Trayvon Martin was not innocent. He was guilty of being black in presumably restricted public space. For decades, Jim Crow laws made this crime statutory. They codified the spaces into which black bodies could not pass without encountering legal punishment. They made public blackness a punishable offense. The 1964 Civil Rights Act removed the legal barriers but not the social sanctions and potentially violent consequences of this “crime.” George Zimmerman’s slaying of Trayvon Martin—and the subsequent campaign to smear Martin—is the latest and most jarring reminder that it is often impossible for a black body to be innocent.
Black communities in the United States spent much of late March expressing outrage about Zimmerman’s actions and the Sanford, Florida, police department’s inaction. But the anger and grief are not exclusively about this single act. They are prompted by the ways the case reveals the continuing subordination of full citizenship for black Americans.
This is not a straightforward issue of racial inequality, discussions of which are often reduced to an almost competitive empirical analysis of which Americans have the most problems. On those terms, there’s ample evidence that black Americans have consistently had fewer resources and opportunities. But this case is not about which race or group of people has the most problems. Right now people of all races have problems. With a decade of war, an unemployment rate still hovering at historic highs, stinging gas prices raising the cost of consumer goods and a housing market still on its knees, there are few families untouched in some material way by our national challenges. Even for those who have remained insulated from our collective difficulties, there are personal tragedies and loss.
Yes, everyone has problems. And, yes, government has a role in making citizens individually and collectively more resilient. Moreover, democratic governments have a duty to ensure that citizens bear the weight of these burdens more equally.
But the democratic social contract is not violated when citizens have problems; it is violated when some citizens are a problem. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois described the experience of being black in America as a constant awareness that others viewed him as a problem. “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question…. How does it feel to be a problem?” This is not a statement about black people having more problems than their white counterparts. Du Bois captures the defining element of African-American life as the very self, but most especially the visible, black self in public space as being a problem.
Liberal democracy—based on commitment to individual liberty and dignity—does not exist if the government legislates against particular bodies in public spaces, as it did during Jim Crow, or when it is complicit in the violent policing of those bodies by other citizens, as in the Trayvon Martin slaying. For more than two years, vocal pockets of conservative activists and politicians demanded proof of President Obama’s citizenship—as if a black man was trespassing simply by being elected to the Oval Office. As the president was being asked to show his papers to the nation, state governments in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina empowered police officers, school officials and merchants to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they deemed suspicious of immigration violations—suspicions that are triggered primarily by racial, ethnic and linguistic profiling. Despite the dramatic legal changes brought about by the ending of Jim Crow, it is once again socially, politically and legally acceptable to presume the guilt of nonwhite bodies.
This is the political setting for the moment when George Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin as he walked home in the rain with a bag of Skittles. During an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Zimmerman’s neighbor Frank Taaffe suggested “if he [Trayvon] had just answered him [Zimmerman] in an appropriate manner, ‘I’m just here visiting. My mother’s house is around the corner,’ and be upfront and truthful, there wouldn’t be any problem.” Fox News host Geraldo Rivera weighed in on the case by saying, “I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.” Conservative commentators and websites piled on, pointing to Trayvon’s gold teeth and his tattoos. These statements suggest that the unarmed teenager was culpable in the encounter that led to his death, not because of any aggressive or illegal act but because he was not following the appropriate protocol for being black in public. A black body in public space must presume its own guilt and be prepared to present a rigidly controlled public performance of docility and respectability.
Sagging-pants laws in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and Arkansas attempt to legislate that public performance of black bodies by making it illegal to enact particular versions of youth fashion associated with blackness. Philadelphia, New Orleans, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities have responded to violence in predominantly black communities by imposing curfews on young people and then policing these rules most vehemently among black youth—making it a crime for them to be in public space. New York City’s “stop and frisk” law empowers police to temporarily detain a person based merely on “reasonable suspicion” of involvement in criminal activity, which in practice has been vastly disproportionately applied to young men of color.
It is easy, but wrong, to write off Zimmerman as a deranged man whose violence against Trayvon Martin was tragic but unpreventable. Zimmerman was acting in ways entirely consistent with the long history and contemporary reality that assumes the criminality and potential danger of black bodies.