Criminal InJustice† is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Stop the Criminal-Black-Man Narrative 2012
by nancy a heitzeg
“Trayvon Martin was killed by a very old idea..”
~ Brent Staples, New York Times, 4/14/2102
The Black Man as Dangerous is a lethal idea, ironically, not to those who perpetrate and fear, but especially to those to whom it is attached. It is indeed also a very old idea, one that has evolved over centuries. The Savage, The Brute, the Defiler of White Women — honed and solidified in the Post Civil Rights Era into an archetype that scholars and activists now refer to in aggregate short-hand:
This image is ubiquitous — it is the text and subtext of all crime-reporting and “reality” cop/prison programing. It shapes the contours of everyday racism, the school to prison pipeline, police patrols and profiles; it offers the framework for both creating and then perversely justifying the demographics of both the prison industrial complex and the face of death row.
At times, as in the Trayvon Martin case, the archetype and its’ consequences are, at least briefly, openly examined and discussed. More often, as with the noxious Kony 2012 campaign, it looms just below the surface with an eerily subconscious pull.
The Criminal-Black-Man is the visible yet untouchable specter that lies at the center of fear and violence. It is personal and yes it is political.
War-Criminal-Black-Man: Joseph Kony
As the Invisible Children Scam prepares to launch its’ April 20 Cover the Night campaign in pursuit of Joseph Kony, there is perhaps no better example of the power of this theme. There are innumerable troubles with Invisible Children and their viral video campaign — profiteering, consumerism posing as activism, misinformation, ties to military dictators, ultra- right funders and homophobes, expropriation of the symbols/slogans of progressive movements, calls for military action, More.
But at the heart of the appeal of the viral video campaign lies White Supremacy. First there is the colonialist appeal to what has been called “the white savior industrial complex‘. The lost and monolithic African continent which cannot save itself nor its’ “invisible (to whom??) children without intervention from the over- burdened “white man” West.
And it must be saved from Joseph Kony – yes a war criminal rightly wanted by the International Criminal Court — but most significantly the embodiment of the existential threat of the Criminal-Black-Man Archetype. (Does anyone really think that millions would be so worked up over a washed up pasty European War Criminal??)
That is the under-pinning of the viral power of the Kony 2012 campaign — Kony is not a long ago defeated leader of some 200 lost along the border resisters. He is Hitler, He is Castro, look closely, he will soon morph into Barack Obama. He is your worst Nightmare.
Kony is the Menacing Black Everyman 2012– so, to capture him, you must Stop, they say, at Nothing.
Street-Criminal-Black-Man: Trayvon Martin
Melissa Harris-Perry says it best in “What It’s Like to Be a Problem”:
Trayvon Martin was not innocent. He was guilty of being black in presumably restricted public space. For decades, Jim Crow laws made this crime statutory. They codified the spaces into which black bodies could not pass without encountering legal punishment. They made public blackness a punishable offense. The 1964 Civil Rights Act removed the legal barriers but not the social sanctions and potentially violent consequences of this “crime.” George Zimmerman’s slaying of Trayvon Martin—and the subsequent campaign to smear Martin—is the latest and most jarring reminder that it is often impossible for a black body to be innocent…
The Criminal-Black-Man is always guilty.
Periodically, cases like that of Trayvon Martin bring the archetype into the light — it is fleetingly subject to public scrutiny, sometimes accompanied by guilt/shame and calls for a “national dialogue on race”.
But such calls are short-lived, and soon met by denials — of “color-blind” liberals whose view of race and criminal justice is 10 million light years from the reality endured by communities of color, by the tired denials trotted out by old tired tokens, like Bill Cosby, who will insist both now and later, that the Martin case is not about “race, but guns.”
After more than 2 months of calls for “Justice for Trayvon Martin”, his killer, George Zimmerman, has finally been arrested and charged. But is it a set-up – a disingenuous charade??
A conservative “law and order” Republican prosecutor appointed by a far-right Governor has over-charged Zimmerman with Second Degree Murder, setting a high bar for conviction. Zimmerman will be defended by a slickster good old boy attorney at a trial that will undoubtedly be moved to some Simi Valley-like venue. Media circus guaranteed. All day like OJ.
Anyone who thinks that “justice” will be served now, should give pause. Yes the prosecution will present its’ case. But from the perspective of the defense and much of the public, the focus will be “threat” and fear and the right to Stand Your Ground against the perceptions of thug life, if not the reality of ice tea and Skittles. It is not George Zimmerman who will be on trial. Trayvon Martin and The Criminal-Black-Man will.
We know that verdict.
Yes Joseph Kony and Trayvon Martin will factor into Presidential politics 2012. The ground work for that has already been long laid. Again, Melissa Harris-Perry
Liberal democracy—based on commitment to individual liberty and dignity—does not exist if the government legislates against particular bodies in public spaces, as it did during Jim Crow, or when it is complicit in the violent policing of those bodies by other citizens, as in the Trayvon Martin slaying. For more than two years, vocal pockets of conservative activists and politicians demanded proof of President Obama’s citizenship—as if a black man was trespassing simply by being elected to the Oval Office. As the president was being asked to show his papers to the nation, state governments in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina empowered police officers, school officials and merchants to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they deemed suspicious of immigration violations—suspicions that are triggered primarily by racial, ethnic and linguistic profiling. Despite the dramatic legal changes brought about by the ending of Jim Crow, it is once again socially, politically and legally acceptable to presume the guilt of nonwhite bodies.
It is no accident that the Kony imitative is framed in the language of Campaign 21012 replete with Shephard Fairey Hope/Change/Vote colors. And everyone knew — before he even said it aloud – that if Obama had a son, “he would look like Trayvon Martin”. In the current political climate Obama is Criminal-Black-Man #1 — already overtly named as the main “anti-war government N%$”. Thats just the warm-up. ( Please see Kay Whitlock’s excellent piece, Criminalizing President Obama. for more on these narratives as well as thoughts on recognizing and challenging criminalizing archetypes)
But more importantly , this is personal too. Personal for the tens of millions whose lives are disrupted daily by police, by profiling, by suspicion, by stress, by the risk, always from everywhere, of hair trigger racism.
Personal for me too. I would be remiss if i said i was tired — and i am!- of writing every week and speaking every day and watching for years on the end the corrosive impact of The Criminal-Black-Man meme on the lives of people I love.. For what is that when to compared to the pain of living it?? Dying it??
Do whatever you can people to finally confront -in yourselves, in the world – this old ugly idea.
Uproot it. Undo it however you can.
And this time — really — Stop at Nothing…