Death Without Sanction or Ceremony
Watching Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin fight back tears and struggle through an unimaginable range of emotions in talking about their son Trayvon Martin’s death, I recognized an expression I’ve seen only once before. It was the same look on my mother’s face nearly twenty years ago, when my brother died after being shot: empty, confused, lost. Like Trayvon’s parents, my mother had no reference for how to handle that depth of pain, for how to help her other children confront the unimaginable, while simultaneously planning a funeral and having to wrap her mind around never seeing a son she had seen nearly everyday for eighteen years.
Trayvon Martin’s killing at the hands of vigilante George Zimmerman, and my brother’s murder, are similar yet quite different. Both were teenaged black boys, and both of their killers remain free. Both were adored by their families and friends, had gregarious personalities, and their losses have left loved ones searching for answers to explain the fulsome lives cut so horribly short. And their deaths have revealed to those closest to them the fabric of a social order where the loss of black life figures less as a rupture than as an intricate weave in the pattern.
Treyvon Martin’s killer was an overzealous, self-appointed neighborhood watch captain apparently intimidated by a black body in a hoodie and in possession of processed sugar; my brother’s killer a neighborhood thug who, loosing a fight, decided killing someone would restore his twisted sense of manhood. Both killers claimed self-defense, twisting the details of their respective nights so as to tap into a reservoir of racial images where black men are perpetual threats to social order, life, and morality. That Zimmerman is a white Latino and my bother’s killer black does not detract from the similarities of their stories of fearing for their lives. Nor does it matter that as much as Trayvon Martin’s and my brother’s deaths resemble one another, they are qualitatively different. Indeed, despite the differences surrounding their deaths, that their killers drew on identical modes for devaluing black life raises the most troubling questions about the American racial imaginary.
I must admit to being somewhat troubled by the national response to Trayvon Martin’s death, specifically, how that response has hinged on the same racial ideology that guided both Zimmerman and my brother’s killer. For me, their cases raise uncomfortable questions not so much about their killers, but the measures by which a black life might, in one instance, warrant national outrage, and in another might be better left on a pile of unprosecutable cases.
I share the outrage that has prompted scores of blacks, Asians, Latinas/os, and whites to don hoodies in protest for justice and the arrest of Treyvon Martin’s killer; the Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin in New York; students in south Florida high schools walking out of class and forming human TMs on their football fields; the Miami Heat posing for a hoodied photo, with various other NBA superstars and the NBA Players Association following suit and demanding justice for Trayvon; and the scores of other Million Hoodies protests taking place across the country. Our collective outrage grows from the frustration of knowing that Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a vigilante frustrated because someone he assumed was on drugs and up to no good would be yet another “a**hole” who would get away.
But what if Trayvon Martin had not been a “good” kid? What if he had a juvenile record? What if he had a felony assault case pending against him? What if all these were true, and he still only had Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, feared the man pursuing him, and cried out for help until he was killed? Fortunately, these counterfactuals are not the case, and we can have such a widespread discussion about racial violence, stereotypes, and their real life consequences. We can have these discussions because Trayvon’s character allows for such outrage.
But when a black life does not fit the script of the proper, respectable black who does not deserve such violence, such killings rarely spark moral outrage. Black life remains in its place outside the judicial order, stripped of all sacramental qualities. The killing of black people no longer requires, as it once did, the ceremony of the lynch mob, nor the sanction of guilt by a court of law. It has long since become routine, mundane, ubiquitous.
At the risk of a sacrilege, at issue is not whether Zimmerman was racist or hated black people. Outside the hate crime provision that would allow federal prosecution, whether he used a racial slur is largely irrelevant to the question of where and how black life fits into the structure of race in America. The claims and convoluted reasoning of Zimmerman’s father, lawyer, and friends that he is not racist, even if true, do not change the fact that Zimmerman operated within the matrices of race that deems black life a perpetual threat which only deadly force can halt. That Zimmerman was a vigilante helped bring this case into our national consciousness. But as Mark Anthony Neal explains, rather than an individual act, at issue is “the way that black males are framed in the larger culture…as being violent, criminal and threats to safety and property.”
Had George Zimmerman been an undercover or off-duty police officer, I seriously doubt the outrage would be so widespread and morally persuasive. Is this overly cynical? Perhaps. But the outcry over Sean Bell and Oscar Grant, both unarmed when they were killed by police officers who were subsequently acquitted of wrong doing (though the officer who killed Bell has been fired, a far too belated and inadequate response by the NYPD), extended little further than the cries for justice coming from black people in New York and Oakland. The family of Ramarley Graham, the unarmed Bronx teen killed by a NYPD officer in his grandmother’s bathroom, has said that they will hold marches every Thursday until a movement mounts around their son’s murder. The family of Byron Carter, Jr., is currently suing the Austin police department for his shooting death, pointing out that he was unarmed, sitting in a car, and had committed no crime. Bell, Grant, Graham, and scores of others have all been tainted with a tinge of guilt, not because of anything they were doing or had ever done in the past, but largely because the police are always already seen as justified in using deadly force again black bodies. Any imperfection in the black body’s past merely helps complete the sovereign cipher.
Black women fare no better in this racial matrix. As we have seen recently, medical practitioners and police often neglect black women’s medical concerns and emergencies, assuming either they are engaged in illegal activity, as when Anna Browns was recently arrested in a St. Louis hospital emergency room for trespassing and died shortly thereafter in police custody, or are dismissed as mentally unstable, as when Esmin Green died on a Brooklyn hospital waiting room floor, where she was laying for over an hour before anyone even checked on her.
My brother was not, by the measures that sparked outrage over Trayvon Martin’s death, a “good” kid; put differently, by the cruel calculus that requires black people approach sainthood before garnering national sympathy, he fell short. He lacked the framing to make his murder anything more than a family tragedy — gang violence at worst, in the wrong place at the wrong time at best. And while his killer was neither a vigilante nor law officer, that same calculus and limited moral imagination operated to make his death merely another tally in a tired and statistically misguided argument about “black-on-black” crime. My brother’s killer was another young black kid. It is a story so common it is largely unremarkable as a cause for outrage, outside the black community.
When something like Trayvon Martin happens, a question I always hear, without fail, from other black people is why don’t we make the same noise when the killer is black. It is a question born of such frustration that it belies its own reality. Black people do raise their voices in protest when we kill one another, we demand justice, we march, we protest. But young black men killing other young black men is no longer compelling like in the 1980s and ‘90s, when it fit a script of broken black communities and homes, absent black fathers and endangered black men. What was rarely heard and remains little discussed (though not among black people) is that such deaths are routine because they are irregularly punished. Black men who kill other black men (or put more accurately, black people who commit violent crimes against other black people, especially domestic violence and rape) often know they have a greater a chance of escaping prosecution.
It is important to remember that the very racial elements that made Trayvon Martin’s killing tragic and cause of national outcry are the very elements that render invisible the killing of less “respectable” black men by vigilantes, police, American citizens, and other black men. The racial imaginary that prompted Geraldo Rivera to blame Trayvon’s sartorial choice of a hoodie as equally responsible for his death as Zimmerman, that prompted Sanford police to accept an armed vigilante’s claim of self-defense, that prompted St. Louis police to arrest a homeless black woman seeking medical attention, is the same logic that locates a black person killing another black person at the margins of the judicial order, prompts judges to sentence black defendants more severely when their victim is white. It is the same American racial imaginary that convinces black criminals that they are far more likely to get away with killing a black person than with killing a white person.
If Trayvon Martin’s death sparks a serious discussion about the dangers of stereotypes, hopefully that discussion considers the default settings of race in America where blackness correlates as criminal, ignoble, predator, guilty, and whiteness as noble, honorable, defender, innocent. Hopefully it goes beyond a mere concern for how stereotypes mistakenly implicate decent young black men, honor students or college graduates, professionals and dedicated family men. Hopefully we begin to challenge the view of black women’s bodies as lascivious, available, innately criminal, simultaneously diseased and impervious to pain and violence. Though I am doubtful, hopefully it brings into focus how those stereotypes, how the structures of racial oppression sanctions the death of black kids with juvenile records, who have poor grades, who buck authority, who are angry because of their life circumstances, who are too easily reasoned away as deserving death. I’m too cynical to believe it will happen in my lifetime, but I hope there emerges a world moral imagination equally as outraged at the racial structures of feeling that would sanction my brother’s death as Trayvon Martin’s, that would be equally moved by my mother’s tears as by the Sybrina Fulton’s outrage, conviction, courage, and compassion.