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Guns, Machismo, Martin and Zimmerman

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I am very sorry to say that I was not surprised by the Zimmerman acquittal. Saddened, disappointed, frustrated, outraged, worried, even somewhat resigned. But not surprised. A white male accused of killing a black male is the least likely of all American defendants to be convicted. In states that have adopted the "stand your ground" laws promoted by the ultraconservative political action group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a white defendant is four times more likely to be acquitted if the victim is black rather than white.

The fact that Zimmerman has some Hispanic ancestry, and that there was a Latina on the jury, does not blunt the racial angle. As Van Jones pointed out on CNN July 15, there are many cities in which hostility, even violence between black and Latino youth is a commonplace. Further, Central and South America were colonized and developed with African slave labor in numbers far greater than the U.S. South. The legacy of Spanish slavery and racism is still apparent, as millions of "Afro-Descendents" in Latin America struggle for their human rights.

Some commentators have already compared the Zimmerman acquittal to the freeing of the murderers of Emmitt Till. A more recent example would be the case of Bernhard Goetz, who shot several young black men on a New York subway, claiming self-defense. Even without the benefit of a "stand your ground" law, Goetz went free. But Goetz at least was being harassed by the teenagers, on a public subway car. Zimmerman, to the contrary, followed Martin and a confrontation ensued.

I think it is important to see that confrontation not only through the lens of race, however, but also through the lens of American machismo and America's love affair with guns.

Americans seem to like sexy girls and bad boys. The baddest of the bad boys in popular culture today seem to be urban black males, a "gangsta" identity developed over several generations in revulsion against Southern segregationist images of black males as servile, docile, emasculated "Uncle Toms." (Riché Richardson. Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta. )

That "gangsta" image has since been popularized and commodified by the mainstream to sell clothing and music to young men of all races aspiring to hyper-masculinity, some of them quite middle-class. But the image also has real teeth, as when it conflates with "thug" life and turf wars that claim the lives of so many inner-city young black men.

Media and popular images encourage young women in America to dress provocatively. But if they are raped, someone is likely to blame the victim, saying she was "asking for it." If young black men, even middle-class kids, dress in hoodies or other "gangsta" clothing, as media and popular images encourage them to do, are they "asking" to be shot and killed?

Van Jones asked if young black men will now have to wear tuxedos if they go to a store in a white neighborhood. Black parents already tell their sons not to give police any excuse to shoot them. Must that warning now be broadened to include any white man who might have a gun?

That does not sound like "post-racial" America, but rather like the U.S. South of the 1950s. This may be part of what the protests are about. Young black men today are less likely to turn the other cheek, as Martin Luther King would have advised, and more likely to fight back, as advised by Malcolm X.

On the other hand, another source of masculinity in America is carrying a gun, like Zimmerman. Guns and hyper-masculinity have been conflated in America at least since Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show went on the road to promote the sale of guns mass-produced by the Winchester Company after the Civil War. Hollywood then picked up the mantle, and later the NRA and the Republican Party.

Surely there are better definitions of manliness to which our youth, of all races, can aspire. Black fraternities such as Alpha Phi Alpha step up with images of manliness that involve service and character. Perhaps the NRA or the Republican Party would care to sponsor programs helping to disaggregate masculinity from the use of firearms?

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