Scholars have long maintained that race is merely a social construct, not something fixed into our nature, yet this insight hasn’t made it any less of a factor in our lives. If we no longer participate in a society in which the presence of black blood renders a person black, then racial self-identification becomes a matter of individual will.
And where the will is involved, the question of ethics arises. At a moment when prominent, upwardly mobile African-Americans are experimenting with terms like “post-black,” and outwardly mobile ones peel off at the margins and disappear into the multiracial ether, what happens to that core of black people who cannot or do not want to do either?
Trayvon Martin was killed for the crime of being black, young, and "suspicious." Like many other young black boys and grown men throughout United States history, he was shot dead for the crime of possessing an innocuous object (and likely daring to be insufficiently compliant to someone who imagined that they had the State's permission to kill people of color without consequence or condemnation).
The facts are still playing themselves out. From all appearances, the police have failed to investigate the incident properly. Trayvon Martin's family has been denied the reasonable care, respect, and response due to them by the local authorities. Observers and activists have gravitated towards racism as the prime motive for the shooting and murder of a young black boy by a grown man and self-styled mall cop, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry wannabe vigilante.
Common sense renders a clear judgement here: if a black man shot and killed a white kid for holding a bag of Skittles he would already be under the jail; in this instance, the police are operating from a position where a young African American is presumed "guilty," and his murderer is assumed innocent.
Yes, race matters in the killing of Trayvon Martin. However, and I will explore this in a later post, it is significant in a manner that is much more pernicious than the simple calculus of whether to shoot a young black boy for some imagined grievance or offense--as opposed to being asked a question, or perhaps sternly talked to. The latter is also problematic: it assumes that black people's citizenship and humanity are forever questionable, and subject to evaluation, by any person who happens to not be African American.
Cornel West famously suggested that all black children are "niggerized" at some point in their upbringing. Moreover, black children learn to live in a state of existential dread because they are always subject to wanton and unjust violence. Trayvon Martin's murder reminds me of a parallel and complementary observation. Black people live a paradox. We are simultaneously both children and adults in the white racial imagination regardless of our age.
Black people are treated as adults even when they are minors. In the courts, black young people are disproportionately subjected to punishments which are typically meted out to adults. As research has repeatedly demonstrated, to be young and black is to be an adult for purposes of arrest, the gas chamber, or imprisonment.
Historically, black people have been treated by whites as though they are children in regards to political matters. Thus, the contemporary rhetoric from conservatives that African Americans are childlike, zombies, on a plantation, or somehow hoodwinked or tricked into supporting the Democratic Party. Despite all of the available evidence, grown folks who were either heirs to, or participants in, a Black Freedom Struggle that salvaged and saved American democracy from its own weaknesses, lies, and hypocrisies, are depicted as naive infants, unable to be full and equal political actors.
The sociological imagination draws many connections. To point, Trayvon Martin's murder is also a surprising (and for many, counter-intuitive) complement to The New York Times' excellent series of essays on race, interracial marriage, and identity.
As someone who has loved across the colorline, and also believes that there are many ways to create a family, I have always held fast to a simple rule.
In this society, in this moment, and given what we know about how race impacts life chances, if a white person is going to have a child with a person of color (especially one who is African American or "black"), a parent is committing malpractice if they do not give their progeny the spiritual, emotional, philosophical, and personal armor to deal with the realities of white supremacy.
By implication, young black and brown children must be made to understand that they are not "special," "biracial," or part of a racial buffer group that is going to be given "special" privileges because one of their parents is white. These "multiracial" children are some of the most vulnerable and tragic when they are finally forced to confront the particular challenges which come with being a young black boy or girl in American society. In post civil rights America, this notion is politically incorrect. Nonetheless, it remains true.
Here, Thomas Chatterton Williams offers a great comment on blackness and the dilemma of "post-black" identity:
Still, as I envision rearing my own kids with my blond-haired, blue-eyed wife, I’m afraid that when my future children — who may very well look white — contemplate themselves in the mirror, this same society, for the first time in its history, will encourage them not to recognize their grandfather’s face. For this fear and many others, science and sociology are powerless to console me — nor can they delineate a clear line in the sand beyond which identifying as black becomes absurd.
Question: what happens for those young people who do not see themselves as "black" or "brown," yet run into the deadly fists of white racism? Do they have the skill sets necessary to survive such encounters whole of life and limb?
Because we are both part of a diaspora, the wisdom of our Jewish brothers and sisters is also instructive here. Continuing from The New York Times piece:
For Judt, it was his debt to the past alone that established his identity.Or as Ralph Ellison explained — and I hope my children will read him carefully because they will have to make up their own minds: “Being a Negro American involves a willed (who wills to be a Negro? I do!) affirmation of self as against all outside pressures.” And even “those white Negroes,” as he called them, “are Negroes too — if they wish to be.”And so I will teach my children that they, too, are black — regardless of what anyone else may say — so long as they remember and wish to be.
Trayvon Martin was likely taught the life lessons necessary to survive an encounter with the police (or their posse cousins) by his parents and other elders. Because black life is cheap, a young person of color can do everything "right" and still end up dead. What does this mean for blackness, when a century or more after the end of slavery, and decades after the end of lynch law, that your guilt is still assumed?
Whiteness and White privilege involve the luxury of being able to decide how, in what ways, and under what conditions, you will be allow yourself to be uncomfortable. White privilege also involves the luxury of not having to have a conversation with your kids about how to avoid being murdered by the cops because of your skin color. In many matters of life and death, white supremacy remains, in many ways, unchallenged. Black and brown folks, if they are responsible parents, cannot avoid such conversations with their children. The foot-dragging by the police in regards to the murder of Trayvon Martin reveals this ugly truth.
Dr. King is gone. A black man is President. Yet, life remains unfair...does it not?