[News] The Racial Politics of Guilt - Black Skin, White Justice

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jul 3 18:46:49 EDT 2013

July 03, 2013

The Racial Politics of Guilt

  Black Skin, White Justice


    "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

    -- 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 
<http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/01/09/oakland-s-not-for-burning/>, 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 
fundamentally suspect, always-already on trial.

*Condemned to Guilt *

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


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 20^th 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 <file://localhost/watch> 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 
<http://www.elisabethepps.com/stop-defending-rachel-jeantel/>." 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 <http://books.google.com/books?id=bIN1gR92_SIC&pg=PA203>... 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 
<http://www.deathpenalty.org/article.php?id=54> 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 <file://localhost/watch> was remarkable:

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

    *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 <file://localhost/watch> 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 
<http://gothamist.com/2013/06/29/bloomberg_thinks_nypd_stops-and-fri.php> 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 hour 
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 

    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 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0822354527/counterpunchmaga> (Duke 
University Press, May 2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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