† 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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The War on Black ~ “Color-blindness” and Criminalization, Part 1
by nancy a heitzeg
As we brace ourselves for the George Zimmerman murder trial — where the defense will continue attempts to paint teen-aged Trayvon Martin as the stereotypical danger, not the victim – we have no shortage of brutalizing images to remind of us of the toxic power of that criminalizing narrative.
As we have written here before, the Black Man as Dangerous is a lethal idea, ironically, not to those who perpetrate and fear, but to those to whom it is attached. It is 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: The Criminal-Black-Man.
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.
The Criminal-Black-Man archetype is the centerpiece of the Post-Civil Rights Era’s reliance on color-blind coding to re-constitute the Old Jim Crow into the New – with The War on Drugs, The War on Gangs, and coming soon to a city near you, The War on Guns. Race need never be explicitly named but “high crime neighborhoods”, “gangs”, “thugs”, ghettos, “hoods and “hoodies” all evoke a racialized image. As intended. All people of color — Latino/as and Native American especially- the poor, the queer are targets here too – but it is Blackness that provides the paradigm.
And the Criminal Black Man need not be a literal “man” — Black women are deemed threatening too (See Kiera Wilmot), as are Black children. From the Scottsboro Boys to Emmet Till to Trayvon Martin, age has offered no mitigation for the irrational fear triggered in some by the presence of Black.
Just this week, 14 year old Tremaine McMillian was violently restrained by police for “dehumanizing stares” and was charged with a felony count of resisting arrest with violence and disorderly conduct.
Driving While Black, Walking While Black, Standing While Black, Carrying Skittles While Black, Doing Science While Black, Now Looking While Black are supposed rationale for a series of disproportionate responses from law enforcement, security personnel and every day would-be vigilantes.
Often these encounters are lethal. Too often. A recent report issued by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the extrajudicial killing of 313 Black people by police, security guards and vigilantes , notes this:
Every 28 hours in 2012 someone employed or protected by the US government killed a Black man, woman, or child.