Race and Genocide: How Trayvon Martin’s Murder Became Deracialized
Note: This is the first article in a two-part series scheduled to appear this week. The second installment will be posted on Friday.
By NAVID FARNIA
Ida B. Wells was perhaps the most influential figure in the anti-lynching movement. Wells recognized lynching’s devastating impact on Black people because she understood lynching as political violence. Lynch mobs were not outliers of an imperfect system; rather, they represented the U.S.’s white supremacy. Wells describes one particular lynching story of note:
Three young [Black] men in an altercation at their place of business, fired on white men in self-defense. They were imprisoned for three days, then taken out by the mob and horribly shot to death. Thomas Moss, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell, were energetic business men who had built up a flourishing grocery business. Their business had prospered and that of a rival white grocer named Barrett had declined. Barrett led the attack on their grocery which resulted in the wounding of three white men. For this cause were three innocent men barbarously lynched…No effort whatever was made to punish the murderers of these three men.
Thousands of similar stories demonstrate lynching’s pervasiveness during the Jim Crow era. The number of lynchings peaked in 1892, when 230 people were brutally murdered in this fashion. Black people accounted for 161 of this total. Of course, unreported lynchings would likely increase the number significantly.
In 2012, 313 Black people were murdered without due process by police officers, security guards or vigilantes, according to a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. This figure also only accounts for killings that documented the victim’s race.
The history of genocide against Black people in the U.S. is defined by racial profiling and extrajudicial violence, which fall under broader structural contexts of slavery, debt peonage and mass incarceration. Racial profiling and extrajudicial violence systematically ensured the existence and expansion of racial oppression beyond slavery, Jim Crow, and into the era of mass incarceration. In other words, these tactics perpetually subsidize white supremacy in each of its historical manifestations. Thus, continued racial violence reveals that genocide is ongoing.
Trayvon Martin: A Victim of Genocide
The United Nations’ legal definition of genocide even supports this conclusion:
Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures to prevent births within a group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The overall expansion of the American security apparatus sets the preconditions for genocide as defined by the U.N. (although as corrupt and partial toward imperialism the U.N. is, the organization would never bring such charges against the U.S.). Legalized racial profiling and mass incarceration cause serious bodily and mental harm, deliberately inflict on the group conditions of life and damage communities.
However, the U.N.’s definition falls short. Systematic extrajudicial violence, which terrorizes oppressed communities, is not referenced. Thus, how do we properly contextualize George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin? This episode and countless others that occur every year embody the enduring genocide against Black people. In effect, an “official” definition is not needed to recognize that Americanism is rooted in violence against Blacks, Native Americans and others, and its purpose is to propagate white supremacy.
Robin Kelley argues that George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s murder demonstrated how the system in fact, worked perfectly. The jury’s decision to let Zimmerman walk is not an anomalous ruling that exposes a flawed system. When the legal system fails Black people repeatedly, we learn that perceived imperfections are in actuality the functional mechanisms that make the system work efficiently.
In many ways, Martin’s story is similar to Wells’ portrayal of the young Black men a century ago, or to countless stories of racial profiling and violence sanctioned by “Fugitive Slave Laws” a century earlier. These parallels remind us that racial injustice is ingrained in American ideology and thus, in America’s institutions. Black life has been devalued throughout U.S. history, and this has resulted in everlasting racial violence. The jury’s decision embodied systematic anti-Black racism and further entrenched the tacit acceptance of genocidal practices. But the deracialization of Martin’s murder is what ultimately enabled Zimmerman to go free.
A Colorblind Trial
From the outset, race was eliminated from the Zimmerman trial. The entire trial took place within a colorblind framework, where race was tabooed from the debate. Colorblind ideology predetermines that racism – and particularly structural racism – is a non-factor in society. In this case, George Zimmerman benefited because a colorblind court disallowed any argument claiming Zimmerman’s actions to be racially motivated.
In a pre-trial hearing, presiding Judge Debra Nelson prohibited subsequent use of the term “racial profiling”, instead favoring “profiling” – for example, on the basis of Martin’s clothes or other features not dealing with race. Although the defense made the request, the prosecution added that they never intended to argue Martin was racially profiled. “Profiling is not a racially charged term unless we make it so and we don’t intend to make it a racially charged term,” said one of the prosecutors.
In effect, the prosecution and defense agreed on race’s deletion. “I’m very very concerned that we now infect, potentially the jury, with a racial component that is not going to show up in facts,” reasoned defense attorney Mark O’Mara in his claim to bar racial profiling. He’d continue, “We have tried so hard in this case not to make it what everybody outside of the courthouse may want it to be.”
O’Mara presented an argument depicting the legal apparatus and even Zimmerman himself as racially neutral. Consequently, application of race would supposedly undermine objectivity. The prosecution and the judge complied with this notion. As a result, enforced colorblindness repressed articulations of racism and thus, set the stage for an acquittal. By not utilizing racism as the lynchpin in their case against Zimmerman, the prosecution allowed the defense to dictate the dispute surrounding Zimmerman’s intent and to employ a self-defense oriented argument. Throughout the case, courtroom representatives were in unanimous agreement that race was never a factor.
Or were they? Speaking to the media after the verdict, O’Mara lamented that had Zimmerman been Black, “he never would’ve been charged with a crime,” implying Zimmerman was a victim of “reverse racism.” In fact, the defense framed the entire case around “reverse racism” by using colorblind ideology. By their logic, mentioning race would actually be racist against Zimmerman. The defense conjured a case that victimized non-Black identity. That Zimmerman himself is not white was irrelevant because he stood in for whiteness. In other words, his actions enforced white supremacy; thus, white supremacy subsequently came to his defense. The defense’s position reflects an underlying anti-Black racism that was de-articulated by colorblindness.
Setting the agenda around “reverse racism” allowed the defense to utilize covert racist tactics. Indeed, the defense had no qualms with demonizing Black people. At one point, a defense witness who lives in the neighborhood of the murder testified that her house was robbed by two Black men months before. The prosecution did nothing to address this situation’s irrelevance to Martin. Accordingly, the defense formulated a false context where Black people are equated with criminal behavior, making Zimmerman’s actions justified. By deracializing the case, the defense successfully framed the murder as self-defense. This maneuver rendered the enactment of racial violence as trivial. Thus, the fact that Zimmerman’s act was an unprovoked hate crime became a non-issue.
The Prosecution’s Failures
On the other side, the prosecution enthusiastically deracialized the killing as well. It takes no conspiracy theorist to surmise that the prosecution threw the case altogether. Prosecutor Angela Corey made a controversial statement to the media after the verdict. “This case has never been about race,” she said.
Rather than argue Martin was racially profiled and the victim of a hate crime, the prosecution took a moralistic humanitarian approach. By contesting on humanitarian grounds, Zimmerman’s act was de-contextualized and portrayed simply as criminal behavior by a bad person. His racial motives for stalking and confronting Martin were set aside in favor of less controversial and relevant arguments.
Given Zimmerman’s documented racism, his racially loaded language in the 911 call, and the context of a society where Black and Brown people are racially profiled everyday and where policies actually reinforce the practice, the rationale that race was the primary reason he confronted Trayvon Martin is entirely feasible. In this sense, Zimmerman undeniably engaged in a political act when he murdered Martin – a 21st century lynching.
But the prosecution apparently did not want to go there, because the stakes were greater than Zimmerman’s fate. Utilizing a colorblind approach retrenches white supremacy, an interest for all parties involved – including the prosecution. Martin’s family deserved better from the state, as their pursuit of justice was marginalized from the outset by an inept (and possibly corrupt) prosecution. Martin was clearly racially profiled, but denying this reality (a colorblind stance) revoked the ability to make a full and factual argument.
Colorblindness as Racial Violence
Colorblind ideology initiated deracialization of the trial. When it became deracialized (and simultaneously framed around “reverse racism”), the defense’s position strengthened exponentially. But more importantly, colorblindness diminished the recognition that Martin’s murder is part of a larger enduring genocide; if violence against people of color is deracialized, then there is no genocide to consider. In other words, because genocide is defined by routine violence against demarcated groups, prohibiting use of categories (e.g. race, gender, religion and so forth) to classify these groups and document the crimes occurring against them prevents identification of genocide. Colorblind ideology and application make genocidal practices indistinguishable from isolated acts of violence.
Refuting race’s centrality in society, and specifically in Trayvon Martin’s murder, is itself an act of racial violence and contributes to genocide. Extrajudicial killings perpetuate lynching’s legacy, but so does colorblind ideology. In this sense, the state acts as a lynch mob to deny the existence of structural racism despite ongoing systematic racial violence.
Trayvon Martin’s murder was a political act. George Zimmerman was Martin’s lynch mob; he was Martin’s judge, jury and executioner.
A century ago, Ida B. Wells recognized lynching as a political act that enforced white supremacy. Zimmerman’s actions were similarly politically motivated. George Zimmerman and those like him (vigilantes, police officers and security guards) are enforcers of white supremacy. Thus, deracializing their actions ignores a long and enduring history of genocide against Black people.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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