The mainstream media is awash in speculation about the individual motives of Martin's murderer, George Zimmerman. Headlines like the following are ubiquitous: "Who is George Zimmerman, and why did he kill Trayvon Martin?". Predictably, the angle that these articles take is one of individual psychologizing, probing Zimmerman's personal life and "character" for evidence of intentional, overt racist inclinations. Some articles, such as the CSM piece linked above, explore his personal life ("Zimmerman tutored a young black student") and survey character-defenses from family and neighbors ("George was a 'good dude' who simply wanted his neighborhood to be safe").
This is to be expected. In an era of colorblindness, an extremely high burden of proof is placed on anyone who dares to suggest that racial oppression has something to do with patterns of police violence, incarceration rates, housing, etc. Colorblind skepticism about the relevance of race demands a "smoking gun" in the form of an explicit, intentional racist statement. When such demands are not met, attempts to criticize contemporary racism are summarily dismissed as groundless and illegitimate.
The basic assumption here is that racism is simply "in the heart", a merely personal evil or "prejudice". The idea is that racism is merely ill-will harbored by an individual who—intentionally and deliberately—hates other people because of their race.
But this is a highly implausible picture of what reality is like.
First of all, racism has never been a matter of mere individual whim or "personal prejudice". It has always been a social phenomenon--an interlocking set of ideas woven through institutions, practices, norms, laws, and so on. People are not born racists—they acquire racist beliefs, practices and habits in the course of living in a racist society (set aside for the moment how racist societies come about in the first place). This is rarely a conscious, deliberate process. We don't come out of the womb as fully-formed consumers of ideas who then go to the ideas mall to acquire only the ones we choose. Instead, we are thrown into a web of meanings, ideas, norms, etc. that are there before us, which we did not choose. The key is to criticize these dominant sets of ideas that are the "air we breathe". However, to be in a position to rationally criticize received ideas is always a kind of achievement, not our default starting position.
The upshot is this: by psychoanalyzing George Zimmerman, we turn our attention away from the real problem. The more we are asked to focus on his psychology the more we obscure the underlying issue.
After all, people are not protesting by the tens of thousands merely because they are morally outraged at the conscious actions of George Zimmerman the man. There is, to be sure, plenty of legitimate moral outrage because what has happened was, quite obviously, a moral catastrophe. Last I checked, Zimmerman had been neither arrested nor indicted. His gun hasn't even been confiscated. That is absolutely outrageous.
But, outrageous though this is on a moral level, the slaying of Trayvon Martin is not simply a matter of morality. It's bigger than Trayvon; it's also about Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Stephon Watts, Ramarley Graham and so many others. This is about a deep-seated injustice that afflicts our whole society.
The mass marches reflect the fact that this is a social problem that reflects a widespread pattern of violence against people of color that is rooted in social oppression. Rather than taking each incident of racist police violence, decontextualizing it, and analyzing it in abstraction from every other incident, we need to see these incidents as part of a recurring pattern of racist violence. Given the extremely high incidence (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, etc. etc.) of unarmed black men shot to death by police officers, colorblind skepticism about the racicalized dimension is nothing short of racist obfuscation pure and simple.
Conscious intent, then, is a serious red-herring. More often than not, people are unaware of the racist ideas that they've internalized through the mass media, TV, film, music, and all the rest. Our society teaches that young black men are deviant, dangerous, hardcore criminals. It should hardly be surprising to learn that the main teachings of our society--conveyed through media, culture, the criminal injustice system, etc.--produce large numbers of people with racist beliefs. Critical consciousness is not impossible under such conditions--but it always brushes against the grain of the main narratives handed down from above. As Marx and Engels put it, "the dominant ideas are, in every epoch, the ideas of the ruling class." Political philosopher Tommie Shelby explains the point in more detail:
"Rather than focus on the mental states of individuals without regard to their socio-historical context, which can often lead us astray, I would suggest that we view racism as fundamentally a type of ideology. Put briefly and somewhat crudely, “ideologies” are widely accepted illusory systems of belief that function to establish or reinforce structures of social oppression. We should also note that these social illusions, like the belief that blacks are an inferior “race,” are often, even typically, accepted because of the unacknowledged desires or fears of those who embrace them (e.g., some white workers have embraced racist beliefs and attitudes when they were anxious about the entrance of lower-paid blacks into a tight labor market.) Racial ideologies emerged with the African slave trade and European imperialist domination of “darker” peoples. These peoples were “racialized” in an effort to legitimize their subjugation and exploitation: the idea of biological “race,” the linchpin of the ideology, was used to impute an inherent and unchangeable set of physically based characteristics to the subordinate Other, an “essential nature” which supposedly set them apart from and explained why they were appropriately exploited by the dominant group. This ideology served (and still serves) to legitimize the subordination and economic exploitation of non-white people. Even after slavery was abolished and decolonization was well under way, the ideology continued to have an impact on social relations, as it functioned to legitimize segregation, uneven socioeconomic development, a racially segmented labor market, and the social neglect of the urban poor."In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander examines some rather disturbing studies that explain the extent of this phenomenon:
"A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: "Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?" The startling results were published by the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. 95 percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. These results contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America. African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995, and they constitute roughly the same percentage today...Despite the fact that the majority of drug dealers and users are white, people are persistently led to conclude that the opposite is true. Despite the fact that white youth are more likely than their black counterparts to use and sell drugs, common "wisdom" suggests the opposite. This is instructive.
...Racially charged political rhetoric and media imagery have...for nearly three decades... disproportionately featured African American offenders. One study suggests that the standard crime news "script" is sol prevalent and so thoroughly racialized that viewers imagine a black perpetrator even when none exists. In that study, 60 percent of viewers who saw a story with no image falsely recalled seeing one, and 70 percent of those viewers believed the perpetrator to be African American...
...studies indicate that people become increasingly harsh when an alleged criminal is darker and more "stereotypically black"; they are more lenient when the accused is lighter and appears more stereotypically white. This is true of jurors as well as law enforcement officers."
Readers of this blog will no doubt have read or heard of Geraldo Rivera's racist comments to the effect that black men in hoodies get what they deserve when they dress like "gangsters". Richard Seymour's take on Rivera's comments seem to me spot on:
Geraldo Rivera thinks the murder happened because Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie, and thus sending out a signal that he was a gangster. However morally cretinous this suggestion is, give Rivera credit for having some intuition about the politics of racial symbolism. He means that the murder victim is partly to blame for his death, because this symbolic action, wearing a hoodie, identifies one as someone who should be killed. He cannot help partially sharing the point of view of the killer, understanding the anxiety and horror that such sassing, such brazen boldness, such reckless wearing, walking and looking, provokes. He partially shares the point of view of the killer and that's why gets it: hey, if you don't want to get shot, don't go out looking like a punk. If you don't want to get shot, don't loiter, stand up straight, dress properly, show some manners.Rivera deserves every bit of the scorn he's receiving for having made these remarks. But in a perverse way his comments should be welcome for those seeking to uproot and overthrow racial oppression in the US. Rather than taking the obfuscatory psychologizing route, Rivera is merely saying out loud what we're taught in this society about young black men. He is stating a commonplace "truth" about black men that is operative in all spheres of social life, from the criminal "justice" system, police squad cars, schools, workplaces, culture, media, etc.
Groping around for conscious intent is a worthless activity. This isn't about George Zimmerman the man. This is about the basic structure our society. Until we radically change it, the young black bodies will continue to pile up.