This Is Not a Post About Trayvon Martin

[Content Note: White supremacy, violence and murder against Black people, white privilege, judicial injustice.]

This is not a post about Trayvon Martin.

It’s a post about Emmett Till, a Black teenager who went to the store for some candy and unknowingly transgressed a white rule about Black men’s behavior. For that, vigilantes murdered him. When his grieving mother demanded justice, whites rallied around the murderers they had previously denounced. No one was ever convicted of his murder or as an accessory. Despite the fact that the killers of a Black boy walked free, newspapers focused on the anger of the Black community and their dangerous potential for retaliatory violence.

But of course that was all back in the Bad Old Days, and it was terrible, and we can rest easy that things aren’t like that anymore. So this definitely has nothing to do with Trayvon Martin.

It has to do with Herbert Lee, a Black Southern Civil Rights worker, murdered by a white state legislator who claimed self-defense. The jury believed him, and when a Black witness, Louis Allen, attempted to tell the truth, he was murdered too. It’s a telling story of just how much the law and judicial system was tilted in favor of white aggression masked as “self defense,” and how little justice Black folk could expect from that system.

But that was then, not now, and we all know how very wrong those people were. White people are ever so much more enlightened now. So we should learn this story, but we certainly shouldn’t think it has anything to do with Trayvon Martin. Because this post is not about him.

It is about Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two teenage boys lynched in Marion Indiana, in 1930. As Shipp and Smith’s bodies, gruesomely mutilated, hung on display for the large white crowd, a white photographer snapped a picture. Ironically, that picture has become an iconic representation of a “Southern” lynching. But lynching was not just a Southern problem, as the Marion case graphically illustrates. Calling it one erases the role of whites across the country in maintaining white supremacy.

Of course, Black teenagers only had to fear for their lives back in the Bad Old Days, not now. (And even if they do, which they don’t, it would probably only be a problem in some other part of the country, because the North is more racist than the South, or is it the other way around?) But this definitely has nothing to do with the way white people talk about the treatment of Trayvon Martin, because no white person has said his death was just a Southern thing or “what do you expect from Florida?”

Because white people have come a long way! Back in the days of abolition, white people were often indifferent to slavery, when they weren't downright positive about it. Even people who weren’t slaveholders defended slavery. It benefited them in other ways, notably by reinforcing the race hierarchy that granted even the poorest whites status. Only when Northern whites felt themselves threatened (by the provisions of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act) did abolition become a fairly popular cause in free states. So large swaths of white people could only get worked up about Black oppression when it started affecting white people too. Because the Bad Old Days were bad like that.

Fortunately, it’s not like that any more; we certainly don’t hear white people saying things like “it’s about class, not race!” as a strategy of re-centering oppression around themselves. So none of this has any bearing on Trayvon Martin’s case.

After all, white people have totally changed. It’s not like it was when Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Too often we don’t learn about how King was viewed as a dangerous, un-American radical. And not only by Southern white racists, but by ostensible white moderates. If Black people broke unjust laws, even in peaceful protest, well, that was a terrible thing and could riots be far behind? King chided these moderates for insisting that Black people remain patient, for insisting that law and order must be carried out rather than justice be done.

Fortunately, today everyone—even Glenn Beck!—loves Dr. King. So we definitely won’t find “reasonable” white moderates defending bad legal decisions by saying “well, the law had to be carried out, even if it was bad” or explaining that Black people just have to be patient with this stuff or mislabeling peaceful protests as “race riots.” You’d have to be silly to think that had anything to do with the outcome of Trayvon Martin’s case.

And white progressives have definitely come a long way too! Can you imagine that where was a time when white reformers simply gave up on the cause of justice for Black people? Most of the Republican party was happy to abandon Reconstruction in the 1870s, leaving Southern black people in the care of ex-Confederate state governments. White violence, whether legal or extralegal, returned as an accepted tool to keep Black people “in line.” Terrorism against Black people was the rule of the day, abetted by apathy among white progressives.

Thankfully, white progressives would never become apathetic about racism today. Never! So this definitely has nothing to do with Trayvon Martin.

Nor does it have anything to do with Marissa Alexander. Or Jordan Davis. Or CeCe McDonald. Or the 120 Black people killed by police, security guards, or self-appointed law enforcers since January 2012. Or any of the Black children for whom gun violence is a leading cause of death.

Because it’s simply impossible that white USians could be repeating the sins of the past.

I have been teaching history for 10 years; when they enter my classroom, the students all know that the Bad Old Days were bad! But (say the white students) everything is fine now!

They have learned to say how bad things were. But they have also learned never to draw a connection to today. They can read it, they can mark it, they can even learn it, but they refuse to inwardly digest it.

(My Black students don’t seem to have that problem. Curious.)

And it is not just my students. White people across the United States have learned the fine art of castigating the past while ignoring the present. They know what the patterns of racism look like; they just refuse to see them. So the gutting of the VRA is fine, gun owners are the really oppressed people, Black people are just too angry and unreasonable about the death of their children, and white control of the media, government, and finance is all JUST and GOOD and the way it should be!

And so. This can’ t possibly be a post about Trayvon Martin.

Although I certainly hope you think it is.

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