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January 17, 2013 9:40 AM Out of Their Place

By Ed Kilgore

The Washington Monthly’s new January/February issue is devoted in no small part to a re-examination of U.S. race relations upon the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the re-election of America’s first African-American president. So it’s natural there is a piece aimed at putting one of our most recent racial traumas, the death of a teenager named Trayvon Martin, into some historical context.

Yale’s Elijah Anderson begins by comparing Martin to Emmett Till, the fourteen year old Mississippian murdered in 1955 for the crime of “acting uppity” in the presence of a white woman in a grocery store. Like Till, Martin died (as best we can tell) in no small part because he was perceived as “out of his place,” a black kid who made the mistake of looking “ghetto” in a gated community that had recently suffered an uptick in crime. But while Till’s death was the product of a white supremacist society that could tolerate no breech in its codes of behavior, Martin ran afoul of more subtle codes about “place:”

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 must disprove before he can establish mutually trusting relationships with others….
[I]n 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.

So Treyvon Martin was by virtue of his skin color a resident of what Anderson calls “the iconic ghetto,” an affiliation that is “both a stigma and a sign of authenticity,” particularly for young men. And whatever else he did—the impression left by his manner of dress and his behavior when challenged—did not pass the test administered to him by George Zimmerman for his right to be in that particular place. You don’t even have to choose sides on who initiated violence, or accuse Zimmerman of any conscious racism, to see how that could have happened, and why it made such a powerful impression on African-Americans used to constant questions about their right to be in some particular place.

So while we’ve come a very long way since Till’s murder, in some important respects—the ability to see past race in interacting with people in our daily lives—we haven’t come very far at all.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Josef K on January 17, 2013 9:59 AM:

    I myself come from western Wisconsin and am positively alabaster compared to my Brooklyn-born, Georgia-heritage wife. While our 11 year-old son mirror's my skin-tone, he's clearly his mother's child and thus unlikely to ever be considered "white".

    He also has high-functioning autism and we live in New York City. My single greatest fear in life is that he'll one day be killed for the crime of "driving while black", a pervasive (and aruably justifiable) fear in our part of the world.

    So yes, our nation's attitudes towards race have become much more nuanced since our grandparent's days, and this is just one more nuance that not many people seem to talk about: the expectation in some communities that our youngsters are permanently endangered by the very police who are supposed to protect them.

    Food for thought.

  • Al on January 17, 2013 11:08 AM:

    That fear goes both ways.

    My mother, refugee from Lithuania from WWII, after exiting the DP camp, was living in Philly and as a teenager dared to take a shortcut through the black part of town (in Lithuania she didn't exactly get any practical advice about where she didn't belong due to race). She was beaten by a black gang and required 6 months of hospitalization.

    So cry me a river. I myself live in Mexico and as golden blonde have to watch over both my shoulders everyday to avoid becoming a statistic when venturing into poor parts of the city, which is most of it.

  • Al on January 17, 2013 11:09 AM:

    That fear goes both ways.

    My mother, refugee from Lithuania from WWII, after exiting the DP camp, was living in Philly and as a teenager dared to take a shortcut through the black part of town (in Lithuania she didn't exactly get any practical advice about where she didn't belong due to race). She was beaten by a black gang and required 6 months of hospitalization.

    So cry me a river. I myself live in Mexico and as golden blonde have to watch over both my shoulders everyday to avoid becoming a statistic when venturing into poor parts of the city, which is most of it.

  • adepsis on January 17, 2013 12:48 PM:

    Al:

    Following the criteria you established I presume that you and your mother (WWII refugee) are far more afraid of encounters with Teutonic whites than brown folk. Otherwise this just sounds like an excuse for bigotry.

  • Mitch on January 17, 2013 1:31 PM:

    Al,

    What's your point? That racist people exist who are not white? I think everyone knows that.

    There are bigots and racists among all peoples. It's a (pretty crappy) part of human nature. And guess what? It does not matter one bit.

    How can I say this? Because my standards of ethical behavior are not based on what other people do to me. They are based on what I believe is correct and good.

    I've had some young black men insult and harass me for walking in the wrong place at the wrong time—and for having a Kentucky accent while living in Virginia Beach. I have also had rather frightening encounters with young Hispanic thugs here in Northern California.

    But guess what? The worst beating I ever received was from a group of good old, Southern, white boys who didn't take kindly to the fact that my girlfriend at the time happened to be black.

    So should I be bitter towards black people, or Hispanics or white boys?

    How about this: I choose to not be bitter at all. I understand that humans are individuals, and generally products of their environments. For every thug there are dozens of kind, good people, living their lives quietly. Why on Earth would I judge entire "groups" based on the behavior of a few?

    After all, if I hated black folks because I had trouble with gang-bangers as a teen, then how would I be any different from the poor person who hates me for being white?

    How would I be different from those who assume that I am a racist hillbilly because I'm from Appalachia?

    There are always going to be evil folk, criminals, thugs, racists and haters. To imagine otherwise is to ignore all of history. But, for me, I refuse to sink to that level. I prefer having friends of all races and many nationalities. I prefer looking at humans as unique individuals as opposed to monolithic groups. I prefer not to judge people for the crimes of others.

    From what I can tell, much of the suffering in the world can be traced back to some kind of back-and-forth action that your comment simply reeks of:

    "I hate them because they hate me, because my people hate their people, because their people hate my people. I do bad things to them because they did bad things to me, because my people did bad things to their people, because their people did bad things to my people."

    Break the damned cycle. For your own mental and emotional health, if for no other reason. No, we cannot change the world; but life's not about that, it's about changing ourselves.

  • BrookLyn1825 on January 17, 2013 2:46 PM:

    @Mitch Excellent comment. Very well said!