you?” interrupts the dialogue with the busboy. This exchange demonstrates the authentic yet cynical attitude of Mad Men, and how this show is a more appropriate vehicle to highlight the stain of racism and the unconscious cruelty of white privilege than traditional network dramas.

Hollywood historically has attempted to reconfigure and rewrite America’s uneasy struggle with race and class. Issues of race are resolved with simplistic solutions and empty rhetoric, or when a rich and complex moment of history is presented, such as the civil rights movement, it is redesigned by writers who add white saviors as the catalyst for black freedom and/or frame black characters with child-like qualities in desperate need of guidance by enlightened northern liberals.

Sitcoms traditionally have remixed the Amos and Andy stereotype, from J.J. on Good Times, Shaynaynay on Martin, or Mr. Brown on TBS’s Meet the Browns. Dramas fare no better, as black characters often succumb to the “exceptional Negro” syndrome wherein a black character has broken through all the stereotypical barriers of poverty to earn a seat at the table of democracy. Black characters rarely are human— just props and one-dimensional cutouts of a writer’s imagination. Rarely do we witness the complexity of characters as seen in HBO’s Tremé, where categories are not easily defined, stereotypes are challenged, and social forces, not stereotypes, push people to make difficult and life-changing decisions.

Whether we are speaking of The White Shadow, Dangerous Minds, Mississippi Burning, The Blind Side, or Little House on the Prairie, on other television shows and films that share racial themes, white culture is spared the harsh reality of staring at the ugliness of racism, bigotry and cruelty. Mad Men dares to demonstrate how the invisible people surrounding Madison Avenue are forced to live with the indignities of being nothing more than a prop.

Conservatives are focusing on Trayvon’s tweets, appearance, school suspension over marijuana traces, and the hoodie he was wearing to blame him for his own death—and to show that his killing had nothing to do with racism.

First, there was the discussion of what Trayvon Martin was wearing. “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was,” Geraldo Rivera said on Fox & Friends last week, later suggesting that the sweatshirt made him look like a “wannabe gangster.” Then conservative bloggers started digging through Martin’s Facebook page for information that might raise doubts about his character. It turns out that one of Martin’s friends had written, under a happy birthday message, “damn were you at nigga needa plant;” according to Dan Riehl at Riehl World View, “Some may interpret that as Martin having somehow been involved in selling [marijuana].”

Trayvon's Tweets

Trayvon Martin’s past is being excavated for evidence that he might have provoked the harm done to him, writes Michelle Goldberg.

On Monday, The Daily Caller published a list of Martin’s tweets—his handle was @NO_LIMIT_NIGGA—that reveal him as a posturing teenager rather than a choirboy. (“Lol so daisha think she a boss caus she walked in class late 2day…I do dat everyday,” says one.) The story notes that the photograph attached to the account depicts Martin “smiling, gold-toothed, into a camera in front of an electronic dartboard.” Meanwhile the media was flooded with the news, if one could call it that, that Martin was once suspended from school for possession of a plastic baggie with marijuana residue on it.

“They've killed my son, and now they're trying to kill his reputation,” Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said after the suspension story broke.

I’m far from the first to notice the similarities between the way people talk about Martin and the way they talk about rape victims, whose clothes and histories are often subject to scrutiny no matter how cut-and-dried the case seems. Like a rape victim, Martin’s past is being excavated for evidence that he might have provoked the harm done to him. It hardly matters that even if Martin had gotten high every day, it would have had zero relevance; it’s not as if marijuana use is linked to violence. Nor that it’s not unusual for a teenager to come across as obnoxious on Twitter. People were looking for some tenuous justification for treating him as complicit in his own death, and now they’ve found it. (For the record, I was also suspended from high school, though in my case for smoking cigarettes. I trust that should a stranger shoot me in the street, no one will treat this as a mitigating factor.)

On the surface, it’s odd that Martin’s image would become so politicized. No ideological capitulation would be required for conservatives to mourn his death—one can believe in gun rights and still believe that he shouldn’t have been killed. A real NRA fanatic, after all, might make a case that Martin himself should have been armed, so that he could stand his ground against the paranoid man who was stalking him.

Certainly, it’s possible that some unknown evidence will emerge to complicate the current narrative of what happened between Zimmerman and Martin. Zimmerman claims that after he’d been following Martin, the young man attacked him, and according to the Orlando Sentinel, police found him “bleeding from the nose, [with] a swollen lip and had bloody lacerations to the back of his head.” No matter how things unfolded, there’s no excuse for those like Spike Lee who have tweeted Zimmeran’s home address; if nothing else, this case should make clear the horror of vigilantism.

The Trayvon Martin Smear Campaign


Zimmerman’s Account Questioned

Supporters of Trayvon Martin say 911 tapes contradict Zimmerman’s claim that the teenager followed him—and wonder why the shooter didn’t need prompt medical attention for his injuries. Allison Samuels reports.

On the night George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, the 140-pound teenager knocked him down with a single punch and slammed his head into the sidewalk several times, Zimmerman told police in Sanford, Fla. The neighborhood-watch volunteer, who weighs more than 200 pounds, said he was walking back to his sport-utility vehicle when Martin approached him from behind. The two exchanged words before the teenager began beating him, he said.


Jessica McGowan / Getty Images

Zimmerman, 28, suffered a broken nose, a gash to his head, and other injuries, according to Sanford police reports. He traveled to the police station that night to give his account of events and then went home. Sanford police confirm that he did not warrant medical attention at the scene and did not seek medical attention until the next day.

After nearly a month of silence, friends and lawyers for Zimmerman have begun to speak out in support of him, offering varying accounts of the deadly events of Feb. 26. From the Orlando Sentinel to ABC News, Zimmerman’s team has gone into attack mode, arguing that their friend and client is far from racist and that he was truly in fear for his life during his brief encounter with the unarmed Martin.

Zimmerman’s story of that evening is in sharp contrast to recently released 911 tapes that appear to show Zimmerman following Martin, though police asked him not to, and also contradicts Martin’s girlfriend’s statement that she urged the teenager to run after he noticed a man trailing him in an SUV.

“The young girl who was speaking to Trayvon on the cellphone was on the phone the entire time and heard Zimmerman approach him,” said Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the Martin family. “Trayvon turned around, asked him why he was following him, and Zimmerman asked Trayvon what he was doing there. That does not sound like Travyon approached him first or attacked him.”

Craig Sonner, Zimmerman’s attorney, said the 911 tapes released so far in the Martin case relay only half of the chain of events of that night. The complete 911 tapes back up his client’s claims of self-defense, Sonner told the Today show, and he plans to invoke Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which provides significant leeway for people who fear their life may be in jeopardy. He could not be reached by The Daily Beast.

Leslie Rogan, a Sanford, Fla., high-school teacher who attended the Sanford City Commission’s meeting on Monday reviewing Martin’s case, questioned Zimmerman’s account of his injuries and asked why, if they were serious, he didn’t need immediate medical attention.

Up in Arms

Trayvon Protests Spread Nationwide

Trayvon Protests Spread Nationwide Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images

Prior to Sanford city council meeting.

Protests sprang up around the country on Monday in support of slain unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, who was killed last month in Florida. Demonstrations have taken place in Florida and in New York over the last week, but Monday marked the first time multiple events were held. Protesters in cities including San Francisco and Atlanta called for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who shot 17-year-old Martin. Trayvon's parents were set to appear at a Sanford, Fla., city council meeting Monday night, which had been moved to a new location to accommodate the anticipated large crowd.

Read it at CNN

Trayvon Killing

Prime Target: The Young Black Male

The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin was driven by the stereotype of black men as criminals and the designation of the Young Black Male as the fall guy for the nation’s neighborhood fears.

The killing of Trayvon Martin (essentially for the “crime” of walking while black) and its aftermath provides one of those riveting moments in American history when the curtain of our still-all-too-rampant racism normally hides behind is pulled back … exposing the ugly underbelly of prejudice and hatred that still exists in too many corners of our society.


George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo)

Through decade after decade of scurrilous application of Jim Crow laws—combined with other forms of racially motivated biases that keep minorities marginalized—our country has created the near-perfect target for the majority culture’s collective hatred, fear, and opprobrium: the Young Black Male. Hoodie optional.  

And thanks to new laws on the books in various parts of the country, the demographic many seemingly love to loathe and despise now have legalized targets pinned on their backs; the Young Black Male is now officially considered fair game in some parts of America. Game on—lock and load.

Under the “Stand Your Ground” laws that have been enacted in many states anyone can do what George Zimmerman did in Sanford, Fla.: shoot someone (preferably a Young Black Male) to death and then claim self-defense. Of course, it won’t work too well if the shooter is black and the victim is white. Oh, and after the “kill” the shooter should bop him or herself upside the head with that trusty Glock … just hard enough to raise the self-defense knot right above the left eye.

In spite of the fact that the shooter in this case will, in all likelihood, stand trial on state or federal charges, Southern “justice” being what it historically has been, there’s no assurance of a fair and unbiased jury being selected—or of a conviction … even if the evidence is overwhelming. This is why so many blacks were lynched in America a century ago: whites knew they could carry out their murderous acts with impunity. And, to quote an NAACP slogan: in America, “much has changed, much has not.”  

The emerging facts surrounding Trayvon’s death are so glaring as to be mind-boggling. Most important among them is the fact that when Zimmerman told a police dispatcher that he was following a Young Black Male (who, according to Zimmerman, “appeared to be on drugs”), the dispatcher responded, “We don’t need for you to do that.” At that point Zimmerman should have gotten back into his vehicle and simply followed Trayvon until police arrived, but he continued his pursuit; a deranged white man on the hunt of the elusive Young Black Male. Zimmerman even said, “These assholes always get away.” But not this time.

Supposedly, a number of break-ins had occurred in the gated community that served as Zimmerman’s hunting and killing grounds, and while no suspects had been arrested or even spotted … it was assumed by him and others that the dreaded Young Black Male—the fall guy for all our nation’s collective neighborhood fears—was responsible for them.


I Was Trayvon Martin

Law professor Paul Butler on surviving as a baby-faced young black man, becoming a prosecutor to change the system from the inside—and why racial profiling is counterproductive to keeping communities safe and free.

I became a prosecutor because of Trayvon Martin. I used to be him, black, baby-faced, and 17. The times I wasn’t being harassed by police and security guards, I was being harassed by young African-American men. Stopped and patted down by the former, robbed of my lunch money by the latter.

The difference between Trayvon and me is that I survived. And then I wanted to use my Harvard Law school education to address the two most vexing criminal justice issues for blacks—over-enforcement of the law and under-enforcement of the law—at the same time. So, in the early ’90s, I joined the United States Department of Justice as a trial attorney.

My plan was to go in as an undercover brother. It’s the classic liberal response—to infiltrate the oppressor to try to create change from the inside. I thought nobody would be in a better position to make a difference than me.

Young black men are frequent victims of crime, and the most likely to be charged with crimes. I could have responded the way that lots of my brothers do—by not trusting anybody. You walk through your ’hood, and you glare at the dope boys on the corner who make your community feel unsafe. Then, when the squad car slowly rolls by, and the cops take a good look at you, you glare at them too.

But I was an idealist. And being a prosecutor seemed to be the perfect solution to long-standing concerns that African-Americans had about both civil rights and public safety. In the segregated neighborhood in Chicago where I grew up, blacks made the same claims about law enforcement that they do now. The times that my neighbors were not complaining about how the police treated them, they were complaining that the police were never there when they needed them.

These claims seemed contradictory, but they were both accurate. And unfortunately things have not changed much, 30 years later, when the United States has one black president and 1 million black people in prison.

Neighborhood Watch Trayvon Martin

People attend a rally demanding justice for Trayvon Martin in Freedom Plaza, Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Washington. Martin, an unarmed young black teen was fatally shot by a volunteer neighborhood watchman. (Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP Photo)

The citizens of Sanford, Fla., need the police right now. And they are not there. There are more African-Americans in the criminal justice system than there were slaves in 1850. Yet no law enforcement official has found the time to arrest George Zimmerman, more than a month after he followed Trayvon Martin, got out of his car to confront him, and then shot him dead.


Chicago Protests Trayvon Shooting

Chicago Protests Trayvon Shooting Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / MCT / Getty Images

As outrage spreads across the country.

Even the pouring rain didn't stop some 150 protesters in Chicago from marching Friday to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed last month in Florida by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, in what's suspected by many to be a racial incident. There have already been huge protests and school walkouts in Florida, but the outrage is spreading across the country.

Read it at Chicago Sun Times


Geraldo: Hoodie ‘Responsible’

Geraldo: Hoodie ‘Responsible’ Peter Kramer / Getty Images

For Trayvon’s death.

Fox News host Geraldo Rivera said Friday that Trayvon Martin’s hoodie sweatshirt is “as much responsible” for his death as the neighborhood-watch volunteer who shot and killed the teenager. Speaking on Fox and Friends, Rivera said hoodies can draw “unwanted attention” to “dark-skinned” kids. Although Rivera used his own son as an example, Rivera tweeted after the show that his son was “ashamed” of the comments, but Rivera insisted in a later tweet that "it's sad that I have to be the one reminding minority parents of the risk that comes with being a kid of color in America."

Read it at Politico


Trayvon Outrage Hits Congress

Trayvon Outrage Hits Congress Joe Skipper, Reuters / Landov

Florida Rep. delivers speech on House floor.

As thousands rallied in Florida over the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot to death Feb. 26 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the outrage over the killing has moved to Congress. Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor Thursday, calling for the arrest of Zimmerman, and said she was "tired of burying young black boys."

Read it at ABC News

Other Trayvons

7 More ‘Stand Your Ground’ Cases

The Trayvon Martin tragedy is not the first in which a young person has been injured or killed by a shooter who claimed self-defense in ‘Stand Your Ground’ or ‘Castle Law’ situations. Here are seven other cases, from Florida to North Carolina to Texas.

The Trayvon Martin case has sparked a national debate about so-called Stand Your Ground laws. The idea behind these laws is simple: if you feel your life is being threatened by someone you don’t have to back down. You can even use deadly force, if you feel it is necessary.

The philosophy stems from so-called Castle Laws, on the books to varying degrees in most states, in which a person facing an intruder in his home can defend his property with deadly force (one’s home being one’s castle, that castle is liable to be defended). Stand Your Ground states extend this concept to outside the home—to one’s occupied car, for instance, in Pennsylvania—and of course in Florida, it extends to one’s own person.

But as the Trayvon Martin killing shows, the broad strokes of the law are up for criticism and protest. And Trayvon is not the only young person to lose his life over what can sometimes appear to be a Wild West, shoot-first-or-be-shot mentality. There are other cases that involve teenagers who were assaulted with deadly force under questionable circumstances. Unlike Trayvon, some of the teens were involved in criminal activity, a few even at the time the shootings occurred. The Daily Beast looks at some of those cases.

Carlos Mustelier
November 2010

Thomas Baker was on his normal early morning jog in Town ‘n’ Country, Florida, when he got into a fight with two hooded teens, ages 18 and 16. Carlos Mustelier, the 18-year-old, punched Baker, according to police reports. That’s when Baker pulled out his .45-caliber semiautomatic, for which he had a permit, and shot at Mustelier eight times. Mustelier died. The 16-year-old was not hurt. Neither teen was armed. Neither had a criminal record. Baker and the teens were in fact neighbors. Because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, prosecutors declined to charge Baker in the killing. “It was a terrible thing,” Baker told the Tampa Bay Times. “He was a good kid,” a friend said of Mustelier, who was “spoiled” by his mother.


A memorial to Trayvon Martin (inset) sits outside The Retreat at Twin Lakes community where Trayvon was shot by George Michael Zimmerman while on Neighborhood Watch patrol March 20, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images)

Irving Santana
September 2010

Marqus Hill had his concealed-gun permit in Pennsylvania revoked in 2005, when he was charged with attempted murder. Hill reapplied for his permit after he was acquitted. Pennsylvania denied his request, but he was able to get a permit in Florida. Thanks to a loophole by which Pennsylvania honors Florida permits, he was again allowed to carry a gun in Pennsylvania. That loophole had fatal consequences for Irving Santana. When Hill saw a couple of unarmed teenagers trying to break into cars in Philadelphia, he brought out his loaded gun and shot 18-year-old Santana 13 times. Hill will face trial for murder in June. He is claiming self-defense under Pennsylvania’s Stand Your Ground law, saying he feared for his life and thought one of the teens was armed.

Rallying for Trayvon

Sanford Protests Teen’s Killing

As thousands of protesters in the Florida town where Trayvon Martin was killed demand an arrest, some residents say the man who shot him focused too much on young black men, and question the role of racial stereotyping in the youth’s death.

More than 25,000 people filled Fort Mellon Park in Sanford, Florida on Thursday night to protest the lack of an arrest in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Just a few miles away, some residents of the upscale Retreat at Twin Lakes housing complex, where Trayvon was killed, were still trying to figure just how much of a role a string of small burglaries and long-held stereotypes played in the teenager’s death.

APTOPIX Neighborhood Watch Death

Julie Fletcher / AP Photo

According to several homeowners who live at the Retreat, many of the well-groomed townhomes were robbed and vandalized last year by what some say was “a gang of young black men.” Many now believe those robberies set the stage for a young man’s death—and international outrage over it.

“I was told by a neighbor of ours last year that the men causing our problems were black,” said 35-year-old Jackie Mathews, who lives with her brother in the complex. “They told me to avoid young black men at all times and to call the police if I saw a group of them in the complex.’’

Sanford police received nearly 15 reports of burglary and theft from Retreat at Twin Lakes homeowners last year. 

Trayvon Martin probably wasn’t aware of the rash of crimes in the complex that housed his father, his father’s girlfriend, and his baby brother, when he set out for a bag of Skittles and iced tea on the last day of his life.

And he’d likely have no way of knowing that the Neighborhood Watch leader, George Zimmerman, would see him walking home from the store that February night, deem him suspicious, and call the police. He’d have no way of knowing what would happen next to him, or that his name would soon be known the world over.

“How could anyone look at that baby’s face and think he was a criminal? How could they just see him as black, and not as somebody’s child,” said Marion Evans, Trayvon’s grandmother.


Thousands Rally For Trayvon in Florida

Thousands Rally For Trayvon in Florida Mario Tama / Getty Images

In Al Sharpton-led attends protest

More than 8,000 people attended a rally in Sanford, Florida, for slain teenager Trayvon Martin, who was killed in February by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Protesters wore hooded sweatshirts to honor Trayvon, demanding justice for the unarmed black teenager. The protest was filled with impassioned speakers, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said that Zimmerman should have been arrested because you can’t “defend yourself against Skittles and iced tea.” Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, thanked the crowd for its support, saying that Trayvon is everyone’s son now. Ray Lewis, Patrick Ewing, and Jesse Jackson are expected to attend a Sanford City Commission meeting on Monday.

Read it at Orlando Sun Sentinal

46 Calls Decoded

Did Trayvon Shooter Abuse 911?

Was George Zimmerman just a vigilant neighbor, or something more perilous? Matthew DeLuca examines the dozens of calls to police Zimmerman made in the years before he shot Trayvon Martin.

A stray dog, open garage doors, unfamiliar vehicles … and, on a rainy winter night, one black male teenager wearing “dark-gray hoodie, jeans or sweatpants.”

Whatever his complaint, George Zimmerman seemed quick to call the police. Over the course of nearly eight years, Zimmerman made at least 46 911 and non-emergency calls (PDF) to the police department in Sanford, Florida, culminating in the two fateful calls he made Feb. 26, shortly before he confronted and then fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Taken together, the police log of Zimmerman’s calls paint a picture of an extremely vigilant neighbor. The police department has released audio recordings from six of the most recent calls, but the audio of calls older than six months is destroyed, according to the Seminole County sheriff’s office.

Outrage over the shooting has continued to grow in recent days. On Wednesday, Martin’s family traveled to New York City to join a protest in Union Square that drew hundreds of demonstrators. On Thursday, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, Jr., stepped down temporarily in the hope of “restoring some semblance of calm to this city,” he said at a press conference.

For the most part, the nature of Zimmerman’s calls make him sound more like a curmudgeon than a vigilante protecting the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the 260-unit gated community where he lived and where he shot Martin.

In November 2006, according to the log, Zimmerman placed a non-911 call to report a late model red Toyota pickup “driving around the neighborhood” and the apartment complex for several minutes.

In June 2009, he called to report that people were misbehaving in the community-pool area, jumping over the fence and trashing the bathroom.

George Zimmermen

Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images; inset, Orange County Jail / Miami Herald / AP Photos


Neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman said he was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed.

The Daily Beast Reports

Zimmerman Blows It

Zimmerman Blows It

The man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin has a whole new set of problems after the court found out he lied at his bond hearing, writes Mansfield Frazier.

Stand Your Ground

Shoot First, Learn The Law Later

Law Enforcement

Time to End Racial Profiling?

Zimmerman Apologizes to Trayvon’s Family

George Zimmerman took the stand during his bond hearing Friday, issuing a statement to the Martin family. ‘I’m sorry for the loss of your son,’ he told the court before answering a series of questions about the case.


We Are All Trayvon Martin

We must dismantle the fraternity of racism and build an altar of love and justice, writes the pastor of Obama’s former church.


Trayvon Martin Remembered in Paint

Chaz Guest captures the Trayvon Martin tragedy. He talks about honoring Martin's legacy.

Why the Right Is Smearing Trayvon

Why the Right Is Smearing Trayvon

Conservatives are using the teenager’s tweets, hoodie, and school suspension to blame him for his own death—and to show that racism was not a factor, says Michelle Goldberg.

The Man Who Shot Trayvon Martin

The Man Who Shot Trayvon Martin

George Zimmerman, the man who shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, aspired to enter law enforcement.