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Sherman A. Jackson

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Trayvon Martin: Between 'Whitening' and Bad Law

Posted: 04/ 2/2012 7:04 pm

Weeks and weeks after the fact, we are still trying to explain and understand why and how in 21st century America a grown man can pursue and kill an unarmed, innocent child and walk away clean. Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law empowers citizens to use deadly force if they fear that they're under physical threat. But this didn't help Trevor Dooley, a black Floridian who killed a white man under similar circumstances. One is thus tempted to conclude, as many have, that Florida's law, at least in practice, only exculpates whites who kill non-whites. But Trayvon's killer, George Zimmerman, self-identified as a Hispanic. Hispanics are a racial minority. And racial minorities cannot be white. This racial ambiguity has caused massive confusion in the minds and statements of many trying to explain or understand why Zimmerman would target Trayvon in the first place and then how on earth he could possibly avoid arrest.

But this may be another instance of Americans imposing our dominant racial categories on others. For it is possible that Zimmerman both saw and positioned himself as white and Hispanic and that this self-understanding predisposed him to an attitude of contempt toward Trayvon and entitlement vis-a-vis the law. Europeans intermixed with blacks and natives in South and Central America for centuries, ultimately producing racial identities that stressed whiteness at the expense of all else. In fact, as late as the early 20th century, many in South and Central America were still in the throes of a national mission known as blanqueamiento, or "whitening." The basic idea here was that the African element in Latin populations had to be diluted if not eliminated if these societies were to make their way to full modernity and "civilization." Given that more than 10 times the number of Africans brought to the U.S. were taken to South and Central America, one can imagine how the idea of blackness being an impediment to progress might inform the Latin sense of self and Other.

I do not know Mr. Zimmerman, nor if he was influenced by or a proponent of blanqueamiento. Nor do I have reason to believe that the majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are influenced by or proponents of such. But given the confusion generated by Trayvon's killing, it is high time, I think, to recognize that the historical narrative and sensibilities that undergird U.S. black-white relations are not the only dynamic affecting race-relations in America, especially when it comes to attitudes toward blacks. While black and white Americans have confronted and largely repudiated racism -- at least as an ideal -- this is not necessarily the case, certainly not to the same extent, with racial attitudes coming into the U.S. from other parts of the world. And not just South and Central America! This is not to say that homegrown, American anti-black bigotry is a thing of the past. But as the demographics of America continue to shift from white to non-white, we will have to become more proficient at recognizing forms of anti-black racism that do not have "made in the U.S.A." stamped all over them. Otherwise, these are likely to cross breed and morph into more virulent and inscrutable forms that fly beneath our radar screen and leave us utterly powerless to address them.

In the meantime, we are left dumbfounded, dejected and scarred by the tragic death of an unarmed, innocent child. And whether we identify racism or blanqueamiento as the motive behind this killing, it was ultimately Florida law that allowed the killer to walk away free. This is simply an ill-conceived, dangerous and irresponsible law that threatens all Americans far more than it protects them. Indeed, given the fear the mere presence of blacks is known to evoke among some non-blacks, the cultural bigotry this law provides cover for is nothing short of bewildering! Recently, Newt Gingrich and others have argued for a ban on sharia in the interest of protecting Americans from bad and dangerous laws. But if protecting Americans from bad law is the real aim behind these efforts, Gingrich and his ilk should be falling all over each other to change this Florida law. As a nation, we should be clear that the whole world is watching us on this. And we should be mindful of how foolish we will look if we follow the example of the blind man who answers the call of nature facing a crowd of people and thinks that they cannot see what he exposes simply because he cannot.

Sherman A. Jackson is the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture, Professor of Religion and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California.