Pretty far back in the 20th century, when the American government was waging an immoral war on Vietnam and conducting illegal campaigns against Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers, along with supporting unfair practices against everyone from Native Americans to women to migrant farm workers—back then I used to get stopped by the police on a regular basis.
I remember one time I was walking down this lonely road with a white friend. We both had long hair and were feeling no pain. It was nighttime, and the desert air felt good to us. A police cruiser pulled up out of nowhere, it seemed. A big policeman got out and pointed his pistol at my groin. He said, “Why did you break into that building over there?”
What was I supposed to say? My father always told me, “Never argue with a man with a gun.” Never argue with a policeman, for that matter.
I claimed innocence while imagining explosive castration.
My friend calmly said that he attended the nearby college and that we had been together all night. He didn’t show any ID nor did he say what we had been doing. But he was white and that was that. The police left us alone, and I, still feeling pretty good, continued on my walk with my friend.
That was 42 years ago. It wasn’t the last time I was stopped. It wasn’t the last time I had a gun pulled on me. I have never carried a gun.
It seems like a lot has changed since way back then.
Back then the case of a young black man getting gunned down on the streets of America would not, as a rule, have made the national news. This, I suppose, is a hopeful sign, an indication that even a young so-called black man can be considered to have rights, and might, in some rare moments, take the role of victim in the eyes of the omnipresent (but not omniscient) media.
Back then the governor of a Southern state would not have talked about seeking justice for some nonwhite teenager walking the streets of a gated community. This too, on the surface, seems like the kind of social change one would expect in a nation that has so recently elected its first nonwhite president.
Back then freedom marchers had to go to the site of the crime or injustice to march in front of the homes and businesses of the people who denied the rights of others. Today you can march in New York or California to show your feelings to the peoples of Florida. This demonstrates how the media can allow everyday citizens a platform to express their outrage and even influence decisions made by high-flying officials and their executors.
Back then people believed in the concepts of racial inferiority, the weaker sex, and that ownership increased the moral and political value of the owner. The Trayvon Martin case shows us, at least on the surface of things, that justice can be called for by anyone with some hope of a reply.
Things seem better, but there are serious cracks in the veneer of our progress. Injustices such as the one committed against Trayvon Martin have reared their ugly heads since before Emmett Till’s murder in 1955. We have to remember that the recognition of an injustice and public outrage will change nothing until we understand, completely, the issues that bring about these events.
Racism isn't an abstract idea for Walter Mosley; here he talks about one of many times he's been victimized by it.
In order to achieve this understanding, we have to deal with exactly whom and what we are calling racist. Most news outlets identify the accused killer, George Zimmerman, as, interchangeably, white, half-white and half-Hispanic, or Hispanic. All these terms have their roots drenched in the lifeblood of racism.
What does the word “Hispanic” mean? Does it mean that a Peruvian (which some sources say is the home of origin of George Zimmerman’s mother) cannot be white? Are people born in Spain not white? Are Peruvians and Puerto Ricans the same race? What should we call Brazilians—Portuganics?
Then we must ask the taboo question: what is white? This term gained forceful meaning in America when Christian European men found themselves between the indigenous peoples (that they slaughtered) and Africans (whom they enslaved). These so-called white men’s ancestors didn’t consider themselves one pandemic race. In the old days Vikings weren’t the same race as Greeks, Picts didn’t think they came from the same blood as Scots. To call a man a “white man” is racist terminology in itself. Terminology perpetrated and promoted by the media.
So is race just a matter of self-identification or people identifying you as part of an ethnic group because of their estimation of your appearance? Probably. But even here, in the fiction of our minds, we must deal with the fallout from arbitrary racial identification.
If George Zimmerman didn’t think of himself as a white man, does that mean he could not have committed a crime based on race-interpretation? And even if he was free of racism, does that mean that the handling of the case does not have racist overtones?
Is George Zimmerman’s race a pivotal question in the slaughter of Trayvon Martin? If he, Zimmerman, were a so-called white man, would justice ever seriously consider indicting him? If he were a so-called black man, would this no longer be a case of racism? If someone of our president’s racial configuration shot Martin, would the nation, fueled by the media, be up in arms? Would the national media even cover such a crime?
I don’t believe so.
There are solid reasons (but not excuses) for these oversights and exclusions. We often look upon the face that represents the enemy and focus our rage on the perceived characteristics of that visage. In reality racial prejudice is a centuries-old system of ownership-based justice and virtually unconscious cultural bigotry. Preconceptions, false identifiers, and lessons in history that have gaps wider than the Grand Canyon make up the foundation for this solitary crime that, in my opinion, has been so misconstrued.
The crime is an unarmed man-child shot down in the streets of America when the admitted shooter is allowed to walk free. The crime is a nation of possible Florida vacationers who have to march in protest in order to get the tourism-based state to turn its eye toward justice. The crime is a corporate-owned media that picks and chooses among the cases for which it will open the floodgates of national opinion. The crime is the everyday citizen of America in the 21st century using archaic and inaccurate terms such as white and black rather than fellow American. The crime is a broader media that has convinced our citizens that they are in such imminent danger that they feel it necessary to vote for legislation such as Stand Your Ground.
And so much goes unreported and unseen: the daily deaths of innocent children in Afghanistan; the rapes, brutalities, and routine humiliations visited upon the millions of our citizens cycling in and out of the prison system; the mentally ill, aged, and orphaned citizens who no longer have a voice or maybe never had one.
The tragedy of Trayvon Martin represents all of this and more. If we can see this injustice as the underpinning for a systemic transformation in which we might truly open up the media and investigate our racial, cultural, and economic assumptions, then we will have crossed that great divide from the sexist, classist, and racist 20th century into a world where young men like Martin aren’t in danger from the fear foisted upon us by the very systems that now pretend to seek justice.
The legal system does not care about Trayvon or what happened to him. Dollar signs fuel the media coverage and motivate the Republican governor.
Now and again a case like this incites the public so much that we step forth and say, “This is wrong.” But we must be aware that this injustice is part and parcel to everything we (falsely) believe and therefore everything we are, and are not. The Trayvon Martin killing is the tip of the iceberg and we are the ill-fated Titanic.