America’s contempt for black men and boys hasn’t diminished since Trayvon Martin’s death

The police’s aggressive handling of a black teenager in New Jersey was not abnormal — it was part of an age-old pattern of treating black men and boys as threats to be contained.

But it’s not just the country’s policing system that fails to recognize the humanity of black boys. The impulse in the United States to treat them not as children but as bullies, as villains, goes far beyond law enforcement.

On the night of the shooting, Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, called 911 on Martin. Zimmerman described the teenager using a label that has long been labeled for black boys: mistrustful. Ignoring police orders not to engage, Zimmerman confronted the teenager. An altercation broke out; Martin was shot.

Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defense, and he was ultimately acquitted. The case harrowingly illustrates a long American history of weaponizing the principle of self-defense against black men and boys and, more specifically, portraying them as unpredictable aggressors whose every move must be controlled.

A story of dehumanization

To understand this genealogy, let’s go back to the second half of the 19th century.

Many white Americans responded to the emancipation of black Americans in 1863 by stoking concern that black men would “demand sexual revenge against white men through their daughters,” according to the National Museum of History and African-American Culture (NMAAHC).

The NMAAHC further notes that this fearmongering has had a horrific impact on black communities, as reinforcing stereotypes of black men as “animalistic and brutal gave legal authority to white mobs and militias who tortured and killed black men for public safety”.

It should be emphasized that these anti-black narratives and their effects were not limited to the American South; as the NMAAHC puts it, “Newspaper headlines across the country, starting around the turn of the century, document a frenzy of arrests, attempted lynchings, and murders of ‘black bullies’ accused of insulting or attack white women.

While many of these sensationalist stories focused on black men, black boys were also not spared from dehumanizing stereotypes.

“Through brain measurements, doctors and anthropologists have attempted to prove that the frontal lobes of black children close during adolescence,” Stacey Patton, associate professor of journalism at Howard University, wrote for The Washington Post. in 2014. “And when that happened, their brains stopped learning and their genitalia became overdeveloped and a sexual threat to white people. Some politicians openly advocated for the castration of black boys.

Never mind that there was never any evidence to support these theories; the important thing was to plant the idea, to water it with fear and to see the animosity grow.

History is replete with examples of the sometimes deadly consequences that racist perceptions have for black boys. Perhaps the most infamous example happened in 1955.

In August of that year, 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, was accused of flirting or making advances to a 21-year-old white woman, Carolyn Bryant (later Bryant Donham ). Four days later, her then-husband and half-brother kidnapped Till, beat him, shot him in the head, tied a 75-pound cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, then threw him into the Tallahatchie River — all punishment for the boy’s alleged violation of the state’s racial order, for the danger he, a mere child, posed to him.

An all-white jury acquitted both men not even a month after Till’s swollen and mangled body was recovered from the river.

Till’s story illustrates a larger truth: Black boys are often viewed differently than their white peers simply because of their race.

A study published in 2014 found that one of the results of the dehumanization of black boys for decades is that they are “seen as older and less innocent and elicit a less essential conception of childhood” than their white counterparts.

In clearer terms, black boys aren’t seen as children at all — instead, they’re a threat.

The cycle continues

Although history offers glaring examples, you don’t need to comb through decades past to observe the disdain many Americans have for black men and boys. You can just watch recent headlines.

A jury returned a guilty verdict on Tuesday in the federal hate crimes trial of the three white men who killed 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, supporting the prosecution’s case that the men pursued and murdered Arbery precisely because he was black.

Perhaps coincidentally, the verdict was handed down almost two years ago to the day — February 23, 2020 — on which Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan followed Arbery through the streets of a neighborhood in Georgia and shot him. .

To illustrate that the McMichaels and Bryan sued Arbery out of racial animosity, the prosecution pointed out that the three men spoke about black Americans using racist language.

Prosecutor Christopher J. Perras said during closing arguments Monday that Arbery’s killers saw “a black man in their neighborhood and assumed the worst of him.”

“It wasn’t about trespassing. It wasn’t about neighborhood crime either. It was about race — racial assumptions, racial resentment and racial anger,” Perras said.

Last year, during the state murder trial of the three men, Laura Hogue, one of Gregory McMichael’s attorneys, sought in vain to win her client’s sympathy by making a comment to jurors about “fingernails long and dirty” from Arbery — a decision that has been decried as a concession to racial assumptions that make black men and boys look like beasts.

“What she was doing was pulling a page from the age-old textbook on violence against black people,” Caroline Light, a senior lecturer at Harvard University, where her research largely focuses on, told CNN. stories of citizenship and belonging. “It has a very long history in this nation – the criminalization of black men and boys as somehow less than human.”

Light also drew parallels between the McMichaels and Bryan trial and the Zimmerman trial.

“If you look at the case of George Zimmerman, the defense did everything they could to smear Trayvon Martin, to make him appear as a terrifying villain rather than a child. And that (practice) is a formula.”

Of course, the two trials ended in starkly different ways, at least in part because of the role the video of Arbery’s murder played in advancing justice.

“What is true now, which was never true before, is that a white family sitting in their home may have to watch with their own eyes,” wrote writer Wesley Lowery, who covered the unrest. in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of a white police officer. shot Michael Brown, 18, black in August 2014, CNN’s Laura Jarrett said. “(The video) forces a level of empathy that has never otherwise existed between black and white America.”

Former United States Attorney General Eric Holder echoed some of Lowery’s sentiments.

“The jury is actually witnessing what happened,” Holder told Jarrett. “The video helps the prosecution a lot.”

Yet 10 years after Martin’s death, it’s hard to say the United States is fundamentally better off when it comes to the treatment of black men and boys, even with the recent conviction of Arbery’s killers for hate crimes. .

“The fact that we’re still seeing this (the dehumanization of blackness) is, I think, proof that we haven’t really gone that far,” Light said. “I wish I had a silver lining. But I think we’re going to continue to see these kinds of narratives unfold because they’re so effective, in the end (to reinforce existing power structures).”


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