Sep 1 2013

‘This Is a Problem That Goes Back 150 Years’

Robin D. G. Kelley on the Zimmerman trial

Trayvon Martin

Predictably, it was the victim in the Trayvon Martin case who was put on trial.

CounterSpin Interview

The George Zimmerman not-guilty verdict was upsetting to those who campaigned for justice for Trayvon Martin, but it wasn’t necessarily surprising to those who have seen many examples of similar killings of young people of color go unpunished. UCLA history professor and author Robin D. G. Kelley (Huffington Post, 7/15/13) wrote, “Justice was always going to elude Trayvon Martin, not because the system failed, but because it worked.” Counter-Spin’s Peter Hart spoke to Kelley for our July 19 show.

CounterSpin: The acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin was, like the trial itself, big news. In the days leading up to the verdict, we saw warnings about civil disturbances and riots if Zimmerman were to be found not guilty. Afterwards, we heard many people say that the verdict hardly surprised them at all—not because of a belief that Zimmerman did nothing wrong, but an understanding that cases like this just tend to go like this. Your argument was, in part, that the trial put not George Zimmerman on trial, but Trayvon Martin. Tell us what you mean.

Robin Kelley: Yes, Trayvon Martin was always the one on trial, because the question became: “Did he actually have a right to be there? Did he look suspicious?” In other words, was racial profiling actually justifiable, given not just the recent burglaries in the neighborhood, but just the whole conception of African-Americans and Latinos —in this particular case, young black men—being a threat and actually embodying criminality.

This is something that the jury bought, and what I find really curious is, for all the debates about the jury instructions and “Stand Your Ground,” the one instruction they got long before they entered the courtroom was who’s a predator and who has the right to own property and be present. In some ways, George Zimmerman became the protector of the neighborhood. No matter what Trayvon Martin’s relationship was to that community, he was always going to be the outsider. And that is how he was tried.

CS: And there is this deep history, and you go through it in the column you wrote. To not be surprised by this verdict is just an acknowledgement that we have seen things like this happen again and again. The circumstances are not always exactly the same, but there is this commonality.

RK: Right. It is like déjà vu. It’s amazing, if you just take 2012, 136 black people were shot and killed by police or vigilantes. Unarmed people. Three hundred thirteen were killed altogether by state or state-sanctioned violence. If you take the whole history of just the last 25 years, if I start naming names, we’ll be here for three or four hours.

And in many cases where there’s state-sanctioned violence, or vigilante violence, it’s a very similar scenario. You have an all-white jury or predominantly white jury; police officers or vigilantes are acquitted; and usually the defense for the shooter is that their life was in danger, they thought the person had a gun, there was evidence that they most likely were about to commit a crime. And so this has happened over and over again.

This is why one of my concerns is that, if we focus politically so much on Stand Your Ground laws—which I think we should, it’s very important—but what ends up happening is that once we eliminate the laws, we think we’ve solved the problem. But this kind of violence and these kinds of verdicts long predate Stand Your Ground, because Stand Your Ground rules are already embedded in the system, in the culture, from the beginnings of the nation. That is, those who represent the kind of settler/colonial reality, the folks who came here and settled and occupied the land, were the ones who laid claim to the land, laid claim to the citizenship, and everyone else is a predator or a threat to property—or is property.

CS: One of the more frustrating aspects of the analysis has been seeing people speak past each other. There’s this strictly legalistic framework that argues that there was no other verdict that could be reached, based on the law in Florida and the evidence at hand. And that can be used, and I’ve seen it used, to stifle discussions of broader issues of racism and racial justice—Zimmerman could not be found guilty, and all of these other issues are being grafted onto an imperfect case—this is the work of what the Washington Post editorial page (7/14/13) called “hucksters and political demagogues.” We can’t talk about race and racism unless a pure example comes along where there is no ambiguity.

RK: Right. It’s a weakness in the analysis, because these are not contradictory positions. I read a piece recently, I think it was in Huffington Post, where someone was arguing that you’ve got to take race out of it, because the real issue centers on the jury instructions and the Stand Your Ground law—when, in fact, the reason we have Stand Your Ground laws has a lot to do with race and privilege and the way the criminal justice system is set up.

So the thing is, you can do both. You can make the argument that ALEC-supported laws are dangerous, need to be repealed, need to be challenged. You can make the argument that the prosecution made a terrible mistake by not making race a centerpoint of their argument when the defense actually did that. But if you leave it there, you end up picking beans, when, in fact, if we don’t look at the larger structural issues, we can’t begin to solve the problem, because this is a problem that goes back 150 years.

CS: Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen [7/15/13; see box] created quite a bit of controversy over this because he wrote a column essentially defending racial profiling. Following young black men around just makes sense and stopping and frisking them makes sense because they are the ones who are committing crime.

And I thought it was so telling, because an establishment voice could make this explicitly racist appeal based on, as you put it in your column, this assumption that black men are “up to no good,” so you have to keep an eye on them. And, of course, his response was, “Don’t you dare call me a racist.” What do the discussions of this trial and those kinds of conversations tell us about so-called post-racial America?

RK:Well, “post-racial America” means—I’ll quote a friend of mine, Eduardo Bonilla- Silva, who wrote a very important book that talks about racism without racists. This is not a new phenomenon, but what it basically means is that by claiming that there is objective evidence that certain people engage in certain kinds of behavior, so that it’s cultural, you basically go: “Well, I’m not being racist. I’m just sort of looking at the facts.” Post-racial means that we are not going to have a racial analysis of racial justice or injustice. In other words, we’re going to eliminate race altogether—and that itself is a racial argument.

Because what happens is, Richard Cohen’s kinds of claims depend on associating a small group of people’s behavior with the entire group. Now, if we took the same logic, then any older white man with a gun should be considered a threat, as in the case of this kid who was killed in Milwaukee [AP, 7/23/13]. There is no way that any behavior on the part of a small group of white people would then be projected onto the whole, quote-unquote, race. But the same thing happens for black and brown people, for Arabs. So racial profiling is always about nonwhite people, because whiteness is considered the norm.

Post-racialism is about acknowledging that there is only one legitimate citizenry, and that is those who are the settlers. Everyone else has to prove their citizenry, their worth, their value, and the fact that they’re not dangerous. I mean, this is sort of where we are, and we accept it because we think it is making us safer, and it is not. It actually has the very opposite in it. It undermines democracy in very, very direct ways, that are dangerous not just for people of color but for everybody.