Trayvon Martin’s senseless death and his killer George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal have roused the U.S. nation from its perpetual slumber regarding race matters, inspiring nonviolent protests that have run the gamut from old-fashioned street demonstrations to more technologically innovative dissent through social media.
It has been an impressive show of unity, the marches of last year and, more recently, the impromptu displays of grief and outrage on the streets of many U.S. cities. But although rallies are important, we can best honor Trayvon’s memory by organizing a sustained and national conversation about race and democracy in the 21st century – one that leads to substantive public-policy transformation.
It’s a conversation that needs to take place in civic spaces, libraries, churches, schools and community centers, and one that needs the involvement of citizens from all segments of society. Elected officials and political leaders need to actively participate in this dialogue rather than hide behind the safety of written statements or silence.
Why is this so important? Because debates about the racial symbols lurking behind this tragedy only scratch the surface of a larger conversation about race and democracy in U.S. society. Despite racism’s crucial role in forging the republic, we remain reluctant to convene a critical and intellectually informed dialogue about race matters. The paucity of a historically based dialogue on national race relations allowed for a stunning development throughout the Zimmerman trial, one wherein the deceased victim was turned into a criminal.
Indeed, by scarcely mentioning race but utilizing photos in court that showed Trayvon as a budding “predator,” the prosecution tapped long-standing negative stereotypes about black men that date back to antebellum America, what the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad calls the “condemnation of blackness” and law professor Michelle Alexander has referred to as the “New Jim Crow.” Trayvon’s transformation from a racially profiled victim into a “predator,” capable of instilling traumatic fear into his assailant, is not surprising considering this nation’s long history of cultural racism that dehumanizes black men and women as criminals. The failure to discuss this history proved to be a second death for Trayvon.
I know this because as a black teenager coming of age in New York City during the 1980s, I was a potential Trayvon Martin or Michael Griffith, the young black man chased by a gang of whites in 1986 for the crime of trespassing in the predominantly white Howard Beach neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. New York’s volatile racial climate in the 1980s inspired Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and fueled the creative and political energies of the militant rap group Public Enemy.
But the racial controversies of my adolescence were situated against a larger historical narrative wherein race has shaped the contours of U.S. society. The heroic period of the civil rights movement, between 1954’s Brown Supreme Court desegregation decision and 1965’s landmark Voting Rights Act, helped to fundamentally transform U.S. democracy, marking the demise of legal segregation and laying the groundwork for black social, political and economic access in the post-civil rights era.
While Martin Luther King Jr. remains the national hero of this narrative, memorialized in a holiday and through a monument in the nation’s capital, Emmett Till’s ghost continues to haunt our collective racial past. A 14-year-old black teenager visiting family in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, Emmett was lynched by a group of whites for defying racial conventions and allegedly speaking out of turn to a white woman. His disfigured body appeared on the cover of Jet magazine soon after and became a searing example of white supremacy’s impact in the postwar United States.
Trayvon’s death, just like Emmett’s, can be traced back to skin color, although prosecutors purposely avoided race throughout the Zimmerman trial. The irony of our national history is that the further we move from discussing race matters, the more institutional racism festers, like a cancerous tumor, on the American body politic and our national conscience. More than one year ago, President Obama, in one eloquent stroke, humanized this tragedy through the simple acknowledgment that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon.”
In 1963 while languishing in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of the civil rights movement transporting the U.S. back to “those great wells of democracy” that were dug deep by the nation’s founding fathers. But the architects of U.S. democracy peacefully co-existed alongside chattel slavery and institutional racism, a circumstance that many continue to ignore and deny and over which King’s soaring rhetoric at times glossed.
Recognition that racism distorted and disfigured the nation’s democratic hopes and dreams proved fleeting, even after the Civil War and Reconstruction, only gaining substantive traction during the postwar civil rights movement. This movement proved both triumphant and tragic enough to jump-start our last national conversation about race, one that starred presidents and civil rights leaders, ex-convicts and priests, welfare mothers and literary critics.
An honest and historically informed conversation about race and democracy in America requires an unflinching look at our nation’s recent history and a more complex understanding and appreciation for the achievements and shortcomings of the civil rights movement’s heroic period. That period spurred an unfinished revolution that helped integrate public schools, end Jim Crow in public accommodations and secure the vote for African-Americans.
But these historic victories were countermanded by racial violence, economic insecurity and the emergence of what Ian Haney López calls “colorblind” racism, which touts an “end of racism” mythology while stubbornly ignoring widening racial inequality. The post-racial euphoria that greeted Barack Obama’s election helped promote an unearned celebration and narrative of racial progress that is upended by the ordinary reality of black life in the U.S.
President Obama’s post-verdict statement asking U.S. citizens to engage in “calm reflection” fails to pass the muster of presidential leadership at this crucial moment in history. John F. Kennedy’s June 11, 1963, nationally televised “race speech” eloquently addressed the fact that individual reflection about the moral crisis of race in the U.S. required political action. Kennedy forcefully repudiated those who counseled for patience and delay, noting that a century had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation and yet the heirs to those who experienced slavery remained in bondage.
Lyndon Johnson praised the Aug. 6, 1965, passage of the Voting Rights Act as having removed the last shackles of that ancient bondage that Kennedy had addressed two years earlier. Do we now live in a nation where only white presidents can offer bold and effective leadership on race matters?
A half-century later, the Supreme Court has inexorably weakened the Voting Rights Act with its recent Shelby decision, and more black men populate federal, state and local prisons than during the March on Washington. President Obama’s failure to robustly address the fact that negative racial disparities have proliferated in the aftermath of his watershed election is a kind of moral cowardice that is unfitting any president, regardless of race, and made all the more tragic since he is the nation’s first African-American president.
Civil rights protesters have rightfully condemned the system that allowed a young black boy to be killed because of his race, but have been too reluctant to demand justice and moral and political leadership from the single most important figure in contemporary American politics – and the symbolic and elected head of our democracy. A fitting tribute to Trayvon Martin’s legacy requires the courage and tenacity, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s heroic example, to speak truth to power, even at the cost of criticizing the sitting president, whom many blacks still regard as the culmination of King’s dream.
Trayvon’s death offers definitive proof that we have not crossed over into a post-racial land less bound by race. This painful acknowledgment may be the first step on the long road toward racial justice and democracy in the 21st century.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton Fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of “Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America” and “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama.” His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. He can be reached online at penielejoseph.com.
© 2013, The Root