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Richard Lyon

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Henry Louis Gates and Trayvon Martin: Protecting White Space

Posted: 09/05/2012 5:30 pm

There have been two highly visible recent incidents that started me thinking seriously about race and space. The first was the arrest of Dr. Henry Gates when he was simply occupying his own home. The other was the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The first of these ended in a fairly polite conversation on the White House lawn. The second has resulted in the tragic death of a young man who was minding his own legitimate business and an effort by many to celebrate his killer as a victim of black aggression. What both incidents make clear in my mind is that there are many supposedly public spaces in this country where there is a tacit understanding that blacks, particularly black men, are under an obligation to justify their presence in those spaces. That understanding is most often linked to neighborhoods that are all or predominantly white.

If Dr. Gates had been a white middle aged college professor it is high unlikely that anyone would have called the police because he was trying to get into his own house. If the police had arrived and found a middle aged white college professor they would have been respectful and apologetic about disturbing him. Even though George Zimmerman is clearly not the brightest light bulb on the tree, it seems unlikely that he would have found it necessary to stage a confrontation with a white man walking down the street. These two incidents came to public visibility in part because the president commented on them and his own racial connection turned that into a matter of controversy. However, incidents like that are playing out the same social dynamics are happening many times in many places everyday in this country.

While it is difficult to get a picture of Zimmerman as a person through all the hype and debate, he may well qualify as what many of us think of as a racist, a person motivated by prejudice and hate. The woman who called the police about Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley who investigated the complaint don't fit so easily into this traditional stereotype. Yet, they were caught up as actors in the structure of institutionalized racism.

I followed discussions about both of these situations on the internet. What struck me was the large number of people who are at great pains to claim that they aren't racists but still attempt to justify this kind of enforcement activity as being necessary to the protection of legitimate public safety. We dismantled the de jure structures of Jim Crow over 40 years ago. Yet we still live in a society that is deeply racist. Most of the racism that occurs on a daily basis is embedded in the structural fabric of our society. It has been created through out the history of the country. It appears in the constitution in the way that native Americans are pushed out into fictitiously separate nations and the slaves counted as 3/5 of a person. It appeared in the first immigration act of 1790 when naturalized citizenship was restricted to free white men.

There has been a long history of both formal and informal approaches to erecting legal, political and economic structures to support systematic racism. There have been two notable periods in which there were reactions against some of these structures. The passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were outcomes of the civil war. The only one that fully took was the 13th. We did abolish formal legal slavery. Conservative courts readily assured the nation that we need not be inconvenienced by the 14th and the 15th was roundly ignored as all the southern states instituted Jim Crow regimes that in practical terms returned the former slaves to conditions of bondage.

The civil rights movement that reached its zenith in the 1960s reopened the issues of racial justice that had been kept on the back burner. The marches and the murders did result in legislation and court decisions that dismantled the institutional structures of southern Jim Crow regimes. Openly enforced segregation became illegal. The courts revisited the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment and suddenly discovered that separate really wasn't all that equal. As a college student I participated on the fringe of that movement. At the time I believed along with many others that a new dawn had arrived. In the years that have followed it has become apparent that far more of the structures that buttress racism were left in place than those that were changed.

Racism is embedded in most of the institutional structures of our society. It is difficult to see patterns that have always been before our eyes, especially if they are eyes that have enjoyed the benefits of white privilege. Tracing the history of how these institutional structures developed not only helps to make their present reality more visible, it also makes it clear that they exist not by accident, but by purpose and design. Our present state of affairs is the result of almost a century of government and economic policy. Much of it has its genesis in the politics of the New Deal and the role played by the congressional delegations of the solid south.

I would like to invite you to a blog which I recently started, The Racist States of America.

It is exploring the history of racism in American society.

 

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