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The Racial Politics of Guilt
Black Skin, White Justice
by GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER

“A feeling of inferiority? No, a feeling of not existing. Sin is black as virtue is white. All those white men, fingering their guns, can’t be wrong. I am guilty. I don’t know what of: but I know I’m a wretch.”

– Frantz Fanon

Let’s be clear about one thing: George Zimmerman is innocent. Trayvon Martin was guilty. We should be honest about this, but why stop there? Rachel Jeantel is guilty too. Oscar Grant, murdered by transit cop Johannes Mehserle in 2009, was also guilty. Must’ve been. So was Rodney King, so was Emmett Till for that matter. To be black in America is to be guilty until proven innocent, fundamentally suspect, always-already on trial.

Condemned to Guilt 

“I have a phrase for this: the racial allocation of guilt.”

–Fanon

A resounding chorus of indignation has emerged to rightly resist the emphasis on Trayvon Martin in a trial that is ultimately about his murderer. There is good reason for this impulse: a Google search for “Rodney King trial” returns far more results than “Rodney King beating trial.” While less than “Zimmerman trial,” the phrase “Trayvon Martin trial” still returns an astounding number of results. But it is unjustifiably idealist to simply insist that Trayvon Martin is not on trial, that he was innocent, as if simply reciting this optimistic incantation would make it true.

Trayvon Martin’s guilt is clear from the fact that it was not only George Zimmerman, the vigilante, who served as judge, jury, and executioner, but also an entire system that has done everything possible to convict Martin and exonerate his killer. Let’s not forget that, were it not for the immediate anger of thousands nationwide, Zimmerman would almost certainly not even have been arrested (here his fate directly echoes the arrest of Mehserle in Oakland after a night of rioting).

Trayvon Martin’s trial began on a rainy evening more than a year ago, although it didn’t end there. It was then that Martin emerged as an object of suspicion, out of place, his suspicious presence indicated by Zimmerman in an assertion in the form of an answer: “what are you doing around here?” Martin had appeared “illicitly” in the words of Fanonian philosopher Lewis Gordon, and the very fact of his presence was a testament to a violent rupture with the established order to which violence could be the only reply.

But Martin’s trial did not end with his death, extending instead from the report of marijuana in his urine and the widespread publication of purportedly threatening images, in which the teenager appears with gold teeth and, gasp, flipping the bird. It extends of course into the Zimmerman trial itself, with testimony and cross-examination swirling constantly around the suspicion and suggestion that Trayvon Martin fought back. Never mind that one had a gun and pursued while the other was unarmed and fled repeatedly. From the outset, Martin evidently did not enjoy the right of self-defense, the legally-enshrined capacity to stand his ground when threatened. To stand one’s ground is to have ground to stand, and those inherently suspicious people have none.

To be always-already guilty is to be, as in the damnés of Fanon’s strangely translated title, The Wretched of the Earth, both worthy of condemnation and already suffering it. The function of this guilt far exceeds simply providing an alibi for murder in individual cases. Just as Fanon once argued that you cannot torture and brutally exploit a people without first dehumanizing them, it would be difficult to conceive of the incarceration of two million people, the crushing poverty of most black Americans, and the systematic justification of police scrutiny and violence if we didn’t already believe that such people were somehow less than human.

Force Presumed Legitimate 

Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, Gordon identifies a “racial grammar” that we see playing out again in the Zimmerman case. If Trayvon Martin’s appearance was itself violent to the white supremacist order, then like Rodney King, his every move would need to be read in a way that retroactively sketches this picture.

What was Rodney King’s moving body but one that, by definition, was without words – and yet still, somehow, threatening – as he was being beaten to the ground? And how was it possible to determine excessive force when the police officers’ use of force was presumed legitimate? … Thus, when the jurors – most of them white, one Asian-American and one Hispanic/Latino – in Simi Valley were instructed to determine whether excessive force was used against King, what else could they have determined when the force was already presumed legitimate?

The echoes of Rodney King are astounding, but only to those who haven’t been paying attention to the fact that the pattern is all-too-common. Aggressor(s) not entirely white but reduced to it, jury not entirely white but excluding blacks. Permission thus given for acquittal, the strategy simply unfolds according to its internal logic like a self-propelled machine, with no need for the external “racist” hand to direct it.

Just as Rodney King was ultimately put on trial, his every freeze-framed image embedded within a structure of meaning that exceeded him, to make him the aggressor, to make him the violent one, so too with Trayvon Martin. This is why Zimmerman could stand his ground while Martin could not, why any suggestion of struggle by the unarmed victim against an armed perpetrator is currently being deployed to reinforce his guilt.

As the medical experts are called to pore over details that might possibly be consistent with aggression from Martin. The legitimacy of Zimmerman’s murderous violence was perfectly clear in a defense question put to the medical
expert Lindzee Folgate who examined the aggressor the next day: “Stopping the attack allowed him to survive it, would you agree?” Rather than refuse to answer a question she was in no way qualified to respond to, Folgate answered: “It could have, yes.”

To the extent that the prosecution insists that Trayvon Martin didn’t struggle, it has given up the game from the outset. We can only hope, sincerely and resolutely, that when pursued and attacked by George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin did fight back, that after attempting to avoid and evade Zimmerman he did finally stand his ground. Such hopes are in many ways hopeless, however. Frederick Douglass’ fight with Covey aside, black bravery has rarely paid off, as Richard Kluger wrote of Joseph Albert DeLaine, a black man violently persecuted and harassed under Jim Crow:

They stoned the church at which he pastored. And fired shotguns at him out of the dark. But he was not Job, and so he fired back and called the police, who did not come and kept not coming… Soon after, they burned his church to the ground and charged him, for having fired back that night…

All of this happened because he was black and brave…

Rachel Jeantel on Trial

“during and since Reconstruction times, the courts in the South have been used largely as instruments for enforcing caste rather than securing justice.”

- W.E.B. Du Bois

“Yes I must watch my diction because that’s how they’ll judge me. He cant even speak French properly, they’ll say with the utmost contempt.”

- Fanon

Fanon was clear about the manifold connections between language and white supremacy, the way in which the authentically spoken word was an unreachable and moving bar for the colonized and racialized: no matter how well they spoke, they would be able to truly claim the French language as their own. This much was clear from Rachel Jeantel’s time on the stand, and the mocking of her speech both inside and outside the courtroom made it perfectly clear that, no matter how well she communicates, this language is by definition not hers.

That she should be mocked by other black people in a string of embarrassed Twitter tirades would hardly surprise Fanon either, since imposed guilt is so often folded backward into the self as a guilt complex, only to be projected onto others who are “too black,” “too ghetto,” or even an example of “when keeping it real goes wrong.” As with Bill Cosby’s increasingly angry outbursts, there is no shortage of those who seek to blame structural racism on the behavior of its victims.

But it’s worth emphasizing more specific and local reference-points for Jeantel’s testimony, namely the sort of Jim Crow justice that resonates in courts across the country today. Under formal Jim Crow, blacks could not testify against whites, and their testimony was always suspect in general. Against the predominant narrative that court justice gradually replaced the rough justice of the mob, Du Bois penned the words above at the height of Jim Crow to insist how little had truly changed. Today we could add that, while formal restrictions on testimony have been lifted, the suspicion remains.

It’s not only Jeantel’s treatment on the stand that echoes Jim Crow justice, but also the broader context of the case. According to one observer of this ostensibly outdated system: “when a white man kills a Negro… it is hardly considered murder. When a Negro kills a white man, conviction is assured…” We don’t need to predict Zimmerman’s fate to know how much this applies today: conviction rates, selective prosecutorial strategies, and the imposition of the death penalty speak volumes.

For those who would immediately reject such interpretations and comparisons as remnants of the past (much like the recently gutted Voting Rights Act), it hardly needs reminding: this is a case about a young black man who was hunted down and killed in cold blood.

Of “Creepy Ass Crackas” 

If Trayvon Martin’s trial is about his hoodie, his gold teeth, his ominous middle finger, his possible marijuana use, Rachel Jeantel’s trial is about her appearance, her “bad attitude,” and her use of language. All aspects of the trials of both intersect in the uproar about the phrase, allegedly offered by Martin to describe Zimmerman and relayed to the court by Jeantel: “creepy ass cracka.”

Against the effort of defense attorney Don West to mock and humiliate her, to discredit and shame her into submission, less remarked is the way that Rachel Jeantel stood her own ground on the stand, and at no moment was her strength so clear and uncommon as with the term “cracka” itself. Facing aggressive cross-examination, Jeantel told West that it was Martin’s description of the man following him that initially made her “think it was racial.”

But confronted with West’s predictable strategy of blaming the victim, what Jeantel said next was remarkable:

West: It was racial, but it was because Trayvon Martin put race in this…

Jeantel: No.

West: You don’t think that’s a racial comment?

Jeantel: No.

West: You don’t think that “creepy ass cracker” is a racial comment?

Jeantel: No.

You can almost hear the gears of liberal race analysis struggling and grinding to a standstill, as Jeantel argued both that the term meant a white person and that it was not racial.  Here was a young woman roundly ridiculed for her lack of intelligence and articulateness putting forth a concept that was apparently too complex for the lawyers and the assembled press corps to grasp.

While John McWhorter rightly deploys his linguistic training to defend Jeantel’s mode of answering, he nevertheless misses the point when he attributes her ambiguity on the question of race to nervousness or a desire to defend Martin. While I can’t speak for Jeantel, it instead seems that she was astutely asserting the fact that so-called “reverse racism” is nothing more than a myth perpetuated by an aggrieved white America, that without structural power, there is no such thing as racism. The pursuit was racist, not the name Trayvon Martin had apparently given it.

Against those who insist on the original class content of “cracka” either to insist on or deny its pejorative content, Jeantel is straightforward in her testimony to the prosecution: “Did that mean a white individual?” “Yes, Caucasian.” And against those who would argue that Zimmerman was not Caucasian, we should recall that people of any race can perpetuate white supremacy, but that more importantly, Latinos can, of course, be white. Noteworthy here is Zimmerman’s own self-description on the medical forms submitted as evidence: “Race: white.”

“Get Ready to Do the Right Thing” 

“So in order to break the vicious circle, he explodes.”

– Fanon

George Zimmerman may be convicted, but then again he may not. It’s not clear which outcome is better, more “just.” Of course he should be convicted, but any conviction will only become fodder for the argument, pernicious as it is pervasive, that ours is a “post-racial” society. After all, this in a week marked not only of the Paula Deen scandal, but more importantly by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent suggestion that his police stop-and-frisk “too many whites” (evidently 14% is too high). If justice for Trayvon Martin blinds us to the thousands of other Trayvon Martins that have died (one black person killed by police every 36 hours, according to one important report), then we should not be so quick to embrace it as a victory.

In and article published shortly after Zimmerman’s arrest, McWhorter called for the Zimmerman trial to be televised as a sort of healing catharsis for the nation, a “re-do.” But he didn’t mean this as a “re-do” for Simi Valley, but instead for O.J. Simpson. It is white America, not black America, that needs an apology, as McWhorter wrote that:

The Trayvon Martin case [!] could be a kind of redo. Assuming there is some sort of conviction, a televised Zimmerman trial would be a demonstration that—contrary to what has often been said in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, and has been said too often over the past few weeks in reference to Martin—black people can get justice in this country. Finally, there will be a conversation on race that can have a properly cathartic ending.

Nothing could be more perverse than putting the words “properly” and “cathartic” together in this way. Nothing could be more perverse than using Trayvon Martin’s death to prove a lie: that the United States is “post-racial,” that black Americans can expect justice in the courts rather than in the streets. Regardless, McWhorter’s hoped-for catharsis seems off the table, as white supremacy rears its ugly head in every aspect of the testimony, the cross-examination, and the press coverage. Rather than concealing race, the defense is pointing directly at it, albeit in a veiled way, hoping that the mostly white but at least non-black jury will stick to the script.

For Fanon, there comes a point at which the innately guilty reject this “inborn complex” and turn it back on their enemies:

the colonized subject is always presumed guilty [but] does not accept his guilt, but rather considers it a kind of curse, a sword of Damocles. But deep down the colonized subject acknowledges no authority. He is dominated but not domesticated… The muscles of the colonized are always tensed… always ready to change his role as game for that of hunter… “Get ready to do the right thing.”

But to do so means refusing the comforting incantations of innocence and standing with the thousands already judged “guilty,” executed or imprisoned for little more than being black: Ramarley Graham, Alan Blueford, Marissa Alexander, Sean Bell, CeCe McDonald, Gary King, Kimani Gray… and Trayvon Martin…

George Ciccariello-Maher teaches political theory at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, May 2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.