January/ February 2013 Emmett and Trayvon

How racial prejudice in America has changed in the last sixty years.

By Elijah Anderson

A tale of two teens: After their tragic and premature deaths, both Emmett Till, 14 (left), and Trayvon Martin, 17 (right), became symbols of the unique challenges that have faced young black men in America.

Separated by a thousand miles, two state borders, and nearly six decades, two young African American boys met tragic fates that seem remarkably similar today: both walked into a small market to buy some candy; both ended up dead.

The first boy is Emmett Till, who was fourteen years old in the summer of 1955 when he walked into a local grocery store in Money, Mississippi, to buy gum. He was later roused from bed, beaten brutally, and possibly shot by a group of white men who later dumped his body in a nearby river. They claimed he had stepped out of his place by flirting with a young white woman, the wife of the store’s owner. The second boy is Trayvon Martin, who was seventeen years old late last winter when he walked into a 7-Eleven near a gated community in Sanford, Florida, to buy Skittles and an iced tea. He was later shot to death at close range by a mixed-race man, who claimed Martin had behaved suspiciously and seemed out of place. The deaths of both boys galvanized the nation, drew sympathy and disbelief across racial lines, and, through the popular media, prompted a reexamination of race relations.

In the aftermath of Martin’s death last February, a handful of reporters and columnists, and many members of the general public, made the obvious comparison: Trayvon Martin, it seemed, was the Emmett Till of our times. And while that comparison has some merit—the boys’ deaths are similar both in some of their details and in their tragic outcome—these killings must also be understood as the result of very different strains of racial tension in America. The racism that led to Till’s death was embedded in a virulent ideology of white racial superiority born out of slavery and the Jim Crow codes, particularly in the Deep South. That sort of racism hinges on the idea that blacks are an inherently inferior race, a morally null group that deserves both the subjugation and poverty it gets.

The racial prejudice that led to Trayvon Martin’s death is different. While it, too, was born of America’s painful legacy of slavery and segregation, and informed by those old concepts of racial order—that blacks have their “place” in society—it in addition reflects the urban iconography of today’s racial inequality, namely the black ghetto, a uniquely urban American creation. Strikingly, this segregation of the black community coexists with an ongoing racial incorporation process that has produced the largest black middle class in history, and that reflects the extraordinary social progress this country has made since the 1960s. The civil rights movement paved the way for blacks and other people of color to access public and professional opportunities and spaces that would have been unimaginable in Till’s time.

While the sort of racism that led to Till’s death still exists in society today, Americans in general have a much more nuanced, more textured attitude toward race than anything we’ve seen before, and usually that attitude does not manifest in overtly hateful, exclusionary, or violent acts. Instead, it manifests in pervasive mindsets and stereotypes that all black people start from the inner-city ghetto and are therefore stigmatized by their association with its putative amorality, danger, crime, and poverty. Hence, in public a black person is burdened with a negative presumption that he or she must disprove before being able to establish mutually trusting relationships with others.

Most consequentially, black skin when seen in public, and its association with the ghetto, translates into a deficit of credibility as black skin is conflated with lower-class status. Such attitudes impact poor blacks of the ghetto one way and middle-class black people another. While middle-class blacks may be able to successfully overcome the negative presumptions of others, lower-class blacks may not. For instance, all blacks, particularly “ghetto-looking” young men, are at risk of enduring yet another “stop and frisk” from the police as well as discrimination from potential employers, shopkeepers, and strangers on the street. Members of the black middle class and black professionals may ultimately pass inspection and withstand such scrutiny; many poorer blacks cannot. And many blacks who have never stepped foot in a ghetto must repeatedly prove themselves as non-ghetto, often operating in a provisional status (with something more to prove), in the workplace or, say, a fancy restaurant, until they can convince others—either by speaking “white” English or by demonstrating intelligence, poise, or manners—that they are to be trusted, that they are not “one of those” blacks from the ghetto, and that they deserve respect. In other words, a middle-class black man who is, for instance, waiting in line for an ATM at night will in many cases be treated with a level of suspicion that a middle-class white man simply does not experience.

But this pervasive cultural association—black skin equals the ghetto—does not come out of the blue. After all, as a result of historical, political, and economic factors, blacks have been contained in the ghetto. Today, with persistent housing discrimination and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, America’s ghettos face structural poverty. In addition, crime and homicide rates within those communities are high, young black men are typically the ones killing one another, and ghetto culture, made iconic by artists like Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, and the Notorious B.I.G., is inextricably intertwined with blackness.

As a result, in America’s collective imagination the ghetto is a dangerous, scary part of the city. It’s where rap comes from, where drugs are sold, where hoodlums rule, and where The Wire might have been filmed. Above all, to many white Americans the ghetto is where “the black people live,” and thus, as the misguided logic follows, all black people live in the ghetto. It’s that pervasive, if accidental, fallacy that’s at the root of the wider society’s perceptions of black people today. While it may be true that everyone who lives in a certain ghetto is black, it is patently untrue that everyone who is black lives in a ghetto. Regardless, black people of all classes, including those born and raised far from the inner cities and those who’ve never been in a ghetto, are by virtue of skin color alone stigmatized by the place.

I call this idea the “iconic ghetto,” and it has become a powerful source of stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination in our society, negatively defining the black person in public. In some ways, the iconic ghetto reflects the old version of racism that led to Till’s death. In Till’s day, a black person’s “place” was in the field, in the maid’s quarters, or in the back of the bus. If a black man was found “out of his place,” he could be punished, jailed, or lynched. In Martin’s day—in our day—a black person’s “place” is in the ghetto.

Elijah Anderson is the William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University. His latest book is "The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life."


  • John Q. Public on January 15, 2013 9:08 AM:

    Wow! The article NEVER mentions Trayvon Martin was trying to maim or kill Zimmerman by slamming his head into the ground. There is no mention of this - NONE! Instead the author simply states racism was the root cause of Martin's death - while ignoring the physical struggle or the large amount of evidence supporting Zimmerman's claim he was being attacked and was defending himself.

  • elcy on January 17, 2013 10:26 AM:

    John Q. Public, the article isn't about whether Zimmerman was justified in shooting and killing the unarmed teenager who, as a member of the SPD said, wasn't doing anything wrong when the defendant in the 2nd degree murder case profiled him and followed him, first in his car and then on foot. It's about why Zimmerman thought he was 'suspicious' in the first place.

  • Joan Q. Public on January 24, 2013 11:26 AM:

    One thing that bothers me is why did his family dump his Facebook account and start another one after his death? The first pics that I saw on his old account were not of the nice young man that is shown now. If he was this sweet innocent young man then what was wrong with the photos that he had posted of himself? Post the old ones and let everyone see what he wanted us to see. The person that he really was..

  • Jad Savage on January 29, 2013 9:22 AM:

    You cannot be serious right. Of course this is a Black newspaper or magazine. Had you read current news you would see whites are the target by the hateful blacks. Come on now. Like Rodney King said: Can't we all jes git a wong?

  • Enough of this Bullshit already on January 29, 2013 9:29 AM:

    It is articles such as these that contribute to the deaths of by young black thugs. Emmett Till story was way back in 1955 and Trayvon is the product of Al Sharpton & Jesse Jackson raging racist war against whites and you hateful blacks know this. All you do is spew hate amoungst others, shame on you for printing stories such as these.Trayvon BEAT George Zimmerman almost to death and you have the audacity to compare these two stories. Emmett Till, I have no idea what he did. AS I wasn't born yet. Lets start posting articles about what the hell is really going on....lets start by explaining why %15 of the population are black but 55% of the crime is committed by blacks. Now there's a story for your racist magazine. Why not promote coexisting instead of modern day segregation. FOOL

  • rowolf on March 14, 2013 7:06 PM:

    The previous two comments are quite sad but provide a trenchant commentary on race in the U. S. today.

  • Gods Child on March 20, 2013 12:35 PM:

    I find it ironic that after such a good article people can type such negative words. Oh but wait we don't know who you are so of course you can say whatever your racist heart desires.

  • stakkalee on July 19, 2013 9:10 PM:

    Man, I guess after Reddit shut down the /r/n*ggers sub the commenter diaspora must have washed a few racists onto WM's shores. These are some pathetic comments. But it's true, Trayvon was walking around looking scary and black, so how else was GZ supposed to respond?

  • Trump on July 22, 2013 10:57 AM:

    It's a lot of words but misses a salient point: Look at the crime stats in Zimmerman's neighborhood. He "profiled" Martin because he did in fact fit the profile of the people who had been victimizing his neighbors.

    If you want to blame someone, maybe the criminals that repeatedly victimized the neighborhood and necessitated the neighborhood watch and Zimmerman's "patrols" are good places to start?

    I also don't read this publication often, so I'll just ask anyone who does - do they actually care to deal with black/black crime and killings like in Chiacgo? Because that seems to me to be a much more pressing problem to deal with than how white people consider blacks. If they do deal with it, good on them. If they don't deal with it - shame.