Category: racial history

Anticipating a non-white America

By Alan Bean

Peter Laarman speaks what every honest historian knows to be true: America was founded by white Protestant males for white Protestant males.  The conservative movement has made modified this stance in modest ways, but the older view has never been repudiated–you just can’t talk about it in public anymore.  So what happens to these United States white folks no longer form a majority of the population?

We may be a long way from finding out.  In Texas, white folks will no longer comprise a majority of eligible voters by 2020, but since Texas Democrats refuse to celebrate their party’s diversity (for fear of offending white voters) it could be a long time before theoretical electoral advantages translate into electoral power.

Nationally, the shift will take longer still.  Laarman reminds us that white babies are now in the minority, but, at 59, I likely won’t live to see the day when the American population (cradle to grave) is less that 50% white, and I certainly won’t be around to celebrate when the majority of voters become non-white.

In states like California, Arizona and Miami, the Hispanic vote can no longer be ignored by either major party.  But money talks in politics and in 2050 the big money will still be controlled by the white tribe.  Prosperous people understand the importance of voting and can always be counted on to vote their interests. (more…)

Super PAC ad exploits white ignorance of black church

By Alan Bean

I frequently tell audiences how our family was virtually excommunicated from polite society when we questioned a corrupt drug bust in Tulia, Texas.  I write about this bewildering experience in my book, Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas.  In the eyes of respectable, church-going folk, we were just flat wrong.  From this mainstream perspective, our stand looked crazy, illogical, and possibly even demonic.

Moral perception involves a subtle interplay between personal experience and community narrative, the value-laden stories we grow up listening to.  The Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story is a classic example of a value-laden story; so is the story of Rosa Parks, the Black seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus.  Community narratives are the stories that define a culture.  If you are part of the culture, you hear the stories. 

Both personal experience and community narrative vary tremendously from culture to culture.  In Black communities, for instance, children grow up hearing stories about the need to persevere in the face of prejudice and rejection.  Personal experiences are interpreted through a narrative lens fashioned by this community narrative.  “Oh, so that’s what daddy was talking about,” we tell ourselves.

In White culture, community narrative tends to validate authority figures and the social status quo.  “Police officers are there to protect you, Johnny,” White parents tell their children, “so you shouldn’t be afraid of them.  I know that gun looks scary, but he will only use it on the bad guys.”  In general, personal experience bears out this expectation.

You hear very different stories in Black and Latino communities.  Authority figures aren’t demonized in the moral narratives that circulate in minority communities, but they are viewed with a measure of suspicion.  You don’t always call the police when something bad goes down on the street; innocent people might get hurt.  And when a family member is facing trial no one expects equal justice.  Personal experience tends to validate this community narrative.

One consequence of being excommunicated from Tulia’s respectable white community was spending a lot of time with Black and Latino residents.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Albuquerque witnessing a debate between Asa Hutchison of the Drug Enforcement Administration and New Mexico governor Garry Johnson.  We were primarily there to talk to both sides about what was happening in Tulia.

The planes hit the Twin Towers just as we were packing for our return trip and we listened to updates on public radio all the way back to Tulia.  In the van with me were several members of Tulia’s black community, most of them associated with the Church of Christ.  They were appalled by events in Manhattan, but they weren’t surprised.  In fact, they wondered why it had taken so long.  A simple phrase was repeatedly endlessly, “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

I thought of that road trip seven years later when Jeremiah’s incendiary rhetoric played a central role in the electoral campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama.  “No, no, no,” Wright roared, “Not ‘God bless America.  “God damn America.”

When I first saw the clip of Reverend Wright in full cry I was reminded of Billy Graham’s remark that if God didn’t punish America He would have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.  Wasn’t Jeremiah Wright saying much the same thing?

Yes and no.  When Billy Graham suggested that the wrath of God would soon fall on America he was speaking out of the moral narrative he grew up hearing in Baptist circles in North Carolina.  Like ancient Israel, America is called to be a chosen people, a city set upon a hill.  But we will only be blessed insofar as we remain faithful to our calling.  Our tolerance for lewd music, R-rated movies, gambling and general debauchery is a rejection of our Godly birthright and will inevitably lead to divine judgment.

Jeremiah Wright was thinking of a different community narrative when he delivered his infamous sermon in the wake of 9-11.  America flatters itself as a beacon of democracy, but we prop up tin pot dictators in to enhance the profits of multinational corporations even if it spells untold suffering for millions of people.  Did we think God would turn a blind eye to such cruel hypocrisy forever?

Graham and Wright applied the same Deuteronomic logic to very different facts.  One was lionized for speaking hard truths; the other was demonized as an anti-American racist.  Until you step into a Black barber shop and ask the brothers for their take. 

From the dominant White perspective (liberal and conservative) Jeremiah Wright was talking crazy.  How could anyone be so insensitive in the wake of the worst national disaster in recent memory? 

This explains why a super PAC funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts plans to use the president’s historic ties to Jeremiah Wright to bring about ‘The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama’.   The assumption is that Wright’s “God Damn America” rhetoric is so extreme that White Democrats will dissociate from the president while Black America will be silenced. 

If this ad airs (and since a prototype has been leaked to the media, there is a chance it may not) Black America will not take it lying down.  Instead, attempts will be made to humanize Reverend Wright by placing his remarks in social and historical context.  

I hope the ad envisioned in the prototype never materializes; but if it does, the moral divide separating Black and White America will be more apparent than it has been since the halcyon days of the Civil Rights Movement.

Texas Baptist publication connects Christian faith and racial justice

The Rev. Michael Bell

Ken Camp with The Baptist Standard has an excellent discussion of the relationship between race and faith featuring faith leaders in the Dallas Fort Worth area and beyond.  My blogging on the subject is part of the mix, and some strong words from Fort Worth pastor Michael Bell figure in the discussion.  It is good to see the intersection of racial justice and Christian faith receive a thorough airing in the Baptist press.  Pictures from the civil rights movement of the 1960s demonstrate how far we have come; the typical response of white America to the Travon Martin story shows us how far we have to go. Alan Bean

Race & Faith

   
By Ken Camp, Managing Editor
Published: April 27, 2012
A neighborhood watchman in Florida shoots and kills a hoodie-wearing African-American teenager. Two white suspects in Tulsa, Okla., confess to the Easter weekend shooting of five people in a predominantly black neighborhood.

Trayvon Martin Million Hoodie March in New York City was one of many such protest marches conducted in reaction to the shooting of the teen by a neighborhood watchman in Florida. (Photo/Frank Daum)

Periodically, racial tensions that have simmered beneath the surface bubble up, some Christian leaders note, illustrating just how far-removed modern America is from the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr.

“We can legislate fairness, but we cannot legislate love. That is up to us,” said Mark Croston, pastor of East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., and president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.

Christians must lead by example to improve race relations, he said.

“I believe that all truly Christian churches must be open to racial inclusion and human compassion. We sing, ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. …” This is true, so we must, too,” said Croston, an African-American.

Croston points to the vision in the New Testament book of Revelation of people representing every nation, tribe and language worshipping Christ. If Christians are serious when they pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he said, they must “with intentionality work toward this reality.”

But the heavenly vision seems remote for many, and racial divisions remain a clear and present problem, some observers noted sadly.

Predictable pattern

When stories about racially inspired violence capture public attention, events follow a predictable pattern, said Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice.

Inspired by preachers like Martin Luther King Jr., African-Americans in the early 1960s marched to secure civil rights. But some social observers note King’s dream of the “beloved community” still is far from reality, as evidenced by the recent rhetoric surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting.

“When the status quo is threatened by systemic racial bias, the propaganda machine goes into overdrive. This normally involves the assertion that a liberal media is making excuses for thuggish behavior. If the folks on the receiving end of unjust treatment can be redefined as one of ‘those’ people, the horrific details no longer matter,” Bean, an American Baptist minister in Arlington, wrote in a recent column for Associated Baptist Press.

As the stories gain media attention, he continued, “America quickly divides into protestors claiming that the narrative du jour is a prime example of systemic racism, and debunkers insisting it is nothing of the kind.”

The church’s role

Historically, African-American churches have played a central role in providing a voice for people who have felt victimized and for exposing racism. In many cities, a particular church or a few churches continue to play a key role as ombudsman in the African-American community, said Michael Bell, pastor of Greater St. Stephen First Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

“It’s where people go for direction when they are seeking resolution of difficulties and solutions to their problems,” said Bell, a past-president of both the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Texas African-American Fellowship.

More specifically, African-Americans know which churches are able to do something substantive about their problems, he noted.

“They go to a church where the pastor has a reputation as being a prophetic voice,” Bell said. “My church expects me to speak up. I have never received a negative email, text or letter from a church member complaining that I was too involved in community issues outside the church.”

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, is pursued by a mob outside Little Rock’s Central High School. (UPI Photo/Library of Congress)

However, in many—perhaps most—predominantly white churches, pastors do not feel that same degree of freedom, he added.

The African-American church has become even more relevant and gained increasing influence as racial tensions have heightened in recent years, Bell insists.

“Distrust and suspicions that had been under the surface have bubbled up. Racism has become more overt and evident in in the last few years,” he said, comparing racists to “roaches so bold they don’t run from the light anymore.”

A cloud of suspicion

Relations between white and blacks, even among Christians, suffer from a failure to address deep-seated issues such as the way African-Americans often are viewed with suspicion—a matter brought to the forefront recently when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., he observed.

“It’s like putting cold cream on cancer. Unattended, the malady will intensify, because it hasn’t been addressed. We try to move on without really dealing with it,” Bell said.

“We (African-Americans) have a historical memory informed by a hermeneutic of suspicion. Periodically that will come to the surface, and the obvious issues will be addressed. The symptoms will be addressed without dealing with the disease. We won’t go beneath the surface. …We fear it will take too much out of us.”

Some African-American ministers note the fear young men in their communities feel about being stopped by police for “DWB—driving while black.”

White citizens rally at the Arkansas state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. (U.S. News & World Report Photo/Library of Congress)

In a video on the American Baptist Home Mission Societies website, Executive Director Aidsand Wright-Riggins appeared in a hoodie to tell stories from his own experience about the cloud of suspicion under which African-American young men live.

Wright-Riggins recalled how he was stopped by police officers—once while knocking on the door of a white church member and once while approaching his own home. He also told how his son was pulled over twice driving between his parents’ home and his university dormitory.

“I appeal to all of us, as we look at the millions of persons around us, and particularly those of color—particularly black boys—that we don’t make an automatic assessment because they might be dressed differently or look different or somehow feel that they are out of place in our society,” he said, “that we relegate them to the margins or, even worse, that we assign them to the morgue.”

A troubling divide

The Trayvon Martin case illustrates “a troubling divide in public perception,” Bean wrote in a recent blog on the Friends of Justice website.

“On one side of the fault line, people identify with George Zimmerman’s suspicion of young black males wearing hoodies. On the other side, folks identify with a victim of racial profiling and vigilante justice,” he wrote.

The 1963 March on Washington for civil rights featured blacks marching alongside Christians and Jews. But some social observers note the dream of the “beloved community” still is far from reality, as evidenced by the recent rhetoric surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting. (RNS FILE PHOTO)

In his opinion column written for Associated Baptist Press, Bean noted: “Real-life narratives are messy because life is messy. Victims of injustice get caught up in the mess. They don’t play their roles with the disciplined panache of a Rosa Parks. They talk back; they fight back; they come out swinging. And that’s when bad things happen. That’s when the tragedy quotient gets high enough to catch the media’s attention.”

“Why did George Zimmerman feel called to defend his neighborhood from intruders?” Bean continued. “Why did he see Trayvon Martin as out of place, an anomaly. Because he was wearing a hoodie? Because he was walking with a particular gait? Because he appeared overly interested in his surroundings?

“Eliminate Martin’s blackness from the equation, and it is impossible to imagine Zimmerman reacting as he did. Zimmerman defined criminality in racial terms. Who, or what, taught him to think this way? … Our national conversation will continue to revolve around messy narratives.”

Land’s apology doesn’t impress Black Southern Baptists

The Reverend Dwight McKissic

By Alan Bean

Stories can bring us together, and they can drive us apart.  Unfortunately, narratives related to racial justice almost always reveal a yawning gulf between white and minority perception.  I have never seen a single narrative separate America into polarized camps like the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman affair.

Richard Land, the head of the ethics division of the Southern Baptist convention, recently apologized for remarks about the Martin-Zimmerman case that have enraged Black Southern Baptist leaders.  The Rev. Dwight McKissic, the Arlington, Texas pastor calling for Land’s ouster, isn’t buying what he calls a “non-apology-apology“. 

  • Land hasn’t apologized for calling Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson “race hustlers” and “ambulance chasers” because they responded to requests for help from Trayvon Martin’s parents. 
  • Land hasn’t apologized for accusing President Barack Obama of ginning up support in the black electorate by commenting on the Martin case. 
  • Land hasn’t apologized for suggesting that black males deserve to be racially profiled because black men are statistically more likely to engage in acts of violence. (more…)

Were the Tulsa shootings racially motivated?

By Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

As of yesterday, two suspects have confessed to the Tulsa, Oklahoma shootings that left two injured and three dead over the Easter weekend.  The two suspects — Jacob England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 32 — were arrested Sunday morning and confessed shortly after their arrest.

Late Thursday, According to the New York Times, England wrote an angry post on his Facebook page about the deaths of his father and fiancée:

Mr. England’s father, Carl, was shot on April 5, 2010, at an apartment complex…and the man who was a person of interest in the case, Pernell Jefferson, is serving time at an Oklahoma state prison.

Mr. England is a Native American who has also described himself as white.  Mr. Jefferson is black.

“Today is two years that my dad has been gone,” Mr. England wrote, and then used a racial epithet to describe Mr. Jefferson. “It’s hard not to go off between that and sheran I’m gone in the head,” he added, referring to the recent suicide of his 24-year-old fiancée, Sheran Hart Wilde. “RIP. Dad and sheran I Love and miss u I think about both of u every second of the day.”

Hours later, England and his roommate, Watts, drove a pickup through a predominately black neighborhood in Tulsa and started to randomly shoot pedestrians.  Mr. England admitted to shooting three of the victims and Mr. Watts admitted to shooting the other two.

Many within the Tulsa community believe the actions of England and Watts were racially motivated.

The city of Tulsa has a history of racial tension.  In 1921, the city was the site of one of the deadliest race riots in U.S. history.  The riots began when a young black man was arrested after he was accused of sexually harassing a white woman.  His arrest sparked a violent confrontation between the black and white communities.  According to documents from the Tulsa Historical Society:

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by white rioters.  Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa.  Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned.  Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.

Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased.  In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins.

Historians estimate that over 300 people were killed in the riot and more than 8,000 were left homeless.

Now, 91 years after the deadly riot, race relations in Tulsa remain rocky.  Many, including the Tulsa NAACP chapter and Tulsa City Council member Jack Henderson, want the gunmen to be prosecuted for a hate crime.

“Somebody that committed these crimes were very upset with black people,” said Jack Henderson, “That person happened to be a white person. The people that they happened to kill and shoot were black people — that fits the bill for me.”

Police officials and prosecutors, however, say it is still too early in the investigation to call the shooting rampage a hate crime.

“The undignified don’t deserve dignity”: Mississippi’s first hate criminal goes to prison

Two weeks ago, a white high school student named Deryl Dedmon pled guilty to the murder of James Anderson, a black man.  Dedmon dodged the death penalty by admitting that the crime was racially motivated.  In so doing, he became Mississippi’s first hate criminal.

Two accomplices, John Aaron Rice and Dylan Butler, also admitted their involvement in the racially-motivated murder.

Newsweeks Tony Dokoupil traveled to Mississippi to find out what Deryl Dedmon, the young man behind the wheel of the Jeep Cherokee, meant when he admitted to being “young and dumb, ignorant and full of hatred.”

“What I discovered,” Dokoupil reports, “was deeper, scarier, and more complex than a single country boy gone bad or even simple, pre-civil-rights-era racism.”

Dedmon’s friends don’t see him as a racist and don’t think the murder should be classified as a hate crime.  Even more disturbing, from the writer’s perspective, many of their black friends seemed to agree.

The kids in Dedmon’s social circle don’t think they’re racist at all. Sure, many use the N word, sometimes even in anger. But they say they don’t mean it in a racist way, any more than the town’s monument to the Confederate dead is meant as a call to arms. “It’s heritage, not hate,” says Trevor, echoing a common defense of Southern pride. The trips to west Jackson, he and others believe, were driven by social status—reveling in the lawlessness of poor neighborhoods—not skin color.

The article published in Newsweek and on the web in The DailyBeast, represents the most in-depth analysis of this tortured tale to appear thus far.  It will come as no surprise that the murder of James Anderson was the culmination of a long series of trips from predominantly white Rankin County to the poor black neighborhoods of nearby Jackson.  Unlike the black friends the white defendants knew from school, the denizens of West Jackson were regarded by Dedmon and his friends as the semi-human citizens of a Third World country.  It was okay to threaten, attack, beat and eventually kill people in poor black neighborhoods because, well, they’re niggers.

But our black friends back in Rankin County, well, they’re okay.

 In the version told by Dedmon’s social circle, racial hatred did not bring them to Jackson so much as boredom and drunken teenage aggression, mingled with a kind of moral outrage at the shabbiness of life in the Metro Inn area. Yes, the people there are almost all black, and the white teens call them “niggers.” But that has more to do with their status than their skin; the undignified don’t deserve dignity, they say. “White, black, red, or yellow,” says the Bunyanesque friend from the car wash, who did not go to Jackson that night, “what I’m prejudiced against is stupidity. I don’t like stupid people.”

If you hate black people because of their color, you’re racist; if you hate poor, inebriated black people because you have contempt for their lifestyle, that’s just being a decent American.

This is what happens when centuries of slavery and Jim Crow oppression empty into half a century of silence.  Until the early 1970s, the official position in the state of Mississippi was pure, unfiltered white supremacy.  By the late 70s the subject of race was off the table.  You could spout the old line behind closed doors, but in the public arena the past wasn’t mentioned.  Until recently, Mississippi school children weren’t even taught that there was a civil rights movement.

Confused white males like Deryl Dedmon were left to figure things out for themselves.  Dedmon’s behavior was unusual, to be sure, but the sentiments voiced by his friends, black and white, are standard issue.

That’s why I call my book, Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas.  So long as the defendants in the Texas Panhandle town I called home for nine years were sufficiently “trashy”, constitutional protections and the canons of common sense didn’t apply.  The war on drugs is rooted in the same principle.

Tony Dokoupil’s five-page article can be found here.  Highly recommended.

The American vigilante myth

By Alan Bean

In an illuminating weekend piece, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday addresses America’s love affair with the lone wolf vigilante.  “Of the countless stories we tell ourselves,” she writes, “the American myth of the solitary enforcer of justice may be the most tenacious, beloved and — as the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin has so grievously demonstrated — distorting.”

In the movies, the vigilante takes the law into his (occasionally her)  own hands because “the system” has dropped the ball.  If they can’t get me some justice, the vigilante thinks, I’ll make my own.  This stark sentiment drives the narrative arc of dozens of blockbuster Hollywood films every year.  “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Dirty Harry asked forty years ago, and thousands of films are resolved in similar fashion.

For every lone wolf hero there must be a corresponding villain, a punk, a thug, a gang of thugs, or the favorite of prime time television dramas, the pathological serial killer.  In this sense, Hornaday writes,  “the fatal encounter” in a gated community in Florida, “played out like an all-too-real clash of iconographies: Zimmerman’s idea of the property-defending hero Standing His Ground vs. the hoodie-wearing youth who has symbolized menace and urban violence in everything from “The Wire” to last year’s comic teen-thugs-battle-aliens satire “Attack the Block.”

The racial dynamics shift from plot to plot, but the man who takes the law into his own hands is normally white and middle class while the punks and thugs, regardless of race, are heartless incarnations of evil.   We can’t know if Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin was racially motivated, Hornaday says, but he clearly saw himself as a stand your ground vigilante protecting his neighborhood from the forces of evil.

The American gun culture is inspired by a similar iconography.  Charlton Heston’s “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!” applause line worked because his audience identified with the man-against-the-world hero trapped between human evil and an unresponsive and bureaucratic system.  This may explain why Zimmerman ignored the request to remain in his vehicle.  “If you want the job done right . . .”

But, as Hornaday points out, the real world never adapts to the cathartic demands of a Hollywood script:

It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of the vigilante archetype, whose hard-charging moral certainty jibes perfectly with this country’s sense of exceptionalism, not to mention the narrative constraints of a 90-minute action movie. It’s far more difficult to reconcile complicated reality with the simplistic, comforting fictions we crave.

Here’s the big problem.  American’s on both sides of the black-white color line are traumatized.  A sober reading of American racial history does little to enhance the self-esteem of white people, and this is particularly true of the civil rights narrative.  White Americans can face the simple facts of our national history, or we can feel good about ourselves.  There’s no third alternative. 

Maybe that’s why Hollywood has a hard time telling civil rights stories that don’t involve white protagonists.  White people want to feel good about themselves, but history keeps getting in the way.

At the same time, it’s hard for black Americans to reckon with history and come away feeling good about their country.  Whether we’re talking about the era of slavery or the Jim Crow period, the same question arises: Do I want to be part of this country?  An affirmative answer is possible, but only with conditions attached.  At the very least, the truth of the historical record must be acknowledged. 

So here’s the problem.  Black America has a therapeutic need to tell a story that white America needs to ignore.  That was then, white folks say.  “That is now,” black Americans reply.

Which explains why the Trayvon Martin case divides public opinion along racial lines.

Hollywood’s vigilante myth gives white Americans (the majority of movie goers) a therapeutic myth they can live with.   If we can’t talk about us, let’s talk about me.  How we explain the dramatic spike in gun sales following the election of Barack Obama.  Why did a black man who avoids the race issue whenever possible stir such profound emotion in so many white people?  “I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure,” our black president says, “that it will prevail, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time.”  What could possibly be threatening about that?

America is a nation with two foundational dreams.  There is the Manifest Destiny dream of steadily expanding white hegemony, and there is the Nation of Immigrants and Opportunity dream of radical inclusion.   From the beginning, these two conflicting narratives have been fighting for the upper hand.  The Civil War was simply the most bloody encounter in an ongoing war. 

Even when the president talks about American greatness, everybody knows he’s evoking the Nation of Immigrants narrative.  Obama doesn’t denigrate the myth of white hegemony; he doesn’t have to.  His mere existence constitutes a ringing denial of an old, old story that dare not speak its name.

We are drawn to the Americam vigilante myth because we can’t talk about who we are as a nation.

The demands of the 90-minute movie plot and the therapeutic needs of the majority of movie fans combine to give us a narrative that celebrates radical individualism.  We can’t talk about who we are as a people without making everybody uncomfortable.  So Dirty Harry singlehandedly rids Los Angeles of punks and Mr. Heston dares the government to pry his firearm from his cold, dead hands.

George Zimmerman is the product and the victim of the American vigilante myth.  We can’t escape his fate unless we decide what makes America exceptional.  Is it the ability of white patriots to enforce their will on inferior races; or is it our ability to move from apartheid to radical inclusion?  So long as we avoid the “us” question, the lone wolf vigilante will fill the void.

Will Trayvon Martin’s death spark the movement to end mass incarceration?

After news spread about the killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, many began comparing Martin’s case to the 1955 murder of 14-year old Emmett Till.  Although some are critical of the comparison, arguing that comparing Martin to Till suggests nothing has changed since the 1950s, Ibram Rogers argues that we must look at the context of their deaths and what their murders symbolized.  Till’s death was a symbol of racism in the Jim Crow South.  Martin’s death is a symbol of racial profiling and the criminalization of black men in 2012.  Just as the death of Emmett Till galvanized the civil rights movement, Ibram wonders: “Will the anger over Martin’s death spark the New Abolitionist Movement against mass incarceration?” MWN 

Probing the Comparison – Trayvon Martin/Mass Incarceration and Emmett Till/Segregation

by Dr. Ibram Rogers

Protests are blooming this spring. Black Americans are enraged and emboldened, shouting entreaties for justice, justice, justice.

Stoking even more rage—or rather placing the rage in historical context—has been the continuous comparisons made between the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, murdered recently by a neighborhood watchman of a majority White gated community in Florida who is claiming self-defense, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago native murdered by Mississippi segregationists in 1955 for speaking “inappropriately” to a White woman.

A blog in The New Yorker on the Martin tragedy was entitled “Emmett Till in Sanford.” Hundreds of protesters gathered at a park in Sanford, Fla., on March 22, and dozens of them sported t-shirts with Martin’s photo next to a Till photo. These Martin-Till shirts have become widely popular among activists around the nation.

Syracuse professor Boyce Watkins wrote that Martin “has become a modern day Emmett Till.” University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill insightfully compared Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, to Mamie Mae Till, who courageously allowed an open casket funeral and circulated pictures of her son’s tattered face around the world. Mamie Till’s public fight to get justice for her son is one of the untold sparks of the Civil Rights Movement.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson dismissed the “facile comparison” as “a disservice to history—and the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.”

Robinson is correct and incorrect. The link is a service and disserve to history. The widely touted comparison of Martin to Till is profound and “facile.”  (more…)

We’re Still Talking about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, and That’s a Good Thing

By Lisa D’Souza

News reports and discussions about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin continue.   The Sanford police have provided information about George Zimmerman’s statement to themZimmerman’s friend has spoken out on his behalf.  This week, both The Diane Rehm Show and Talk of the Nation aired shows discussing the tragedy with experts and callers.  With a federal investigation underway and the autopsy results still sealed, we will learn more as the days and weeks unfold.

Why was George Zimmerman suspicious of Trayvon Martin?  What happened in the 20 minutes that elapsed between Zimmerman’s first seeing Martin and the shooting?  How do Florida’s self defense and gun laws affect police decisions?

And the big question: what about race?  Some have remembered the similarities between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin’s deaths.  President Obama encouraged us all to do some “soul searching” about not just this incident but the history and context in which it happened.  In response, Newt Gingrich decried the insertion of race into the discussion of this case.  When we can admit that black males are just over 6% of our nation’s population, and yet they are more than 40% of our murder victims (and this data likely doesn’t include the deaths of black men that are not prosecuted due to self-defense claims made by the killer), then we must acknowledge that a discussion of race, violence and criminal justice is long overdue.

It is good that one month after his death, we are still talking about Trayvon Martin.  Let us hope that we remember him for a long time, and that his memory moves us to act so that his tragic and untimely death is the last one of its kind.