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The Trayvon Martin case brought the ugly question of racism back into the conversation in the US. After a period of false postracialism in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the White House, this murder tore away the façade of harmony that US elites have been trying to convince themselves exists. The particular nuances of the case collide with the different stories being told and an ever-growing doubt concerning the authorities’ explanation. Other similar cases are also being brought to light, including several that involve uniformed police killing African-Americans based on the police officers’ assumption that they were dangerous or suspicious.
This brings up the question: what made them dangerous? The underlying answer is simple: the dead were black. This is the same assumption made by George Zimmerman when he followed Trayvon Martin. This fact illustrates the nature of racism in today’s United States (and probably in much of Europe and the rest of the world). I believe Mr. Zimmerman and his family’s claim that they do have black friends. This fact does not eliminate their racism. It does mean that they are not necessarily prejudiced against African-American individuals they actually know. This seeming contradiction illustrates the particularities of racism in a “postracial” society. So does a criminal justice system that not only targets people of color (especially young black men) in its pursuit of arrest quotas, but also tends to imprison those arrestees at a much greater proportion to their actual numbers in the general population. So does an educational system that underfunds schools in neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American. This lack of funding results in a poorer education, which in turn results in a lower employment rate and, when combined with the aforementioned policing and sentencing practices, a higher incarceration rate for this demographic.
Those are just a couple of the aspects of a societal construct that allows a relative few African-Americans and other non-white residents of the United States a pass into the better life assumed by most white-skinned Americans. I recently attended an anti-racism rally in Burlington, Vermont, a small city in the northeaster US with a small African-American population and a somewhat larger Somali and Sudanese refugee population. This rally, held in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder, featured a speech by a black high school student. This young man spoke about growing up as “the other” in a society that seemed to have it in for people like him. His talk wasn’t a lament, but a genuine attempt to express his fears, his frustration, and his refusal to play any role assigned to him that did not allow him to be who he wanted to be. He acknowledged that he lived among people who were afraid of him solely because he was dark-skinned; at the same time he acknowledged that the menace associated with that identity was part of what made being a young black man in the US “kind of cool.” He went on to state that entertainment like gangsta rap fed off this menace while also celebrating a lifestyle that limited too many of his friends ambitions to a life that meant prison somewhere along the line. In other words, it could be argued that it perpetuated the racist system.
Discussing racism is always a tricky business. It seems even more difficult in today’s climate. While only a few far right fringe groups openly declare their racism in public, a common understanding exists that denies the historical effects of an economic and social system built on the systemic denial of a people’s basic humanity because of their skin color. This understanding continues to create clear lines of economic and social estrangement for a majority of the black residents of the United States. The ripple effects of this phenomenon are also apparent in Latino and other communities composed of people not of European descent. Racism is something much deeper than individual prejudices; it is systemic and so pervasive it is just part of the general consciousness we exist in. Let’s get this straight, however. Racism in the US exists because of white people. Darker skinned people pay the most obvious price for this disease founded in ignorance and capital’s need to dominate, yet white people benefit from the phenomenon even when they actively oppose it.
In 1970, a group of leftist organizations in the US held a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia PA. The convention was primarily organized by the original Black Panther Party. Although the convention’s audacious hopes to create a revolutionary document foundered, the fact that 15,000 people gathered to try and create that document stand as a unique moment in history. There were some important statements that came out of the discussions held that weekend, including identifying that anti-racist organizing by whites should take place in white communities. After all, it’s that segment of the population where racism still festers and it’s the same segment that prospers from it. The consensus of the convention was that since racism is white people’s problem, then white people need to oppose it in those areas where it is at its worst, such as the US Congress, most police forces, and various media outlets, not to mention many of their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, ignoring its existence does not eliminate it.
More and more individuals in the United States ignore the false separation of skin color and ethnicity, finding friendship, love and marriage across former lines of division. Individual acts of racist prejudice are rare enough that when they do occur they often make the news. Yet, a system designed within a racist paradigm continues to deny most African-Americans (and many other non-whites) a life comparable to their white neighbors. This occurs despite the presence of a black man in the white house. Simultaneously, the inherent racism of this dynamic pretends to be something else, imprisoning black and brown people at an unconscionable rate, preventing their access to quality education, and limiting their opportunities via the mechanisms of an economy originating in the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation and colonization of brown people. By manipulating the desires of most US residents for a postracial society, the contradiction between personal experience and the greater economic and social reality makes the continued domination of an essentially racist system possible.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.