Black Skin, White Justice


“A feeling of inferiority? No, a feeling of not existing. Sin is black as virtue is white. All those white men, fingering their guns, can’t be wrong. I am guilty. I don’t know what of: but I know I’m a wretch.”

– Frantz Fanon

Let’s be clear about one thing: George Zimmerman is innocent. Trayvon Martin was guilty. We should be honest about this, but why stop there? Rachel Jeantel is guilty too. Oscar Grant, murdered by transit cop Johannes Mehserle in 2009, was also guilty. Must’ve been. So was Rodney King, so was Emmett Till for that matter. To be black in America is to be guilty until proven innocent, fundamentally suspect, always-already on trial.

Condemned to Guilt Fanonian philosopher Lewis Gordon, and the very fact of his presence was a testament to a violent rupture with the established order to which violence could be the only reply.

But Martin’s trial did not end with his death, extending instead from the report of marijuana in his urine and the widespread publication of purportedly threatening images, in which the teenager appears with gold teeth and, gasp, flipping the bird. It extends of course into the Zimmerman trial itself, with testimony and cross-examination swirling constantly around the suspicion and suggestion that Trayvon Martin fought back. Never mind that one had a gun and pursued while the other was unarmed and fled repeatedly. From the outset, Martin evidently did not enjoy the right of self-defense, the legally-enshrined capacity to stand his ground when threatened. To stand one’s ground is to have ground to stand, and those inherently suspicious people have none.

To be always-already guilty is to be, as in the damnés of Fanon’s strangely translated title, The Wretched of the Earth, both worthy of condemnation and already suffering it. The function of this guilt far exceeds simply providing an alibi for murder in individual cases. Just as Fanon once argued that you cannot torture and brutally exploit a people without first dehumanizing them, it would be difficult to conceive of the incarceration of two million people, the crushing poverty of most black Americans, and the systematic justification of police scrutiny and violence if we didn’t already believe that such people were somehow less than human.

Force Presumed Legitimate 

Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, Gordon identifies a “racial grammar” that we see playing out again in the Zimmerman case. If Trayvon Martin’s appearance was itself violent to the white supremacist order, then like Rodney King, his every move would need to be read in a way that retroactively sketches this picture.

the medical expert Lindzee Folgate who examined the aggressor the next day: “Stopping the attack allowed him to survive it, would you agree?” Rather than refuse to answer a question she was in no way qualified to respond to, Folgate answered: “It could have, yes.”

To the extent that the prosecution insists that Trayvon Martin didn’t struggle, it has given up the game from the outset. We can only hope, sincerely and resolutely, that when pursued and attacked by George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin did fight back, that after attempting to avoid and evade Zimmerman he did finally stand his ground. Such hopes are in many ways hopeless, however. Frederick Douglass’ fight with Covey aside, black bravery has rarely paid off, as Richard Kluger wrote of Joseph Albert DeLaine, a black man violently persecuted and harassed under Jim Crow:

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when keeping it real goes wrong.” As with Bill Cosby’s increasingly angry outbursts, there is no shortage of those who seek to blame structural racism on the behavior of its victims.

But it’s worth emphasizing more specific and local reference-points for Jeantel’s testimony, namely the sort of Jim Crow justice that resonates in courts across the country today. Under formal Jim Crow, blacks could not testify against whites, and their testimony was always suspect in general. Against the predominant narrative that court justice gradually replaced the rough justice of the mob, Du Bois penned the words above at the height of Jim Crow to insist how little had truly changed. Today we could add that, while formal restrictions on testimony have been lifted, the suspicion remains.

It’s not only Jeantel’s treatment on the stand that echoes Jim Crow justice, but also the broader context of the case. According to one observer of this ostensibly outdated system: “when a white man kills a Negro… it is hardly considered murder. When a Negro kills a white man, conviction is assured…” We don’t need to predict Zimmerman’s fate to know how much this applies today: conviction rates, selective prosecutorial strategies, and the imposition of the death penalty speak volumes.

For those who would immediately reject such interpretations and comparisons as remnants of the past (much like the recently gutted Voting Rights Act), it hardly needs reminding: this is a case about a young black man who was hunted down and killed in cold blood.

Of “Creepy Ass Crackas” 

If Trayvon Martin’s trial is about his hoodie, his gold teeth, his ominous middle finger, his possible marijuana use, Rachel Jeantel’s trial is about her appearance, her “bad attitude,” and her use of language. All aspects of the trials of both intersect in the uproar about the phrase, allegedly offered by Martin to describe Zimmerman and relayed to the court by Jeantel: “creepy ass cracka.”

Against the effort of defense attorney Don West to mock and humiliate her, to discredit and shame her into submission, less remarked is the way that Rachel Jeantel stood her own ground on the stand, and at no moment was her strength so clear and uncommon as with the term “cracka” itself. Facing aggressive cross-examination, Jeantel told West that it was Martin’s description of the man following him that initially made her “think it was racial.”

But confronted with West’s predictable strategy of blaming the victim, what Jeantel said next was remarkable:

10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>: It was racial, but it was because Trayvon Martin put race in this…

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>: You don’t think that’s a racial comment?

10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>: You don’t think that “creepy ass cracker” is a racial comment?

deploys his linguistic training to defend Jeantel’s mode of answering, he nevertheless misses the point when he attributes her ambiguity on the question of race to nervousness or a desire to defend Martin. While I can’t speak for Jeantel, it instead seems that she was astutely asserting the fact that so-called “reverse racism” is nothing more than a myth perpetuated by an aggrieved white America, that without structural power, there is no such thing as racism. The pursuit was racist, not the name Trayvon Martin had apparently given it.

Against those who insist on the original class content of “cracka” either to insist on or deny its pejorative content, Jeantel is straightforward in her testimony to the prosecution: “Did that mean a white individual?” “Yes, Caucasian.” And against those who would argue that Zimmerman was not Caucasian, we should recall that people of any race can perpetuate white supremacy, but that more importantly, Latinos can, of course, be white. Noteworthy here is Zimmerman’s own self-description on the medical forms submitted as evidence: “Race: white.”

“Get Ready to Do the Right Thing” 

Michael Bloomberg’s recent suggestion that his police stop-and-frisk “too many whites” (evidently 14% is too high). If justice for Trayvon Martin blinds us to the thousands of other Trayvon Martins that have died (one black person killed by police every 36 hours, according to one important report), then we should not be so quick to embrace it as a victory.

In an article published shortly after Zimmerman’s arrest, McWhorter called for the Zimmerman trial to be televised as a sort of healing catharsis for the nation, a “re-do.” But he didn’t mean this as a “re-do” for Simi Valley, but instead for O.J. Simpson. It is white America, not black America, that needs an apology, as McWhorter wrote that:

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>George Ciccariello-Maher teaches political theory at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, May 2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu. 

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