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