The aquittal of Zimmerman for the murder of Trayton Martin has left many agape. The defense was based on Florida’s “Stand your Ground” law, which means that a person fearing that someone is about to seriously harm them is entitled to “stand their ground” and meet force with force. Thats all hunky dory until you start adding in entitlement and the complex dynamics of America’s racialised society and history into the mix.
Trayton Martin wasn’t the first Black child in America to be openly murdered and have the perpetrator escaped justice. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14 year old kid was kidnapped, beaten, had his eyes gouged out, then shot in the head before being dumped in the Tallahatchie River. The catalyst for this was Till being cheeky to a white storekeeper, Carolyn Bryant, leaving when she retrieved a pistol and threatened to shoot him. When her husband, Roy Bryant found out about the incident he went looking for Till – kidnapping and killing him together with his half-brother J.W. Milam -both were aquitted of murder. That they had in fact committed the murder was never really in question, the defense was based on a rather implausible story that the body was so badly beaten and water decomposed that the jury could not be certain that it was indeed Till, who had escaped and was lying low to enable his mother to claim insurance money, but it was enough to give a racist Southern jury an excuse for aquittal.
In an interview in Look Magazine, following the verdict, Milam stated…
Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. …. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’
J W Milam, quoted in Approved Killing in Mississippi
In effect, Milam and Bryant decided to “stand their ground“, to “defend their rights“. And the good people of Mississippi as represented by the fine upstanding jurors and the prosecuting Sherriff who oversaw the Black observers arrive every morning with a cheer “Hello, Niggers” confirmed that they were well within their rights to beat, torture and murder a Black child for being so impudent as to talk cheekily to a white woman. He was stepping on their toes, and that ground was most definitely theirs. He was out of line; didn’t know his place: by not being sufficiently defferent, he was encroaching on the rights of white people; by imagining that he was their equal, he was lowering them. In that same interview, Milam states that their intention wasn’t to murder Till, simply to scare him, but crucially Till wasn’t scared.
“If the facts as stated in the Look magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him…. What are we Mississippians afraid of?”
William Faulkner, “On Fear“
Of course, in 1955, the civil rights movement was yet to happen and progress has been made, but race in America is still very divided. For an example of how racial assumptions work, take a look at these people openly stealing a bike in broad daylight. The first, a young white man gets lightly questioned a few times, but ultimately for over an hour everyone walks on by until eventually getting it free, he rides off unheeded. But then contrast this with the reaction to the second, a young Black man. Immediately he is aggressively questioned, then a crowd gathers with several people taking photographs and calling the police. When the camera is reset and the experiment run again, a white man aggressively challenges the Black youth, going so far as to take his tools. When the bike thief is a pretty white woman on the other hand, not only does she not get questioned, but several men offer to assist her in the theft.
When three women who had been kidnapped and imprisoned by a Hispanic man for over a decade and escaped with the help of a Black man, the rescuer alluded to the underlying gendered racism still prevolent in the US stating the following before being abruptly cut off before he could say anything else that might be distasteful for white American public.
Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a Black man’s arms. Something is wrooooong here. Dead giveaway….dead giveaway…deaaaad giveaway
Charles Ramsey, Interview
For talking about this kindof stuff makes people mighty uncomfortable. Take a wee look at this exchange between the comedian CK Louis and the chatshow host Jay Leno.
Look at the nervous laughter of Leno as Louis refuses to change the topic to something more comfortable but continues to talk about race in America. All the way through Louis detailing how slavery wasn’t that long ago, nor did it simply end with the Emancipation Proclamation; Leno laughs uncomfortably, shifts in his seat – at one point announcing “Don’t tell the [Black] man that“. Eventually the interview ends with this little exchange.
Lewis: Oh, and by the way, white people have our own stuff that we want to share…
Leno (serious): Sure, sure
Lewis: …that hurt us that we have to cope with. Like when they took our slaves away – that was really hard for us
[Audience laughter, Leno laughing nervously and shifting uncomfortably ]
Lewis: …and we’re still …[makes gesture of frustration]…so its pretty even, [makes gesture of irony]
Leno: ahaha – so its, ahaha, so its even, so its even, its EVEN! …OK be right back…
The Tonight Show
The creation of “whiteness” in America wasn’t an accidental process of some people noticing that others were different and being nasty to them, but a deliberate ploy to extract as much surplus value as possible by encouraging workers with a similar skin colour to the original colonisers to identify with them on the basis of skin colour, rather than with African workers on the basis of shared economic interests.
In 1680, a rebellion at Jamestown had seen 8,000 men rebelling against the working conditions in which they were toiling for the benefit of the British aristocracy. The poor of Jamestown, whites, Blacks and mixed race burnt down the settlement in an insurrection led by Nathan Bacon. This kind of solidarity amongst the poor was very dangerous indeed. So what they did was invent the concept of “whiteness” – that people who looked like the aristocracy, were similar to them – gave them additional rights on the basis of their skin colour, including most notably, the right to own slaves: Black slaves, In the fifty years that followed, the concept of “whiteness” was born. White means rights, personhood, freedom; Black meant non-personhood, ownership and slavery. The white poor were bought off from their rebellion by the white rich, by allowing them to “buy in” to the concept of “whiteness”.
“White” in American discourse is a shifting concept. The whitest of the white is the WASP – the white ango-saxon protestant, descendants of the original colonisers and their compatriots, but successive waves of immigration has extended that “whiteness” other caucasian immigrant groups – the Irish in the 19th century, the Italians and Eastern Europeans at the start of the 20th century originally they were racialised and discriminated against, but most of that has become muted as they assimilated into American society, and by virtue of their white skin became indistinguishable from WASPs at first glance. Similarly with Hispanics, although Mexican immigration in particular is hot topic in US society, and discrimination against Latinos is ongoing and can be vicious, Hispanics with their lighter skin can more easily blend into white society, adopting its values and supporting its culture and part of that is – just like the poor of the 18th century – buying into the idea that they too are “white” and consequently entitled, under seige from the lawlessness and danger of the Black.
Throughout the beating, Emmett Till just kept insisting that he was just as good as any white, right up to the moment they shot him… and that’s why they killed him. Trayton Martin was walking along a public road casually in the rain and confronted the creepy ass cracker who was following him. Right there is the fear. The fear that should Blacks start to think that they are just as good as whites, just as entitled be cheeky to store assistants, or to go for walks in the rain unhindered and that they might get ideas above their station. Once they think that the ground that they walk on is theirs too, then they might start standing it.
Once people understand that whites are no better than Blacks , the crimes, the theft and the exploitation of decades may be exposed; better to co-opt others into “whiteness” and its values when it suits the collusion of white society. Not an inch of ground must be given to these ideas lest it turn out that solid basis on which American society are founded is really just quicksand to cover up the fact that white Americans’ don’t really have any ground to stand on at all – its all really just native American land that they stole.