I disagree with the brown-skinned man in the White House who said about the Trayvon Martin murder, “All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen.” We know exactly how this kind of thing happens.
The point is to do something about it, to create a society that allows for and encourages empathy and equal and fair treatment as well as equal opportunity for all of its citizens. And the entity that should take the initiative is the government.
Malcolm X used to say that when Blacks were lynched or terrorized in this country, we shouldn’t just blame the racist who perpetrated the crime, but we should also blame the government for its failure to protect its citizens. After all, we live under certain assumptions that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that “governments are ordained of men” to provide such comfort.
At present we live in a society that deems some of its members suspect. As an elderly White Christian friend of mine points out, the gun laws are not about self-defense at all, but are an excuse to put guns in the hands of vigilantes who know exactly who to turn their guns on: the Black, the Latino, the Muslim, the so-called terrorist. And Blacks are at the top of the suspect list.
Trayvon was not killed in a vacuum. He was killed by an environment, a subtle narrative that says, well, Black folks kill one another. They are always doing something they shouldn’t be doing, so we should see them as automatic suspects.
Blacks as suspects date back to slavery. Free Blacks were suspected of being escaped slaves, and fugitive or runaway slave laws gave a slave owner the right to reclaim his property, wherever it went. It was interpreted in such a way that the slave owner didn’t have to retrieve his particular lost slave; any slave would do.
In effect, the runaway slave laws allowed the enslavement and terrorizing of free Northern Blacks. It’s important to note that these Blacks organized and resisted while the government, which helped pass the laws, remained silent about their ill effects.
Blacks at the turn of the last century were victimized again by Black Codes that included vagrancy laws, which allowed law enforcement to pick Black men up off the street and jail them, especially if they had no White person to vouch for them.
Many of these men were literally worked to death when they were placed in the convict lease system and leased to local businesses. The jailers were paid while prisoners supposedly worked as punishment for their crimes. When the government was informed about these crimes, it refused to disallow the practice.
Of course, most of us are aware of the terror visited upon Blacks in the U.S. through lynchings as well as the theft of Black land and rape of Black women that occurred through most of the first half of the 20th century. The NAACP launched a national effort to encourage the government to pass an anti-lynching law that would at least put the government on record as being opposed to these heinous crimes, but it steadfastly refused.
Nowadays, Black folks are re-victimized by the propaganda that says Blacks are more dangerous than other Americans and in fact are all potential criminals. TV cop shows and the like featuring dangerous police chases and other sensationalist, voyeuristic fare help to reinforce the idea of Black criminality.
So a slightly unbalanced White Hispanic (in Florida, Cubans identify as White Hispanic, not Latino) with a superhero complex runs into a Black youth and quickly assigns stereotypes to him. He looks like, well, a suspect. He shouldn’t be in the neighborhood; his Blackness makes him appear to be erratic. He looks suspicious. And then all the craziness that is the witch’s brew of racist propaganda and justifiable vigilantism combines, and a kid is dead.
But it doesn’t stop there. Sheriff Lee couldn’t bring himself to see that at the very least Zimmerman’s story should have been further examined and that he should have been detained for questioning. In fact, the double standard is again exposed — everybody in the U.S. knows in their hearts that had a Black person pulled that trigger he would at least have been charged with disorderly conduct.
So the Sanford police have been unable to bring Whites to justice who have violated the rights of Blacks, especially when those Whites are in uniform. But I don’t blame the blind sheriff or the deaf system in place. I blame the government.
I blame the government which historically has steadfastly refused to take all necessary steps to ensure that equal protection under the law is enforced: that law enforcement is applied evenhandedly and fairly; that economic and educational opportunity is distributed equally; and that all Americans are afforded that which is self-evident — the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So we’ve heard the sympathy from the White House. You’ve recognized the victim’s humanity — now do something about it! We’ve had enough of platitudes and good intentions and promises. The time has come to deliver!
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.