*Journalist Gerald Rivera set off a national firestorm when he suggested that the hoodie that Florida youth, Trayvon Martin, was wearing cost him his life. What Rivera is suggesting, in an offbeat way, was that Martin was profiled by the clothes he was wearing—not such an outrageous assertion—given that it applies to black and Latino youth more than white youth. White youth in hip hop gear—baggy or sagging pants, “wifebeater” t-shirts and sweatshirts with hoods on them (hoodies) aren’t considered “suspicious.” Don’t think for a minute that Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, missed—for even a minute—that Martin was African American.
It was Trayvon’s skin color that made him Zimmerman’s mark, but Rivera’s assertion raises some points that are not being discussed in the midst of the outrage and the grief. Zimmerman hasn’t been charged because he asserted his self-defense right in a state that has a “shoot first” law. Shoot first laws, in this case—called the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida—allows citizens to apply for concealed weapon licenses and to carry those weapons, where they have the right to use those weapons if they have reasonable suspicion that they are about to be assaulted, robbed or harmed in any way. This will be Zimmerman’s defense—whenever he is charged (and he will be charged)—that he acted within the law. The problem is, Zimmerman also found a loophole in to act out his racism, or fear of black people. Martin’s clothing, the hoodie, exacerbated that fear. The hoodie made Martin a suspicious black male in the neighborhood and Zimmerman knew if he confronted Trayvon, he’d have the “Shoot First” law on his side, making his Negrophobia a twisted defense of justifying homicide.
Time will tell if that rationalization holds up, but now “Shoot First” law needs to be put on trial, because we now see the adverse effects of when a reasonable racist exploits the law. Florida Governor, Rick Scott, has appointed a special task force to look into the case, but Florida Senate President, Mike Haridopolos, has said there will be no special committee appointed to review the Stand Your Ground law. That’s a problem, but we can’t lose sight of why this happened in the first place. We first have to acknowledge that Negrophobia has returned to America. It’s been ushered in by the election of Obama. The week after President Obama was elected in November of 2008, the FBI reported a 49% jump in background checks for gun and assault rifle purchases. Some 374,000 people sought to buy guns between November 3rd and 9th, 2008. It wasn’t that “Fear of a black planet” that Public Enemy had predicted, but there was clearly some high anxiety of this black President and Negrophobia had re-evidenced itself.
Negrophobia is a 19th Century construct that came about as a result of blacks seeking equality in public spaces during Reconstruction. That became a problem. The national referendum of the Presidential election of 1876 was which candidate, Repuiblican, Rutherford B. Hayes or Democrat, Samuel J. Tilden, was going to address “the Negro Problem.” Black people in white people’s social spaces would a suspicious occurrence from then on. The redemption Period (1877-1896) was an entrenched effort to put blacks back in their social “place” and strip all rights gained during Reconstruction. The Plessy decision of 1896 legalized separation for another 68 years, until the Civil Right Act of 1964 (the Brown decision outlawed it, but didn’t stop it). America has always “shot first” when they perceived that black people were “out of place.” But in 2012, thought we were past that until another “isolated incident” occurs.
You have those in this country that will never get over race. Race is part of the cultural fabric…and Negrophobia is also. You can always tell a Negrophobe. They get anxious at the very presence of black people. Even just one. Persons staring at black people for no reason. Negrophobes. Won’t service black people in restaurants and department stores. Negrophobe. Negrophobes never know exactly what to say to black people. Somebody comes up to you and say something stupid, we used to pass it off as ignorance. Today—mostly likely, Negrophobe. And Negrophobes are more likely to overact in a racial encounter. Whites, while still a significant segment of the Negrophobes in this nation, are not the only ones. Asians and Latinos have their share also, as do Armenians and Iranians. Those who come to America, pick up dominant cultural norms. Negrophobia is one of them…and this time around, America got it bad.
Negrophobia has been studied over the past century or so, usually in the context of social construction and the law. When de jure segregation ended in the last quarter of the 20th Century, new forms of racism morphed to give support to the nation’s ever-present black paranoia. One form was called “reasonable racism.” USC law professor, Jody Armour, wrote about it 15 years ago in a book called, Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism (New York University Press, 1997). The synopsis of the theory around reasonable racism was that overt racism had become impolitic and so undetectable, covert forms replaced them. Racism didn’t go away. White racists just became “reasonable” in their engagement. One of the aspects that Armour called out was the use of deadly force against blacks, and the rationale that Negrophobes were using, was that they could shoot somebody, in anticipation of what they thought might occur based on what they thought a black person might do to them. Of course, this was partly in response to the hyper-radicalized lexicon of Pro-Black Radicalism and the “Kill Whitney” rhetoric coming out of the 1960s and 1970s. However, anticipatory reaction was being vetted as public policy, and a legal defense, then. It’s a cultural reality, and a legal quandary, now. Now this law is about to be tested and the eyes of the world are on Florida, once again.
In the 21st Century, “Shoot First” (and ask questions later) laws were precipitous reaches into citizen protection advocacy whereby the citizen could, in essence, take the law into their own hands. Florida passed its law in 2005. Signed into law by then Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, Florida was the first state to expand the law to use deadly force for self defense—outside of a person’s home. Called the Castle Doctrine, it says a person is entitled to defend themselves against assault anywhere they go. Here’s the kicker—under the Florida law, once self-defense is invoked, it is the burden of the state to disprove the claim, which is difficult to do if the assaulter in question is dead.
Twenty-three other states have passed “shoot first” laws since the Florida law was passed. So what happens when the reasonable racist encounters a law that allows them to defend themselves against “suspicious” characters that they anticipate could cause them harm? Exactly. This is the complexity of the Trayvon Martin case and the County prosecutor and the State Attorney General are trying to stay out of the way of it. All Zimmerman had to claim is that he was assaulted, and he feared for his life—an evolution of what law enforcement has perfected over the past decade—so he protected himself, killing Trayvon. The same could happen to any of our sons—damn near anywhere in America. Just in some places, it’s been legalized.
Though we understand quite clearly what this, reasonable racism has new legal cover. Now let’s get at the clothing claim. On a very lightweight level, Geraldo is right. We have often warned our youth about wearing clothing that may identify them as gang members and thus, open to harassment by police or targeted by other gang members. But to suggest that his clothing got him killed because some white man saw him as “suspicious” is a reach. Trayvon’s clothing didn’t get him killed. His skin color got him killed, as it has for countless numbers of black men over the centuries. The apparel argument is a red herring argument, and here’s why…
Over the past fifty years, black men have been identified as “suspicious” by their clothing, whether they were or not. And most of the time, they weren’t. In the 1960s, wearing leather jackets made you suspicious and dangerous. In the 1970s, wearing army jackets (as many of the returning Viet Nam vets did—and many school kids—Hell, I had one), made black men suspicious and dangerous. In the 1980s, it was P-Coats. In the 1990s, it was Raiders jackets. In the 2000s, it was Georgetown jackets. In the 2010s, it is “hoodies.” The problem was the intersection of a criminal element, as popular wear became “gang wear” after 1980s, that stigmatized all black males—so every kid that wore what was cool, in or popular, was linked to criminality on a societal scale—which we now call, racial profiling.
We tell the young men to pull their pants up, or tuck their shirts in, because we know it makes them targets for the police and the criminal element, but they don’t—because it’s popular. It’s their swag. Their clothing is their style and their stamp on the culture—and everybody dresses like them in today’s society. Even white youth. But we know it’s really not about the clothing. The clothing changes, but the target remains the same—black males. Their clothing becomes an identifier—for who you should stop, or who you should shoot at, on a premise that they were gang members or some other kind of social menace.
This is what Geraldo was talking about but the reality is that it happens to black men regardless of what they wear, with greater frequency. Why? Because black males are born suspicious, and whatever they wear cues society of their presence in public spaces. The hoodie is Zimmerman’s alibi based on a stigma associated with it. But all of our kids wear them.
Wearing popular apparel doesn’t make black males criminal. It just makes them identifiable. Or does it? Not when you’re a white male. Zimmerman didn’t see a hoodie first. He saw a black male first. And something tells me that Zimmerman might have known that he had some law on his side, which is why he pursued Martin. Without a confrontation and a struggle, there is no defense for murder. That’s why he went after him.
The hoodie debate is symbolic for one reason and one reason only…it’s the latest example in how black males are profiled and used by some reasonable racist’s as the latest excuse to commit murder. Despite Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, George Zimmerman needs to be charged and the Florida prosecutor needs to put the law, as well as the suspect, on trial.
Justice for Trayvon. The world is watching.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.