January/ February 2013 Emmett and Trayvon

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

By Elijah Anderson

If he is found “out of his place,” like in a fancy hotel lobby, on a golf course, or, say, in an upscale community, he may be easily treated with suspicion, avoided, pulled over, frisked, arrested—or worse.

Trayvon Martin’s death is an example of how this more current type of racial stereotyping works. While the facts of the case are still under investigation, from what is known it seems fair to say that George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, saw a young black man wearing a hoodie and assumed he was from the ghetto and therefore “out of place” in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, Zimmerman’s gated community. Until recently, Twin Lakes was a relatively safe, largely middle-class neighborhood. But as a result of collapsing housing prices, it has been witnessing an influx of renters and a rash of burglaries. Some of the burglaries have been committed by black men. Zimmerman, who is himself of mixed race (of Latino, black, and white descent), did not have a history of racism, and his family has claimed that he had previously volunteered handing out leaflets at black churches protesting the assault of a homeless black man. The point is, it appears unlikely Zimmerman shot and killed Martin simply because he hates black people as a race. It seems that he put a gun in his pocket and followed Martin after making the assumption that Martin’s black skin and choice of dress meant that he was from the ghetto, and therefore up to no good; he was considered to be a threat. And that’s an important distinction.

Zimmerman acted brashly and was almost certainly motivated by assumptions about young black men, but it is not clear he acted brutally out of hatred for Martin’s race. That certainly does not make Zimmerman’s actions excusable, but Till’s murderers acted out of racial hatred.

The complex racially charged drama that led to Martin’s death is indicative of both our history and our rapid and uneven racial progress as a society. While there continue to be clear demarcations separating blacks and whites in social strata, major racial changes have been made for the better. It’s no longer uncommon to see black people in positions of power, privilege, and prestige, in top positions in boardrooms, universities, hospitals, and judges’ chambers, but we must also face the reality that poverty, unemployment, and incarceration still break down largely along racial lines.

This situation fuels the iconic ghetto, including a prevalent assumption among many white Americans, even among some progressive whites who are not by any measure traditionally racist, that there are two types of blacks: those residing in the ghetto, and those who appear to have played by the rules and become successful. In situations in which black people encounter strangers, many often feel they have to prove as quickly as possible that they belong in the latter category in order to be accepted and treated with respect. As a result of this pervasive dichotomy—that there are “ghetto” and “non-ghetto” blacks—many middle-class blacks actively work to separate and distance themselves from the popular association of their race with the ghetto by deliberately dressing well or by spurning hip-hop, rap, and ghetto styles of dress. Similarly, some blacks, when interacting with whites, may cultivate an overt, sometimes unnaturally formal way of speaking to distance themselves from “those” black people from the ghetto.

But it’s also not that simple. Strikingly, many middle-class black young people, most of whom have no personal connection with the ghetto, go out of their way in the other direction, claiming the ghetto by adopting its symbols, including styles of dress, patterns of speech, or choice of music, as a means of establishing their authenticity as “still Black” in the largely white middle class they feel does not accept them; they want to demonstrate they have not “sold out.” Thus, the iconic ghetto is, paradoxically, both a stigma and a sign of authenticity for some American blacks—a kind of double bind that beleaguers many middle-class black parents.

Despite the significant racial progress our society has made since Till’s childhood, from the civil rights movement to the reelection of President Obama, the pervasive association of black people with the ghetto, and therefore with a certain social station, betrays a persistent cultural lag. After all, it has only been two generations since schools were legally desegregated, five decades since blacks and whites in many parts of the country started drinking from the same water fountains. If Till were alive today, he’d remember when restaurants had “White Only” entrances and when stories of lynchings peppered the New York Times. He’d also remember the Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Million Man March. He’d remember when his peers became generals and justices, and when a black man, just twenty years his junior, became president of the United States. As I am writing, he would have been seventy-three—had he lived.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

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.