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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. .
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.
“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).”