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The Killing of Trayvon Martin -- A Call to Address White Privilege in Florida

Posted: 04/ 3/2012 12:29 pm

To analyze what happened as George pulled the trigger on Trayvon, you must understand something about how race works in Florida. It is important to explore the particular Floridian context of racial dynamics. The history of colonization and the genocide of indigenous and African peoples. The legacy of resistance to enslavement by Caribbean immigrants. It is deeper than black and white. It is a story of migration, of social constructs, of power. It is an American story. You see, George is half-Peruvian, but somehow qualifies as white in Florida.

In Arizona, George might have been the one profiled, pulled over because of his clearly Latino features. The police might have detained him for deportation if he didn't happen to have his state-issued ID on him. However, part of the uniqueness of Florida is that it celebrates the borderline whiteness of Spanish-speaking descendants, while most black communities remain disenfranchised, which allows them to maintain a certain feeling of superiority and entitlement. This is especially true where conservative power in the white Cuban community colludes with the right-wing U.S. agenda of opposition and embargos in Cuba. Those who can "pass," like George, begin to harbor contempt and even resentment against those who are black because they threaten that false superiority and entitlement complex.

The privilege of who gets to be white is never determined by the people of color bearing the brunt of racist policies. As scholar-activist Audre Lorde wrote, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." One cannot escape racism by embracing whiteness because whiteness has never been about race; it has always been about power. And so those who want to pass for white are not the ones who define the terms. The boundaries of whiteness are defined by those at the center of its power. Often those on the edge of whiteness become the most vehemently racist, justifying their own internalized racism by trying to prove vile stereotypes right. Policing the borders of whiteness to prove their own worthiness and belonging. George participated in this psychosis, to the most extreme and saddest end -- the killing of a young, black man.

Where was the black/brown solidarity -- that brother to brother moment in which one can recognize another survivor of oppression? If the societal norm is one drop of African blood makes you black, how is it that being half Latino makes you white? In a society where race matters, particularly in Florida, why is black/brown solidarity so fleeting in an era when policies and crimes targeting black and brown peoples are rising? The privilege that is associated with whiteness can be irresistible for those who can pass, but at what cost to the soul of the individual, the community and the nation?

It is important to note that in all of the recent police shootings of black men in Miami, the officers are identified as "Hispanic." In the police report taken by the officers at the scene of Trayvon Martin's killing, George is identified as a white. In light of the recent history of rampant state violence against unarmed black men and women in Miami, the killing of Trayvon takes place in the context of the devaluation of black life.

This concept is not new to America, a country which has historically undervalued the humanity of black people, unless it was as a commodity to bought and sold. It is also important to specifically acknowledge the ways in which there is a really low value placed on black women's lives. In 1997, Sherrice Iverson, a 7-year-old black girl, was raped and murdered in a bathroom. The white accomplice in her murder was never charged, even after bragging about witnessing the vicious attack. In 2002, in Long Beach, Calif., 10 police officers shot and murdered a black woman, Marcella Byrd, armed with only a knife. The news coverage focused mostly on the mental illness of the woman, as if that justified shooting her.

In 2010, in Detroit, Aiyana Jones, also 7-years-old and black, was shot to death by white police invading her home in a botched arrest attempt. And last week, on the heels of the outrage over the Trayvon Martin killing, Shaima Alawadi was beat to death while wearing a hijab with a note that said "Go back to your country, you terrorist."

Whatever the race of her killer(s), who has not been caught yet, one thing is clear -- that person or people saw Shaima through the eyes of hate, through the eyes of white supremacy cloaked in false patriotism. Hoodies and hijabs. Read black and brown. The message is that anyone who wears hoodies, hijabs or black and brown skin are enemies of the state, triggering fear and justifying hatred and violence. In Florida, which saw the bombing of a mosque last year, anti-Muslim violence is also on the rise. There is rampant state, domestic and stranger violence committed against women everyday; these issues must also be addressed at the systemic level in order for change to happen.

In general it seems that it's easier for folks to challenge racist or sexist violence when it is characterized as an isolated, overt incident, rather than something systemic that requires addressing institutional white and/or male supremacy. In recent days, supporters of George Zimmerman have responded to Trayvon's killing by highlighting that black people also kill white people. This is not in dispute; the taking of human life is always devastating and wrong. But how many George Zimmermans are there, who have grown up watching the systemic killing of innocent black people with no justice served, getting the message that their lives do not matter or that they are inherently bad?

The psychosis of whiteness can lead one to believe that they are superior and entitled to power. And when it is borne by a white Hispanic, it may lead one to fear and revile persons with darker skin, and to seek to destroy blackness, as if to stamp out any belief of similarity with someone who is black. Once this mentality is embedded in the white psyche, George could believe that every black man must be up to no good, even if just innocently walking down the street to go back home. Based on his false sense of superiority and power, George decided it was up to him to save the community from another black man who might be "up to no good."

The system did not hold George accountable; it failed Trayvon, and in its systemic racism, it also failed all of us. That is why it is important that we keep this conversation focused on the accountability of the justice system, the state attorney offices and the local police department. There is discrimination at every level when it comes to race. There is no doubt that if George had been black and Trayvon, white, this case would look very different. African-Americans suffer disproportionately from wrongful convictions, while also compromising the overwhelming majority of those killed by police. And in those cases where black defendants are found guilty and sentenced, they typically receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts. By not taking immediate and decisive actions to address these disparities at every level, the general public gets the message that black lives do not matter. Enter George.

The story of Trayvon and George is about more than two dudes just colliding on a street corner, one black, one brown. This is an epic for the ages, one that is tragic because it highlights the hate that permeates our lives. I wonder if Trayvon knew about the psychosis of whiteness, or if he was introduced to it for the first time when he saw it in George's bloodshot, raging eyes.

In the midst of this tragedy, however, we are glad to see Florida youth coming together, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, to address the systemic issues of race and privilege in Florida. That the "Dream Defenders" has issued a call to action and is uniting white, black, and brown to combat the very injustices we have discussed is heartfelt.

As we approach April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, it is precisely this sort of locally led grass-roots direct action effort that can effectively move Florida forward so that future Trayvon Martin-like tragedies can be avoided.