Two Visions of ‘Black’ Evil, One White Gaze: Reading Kony 2012 and the Murder of Trayvon Martin
by David C. Leonard | NewBlackMan
In the wake of 9/11 and the ongoing war on terror, the United States has increasingly relied on national narratives that offer certainty, comfort, and security. In catchphrases and sound bites, pundits and politicians remind Americans of the importance of protecting the homeland, the role of all Americans in safeguarding national space and American democratic values, the need to guard against the enemies of freedom and civilization, and the promise of spreading democracy throughout the world. As countless bodies fell, injured and dying, shattering families and communities over here and over there, multinational corporations have profited on an increased militarism, diminishing natural resources, and public panics. Within this climate, many in the United States have sought refuge in comforting narratives of good versus evil, civilization versus savagery. The power and cultural importance of these narratives has been evident with the murder of Trayvon Martin and in the spectacle of Kony 2012.
Prior to the start of the 2012 All Star game (I previously wrote that it was at halftime but based on timeline that appears to be incorrect), Trayvon Martin, a 17-year African American, decided to walk to the local store to get some candy and drinks. Tragically, it appears that he died because he was walking while black in a gated predominantly white community in Florida. Shortly after calling 911 to report a “suspicious” person within his community, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, confronted Martin, who was armed with skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea. What happened next is unclear, yet what is without much doubt is that Zimmerman shot Martin dead with a Kel Tek 9mm semi-automatic gun. Identified as a “threat” Martin fell victim at the hands of a gun.
In a world where African Americans, particularly black male youth, are consistently represented as threats, to the security, peace, culture, calm, and order, how can “threat” be seen outside of the context of race? In a world where racial profiling is routine and where explicit and implicit bias has created the criminalblackman, is it even possible to think about the confrontation and ultimate death of Martin outside of the paradigm of a criminalized of black body? The 911 call, the confrontation, and the ultimate death fits a larger pattern whereupon blackness is consistently imagined as threat, as danger, and as EVIL; as a cultural and social pariah blackness needs to be controlled, discipline, and ultimately punished. According to Michelle Alexander, “Just as African Americans in the North were stigmatized by the Jim Crow system even if they were not subject to its formal control. Black men today are stigmatized by mass incarceration and the social construction of the ‘criminalblackman’ whether they have ever been to prison or not” (p. 194). In a review of Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Max Kanter describes the specter of criminalization as follows:
This is evidenced in part by dominant media and cultural narratives, institutionalized (and legalized) racial profiling, and police efforts to build mass databases of “suspected criminals” which contain information almost exclusively on racial minorities who have often done nothing criminal at all aside from having been born to black and brown parents. In addition to the numerous studies showing that most white Americans see crime in racial (nonwhite) terms, studies conducted by Princeton University also reveal that white felons fresh out of prison are more likely to get hired for jobs than equally qualified black men with no criminal record. African American men without criminal records are more ostracized and widely perceived as being more criminal than white men who have actually been convicted of felony crimes. That is how deeply black people have been stigmatized as criminals and social pariahs in our society.
This is the context that we need to understand what happened to Trayvon Martin not only on the fateful evening, but also in terms of police response and that of the media and general public.
The death of a child under suspicious circumstances would have thought to have led to Zimmerman’s arrest, yet no charges have levied against him to date. It represents another reminder of whose life really matters. Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, told the Huffington Post that the police basically saw Zimmerman as a good guy giving them reason not to arrest him at this point:
They respected [Zimmerman’s] background, that he studied criminal justice for four years and that he was squeaky clean.” He continued: “My question to them was, did they run my child’s background check? They said yes. I asked them what they came up with, and they said nothing. So I asked if Zimmerman had a clean record, did that give him the right to shoot and kill an unarmed kid?”
While Trayvon Martin is not trending on twitter nor eliciting 500,000 views on YouTube, much less 70 million, Kony 2012 has captured the national (global) imagination. With millions of views on YouTube and Vimeo, with ample donations directed toward the film’s producer – Invisible Children – and a national conversation about Joseph Kony and his crimes against humanity, Kony 2012 has elicited an outpouring from all corners of society.