Vigorous Defense or Racial Appeal? But what about justice for Trayvon?

Yesterday I wrote a piece reflecting on the ways that both the defense and the media had put Trayvon Martin on trial.  During subsequent conversations, I further lamented the defense strategies and how a common response has been, “but the defense is suppose to put on a rigorous defense.”  I don’t question the right to put on a defense (although most people who face the criminal justice never put on a defense – we are a plea bargain nation – and most certainly don’t have access to experts and America’s best lawyers) but rather that the Zimmerman defense has not only put on Martin on trial but has done so through explicitly racial means.  The efforts to paint Trayvon as a violent “thug,” as someone with “violent tendencies,” as a marijuana smoking, gun toting, menace to society moves beyond a rigorous defense.  The “Menace to Society” or “Young Black and Don’t give a Fuck” stategy is antithetical to justice.  Jelani Cobb describes the tactics as akin to the defense strategy seen within rape trials:

The contours of the defense, like a great deal of the discussion of this case, are shot through with an antiquated brand of rape-think. What was he wearing? Was he high or drunk? Why was he out at night? Beneath these questions is a calcified skepticism toward Martin’s innocence that all but blurts out ‘He was asking for it.

Just as rape culture has allowed for the criminalization and victim blaming in rape trials, white supremacy facilitates this type of defense; it encourages and allows for the prosecution of black victims.

Trayvon Martin is the victim and highlighting the purported victim’s past, playing upon racist stereotypes, and otherwise turning the trial into one about the character of Trayvon Martin moves beyond vigorous defense.  His life matters and to make the case into one where he deserve to die because he may have smoked marijuana or gotten into a fight is counter to justice.

The efforts to criminalize Trayvon Martin, to blame the victim, must be understood within the larger context whereupon Trayvon Martin’s right to defend himself has been denied. As Jelani Cobb argues, the mere fact that Trayvon Martin has been consistently represented as someone undeserving of his right to stand his ground or defend himself against in the face of an armed man following him allows for victim blaming:

Amid their frustratingly uneven presentation, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda and the rest of the prosecution have pegged their second-degree murder charges largely on the idea that Martin was losing the fight on February 26th of last year, that he shouted for help, and that Zimmerman, a vigilante would-be cop, shot and killed him anyway. In plotting their route to conviction, they necessarily bypass another set of questions. What if he wasn’t losing the fight? What if Zimmerman is the one who called for help? What if Martin did swing first? And, most crucially, is an unarmed black teenager ever entitled to stand his ground? . . . . But whatever its legal merits, the prosecution’s approach has left intact the suspicion that Florida’s proactive self-defense laws are color-coded, intended for people in fearsome encounters with blacks, not blacks in fearsome encounters.

This is of course not a statement about the defense but the criminalization of Martin and the seeming impossibility of his right to defend himself, which gives me pause.

Still, others continue to cite the fundamental principal of a vigorous defense as justification for any defense strategy.   The question here is justice; the question is fairness; the question is facts versus stereotypes; relevance versus racial appeals.  The defense’s deployment of the race card toward the criminalization of the victim warrants challenging inside the courtroom.  That hasn’t happened; the challenges outside the courtroom are imperative.

“The problem, to me, is the broader framework of white supremacy that allows certain anti-Trayvon questions/narratives to be viewed as compelling and persuasive to jurors,” notes Marc Lamont Hill.  “In other words, I don’t have an issue with questioning Trayvon’s character as such. I have an issue with his race, age, or fashion choice being seen as evidence of criminality. That, however, isn’t a criminal justice problem.”

I do have a problem with it because given the juries are told to just listen to the evidence; given that the Judge disallowed references to racial profiling; given that colorblindness is promoted as the solution to injustice; given that a court of law exists in the broader context, this vigorous defense is not only prejudicial but reliant on stereotypes, bias, and a system of injustice.  While Judge Nelson has limited what is admissible (vigorous defense has constraints and rules) the damage has been done in court of public opinion.

Within the court and beyond, the criminalization of Trayvon Martin is not just about Martin but also about blackness.  The strategy isn’t simply about Trayvon Martin but putting blackness on trial.  It not only shares the same logic and ideology that leads to stop and frisk but furthers the stereotypes of the “criminalblackman.”  So efforts to compare this to another defense whereupon a white victim was put on trial doesn’t account for this fundamental issue.  Whether the defense in the Jodi Arias trial, O.J. Simpson trial, or countless others employed tactics that questioned the character of victim is irrelevant.  These are fundamentally different because in these instances, stereotypes about whiteness were not part of the defense; white masculinity or whiteness was not put on trial. Here lies the core issue: the justice system, as an American institution, is fundamentally antithetical to justice and fairness when it comes to black life.  This trial is yet another reminder of this fact, although this won’t be admitted into evidence.

NewBlackMan: #LinSanity and the Blackness of Basketball

#LinSanity and the Blackness of Basketball

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackman

Over the last week, there has been significant discussion about how race is playing out within the media and fan reception of Jeremy Lin. Focusing on anti-Asian slurs, prejudice, and stereotypes, the media narrative has not surprisingly provided a simplistic yet pleasurable narrative. Imagining racism as simply bias that can be reduced through exposure and education, the media discourse has erased the powerful ways that sports teaches race and embodies racism. As Harry Edwards argues, sports recapitulates society, whether it be ideology or institutional organization.

According to Marc Lamont Hill, professor of education at Columbia, “blackness is at the center” of the media’s Linsanity. Seeing basketball as a space of blackness, “the whole undertone is irony, bewilderment and surprise.” Harry Edwards, Sociology Professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, highlights the predicable narrative, which reflects the fact that “we live in a niche society.” This encourages people to “retreat into traditional storylines.” Irrespective of facts or specifics, the deployed media narrative has retreated to a place that depicts the NBA as a black-league defined by athleticism and hip-hop that is changing before our eyes. The arrival of Jeremy Lin, who the media continues to cast in the role of the “model minority” whose intellect, personality, and overall difference is providing the league with something otherwise unavailable, is constructed through a narrative black-Asian conflict.

Replicating stereotypes, the undercurrent of the Lin narrative, the media inducted fantasy, has been his juxtaposition to the league’s black players. “Discussions about the NBA are always unique because the NBA is one of the few spaces in American society where blackness, and specifically black masculinity, is always at the center of the conversation, even when it’s not. Power is often defined by that which is assumed, as opposed to that which is stated,” noted Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at USC, in an email to me. “Because black masculinity is the norm in the NBA, it goes without saying. Concurrently any conversation about race in the NBA inevitably refers back to this norm. In other words, people seldom describe someone as a ‘black basketball player’ because the race of the player is assumed in this construction.

So any current discussion about Jeremy Lin is taking place within the context of a league and its history where the dominant players have long been black men. Lin is ‘the other’ as it were, but here the standard is black, not white, as would normally be the case in most other environments.” From the constant references to his being “humble” and “team-oriented,” to his widely circulated idea that he came out of no where and that his career is one of low expectations and being overlooked, the media narrative has imagined him as the anti-black baller. The stereotypes of both Asian Americans and blacks guide the media narrative.

According to Oliver Wang, “Some in the Asian American community are following “Linsanity” with caution, especially as commentators praise Lin for being “hard working,” “intelligent” and “humble,” words associated with long-standing stereotypes of Asian Americans. Chuck Leung, writing for, expressed the fear that “beneath this Linsanity is an invitation for others to preserve these safe archetypes.” Whereas black ballers are defined/demonized with references to selfishness and ego, a sense of entitlement that comes from societal fawning, Lin purportedly provides something else. Compared to black players, who are defined through physical prowess and athleticism, Lin, who is 6’3”, extremely physical and athletic, the media has consistently presented him as a “cerebral player” whose success comes from guile, intestinal fortitude, and determination, seemingly discounting his physical gifts and his talents on the floor. Marc Lamont Hill noted a report that described Lin as a “genius on the pick n’ roll.” Continuously noting his Harvard education, his high school GPA, his college GPA, and his economics major all advance the narrative of his exceptionalism and his presumed difference from the league’s other (black) players.

On Weekends with Alex Witt, Sports Illustrated columnist and Lin friend Pablo Torre celebrated Lin as a “student of the game,” and as an anomaly. Torre noted that Lin watches game footage at halftime, a practice he says isn’t seen within the NBA. While David West of the Indiana Pacers told me that watching footage is standard practice with the NBA, its usage here is just another example as how Lin is being positioned as NBA model minority and the desired body outside the sports arena.

Reflecting on the nature of this discourse, Hiram Perez in an essay about Tiger Woods, describes “model minority rhetoric” as both homogenizing the Asian American experience through professed stereotypes and celebration of Asian American accomplishments, but “disciplin[ing] the unruly black bodies threatening national stability during the post-civil rights era” (Perez, 2005, p. 226). The caricatured and stereotyped media story with Lin illustrates this dual process, one that reifies stereotypes concerning Asian Americans while at the same demonizing blackness. Historically, the model minority discourse has work to juxtapose homogenized identities, cultures, and experiences associated with Asian Americans and African Americans.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: #LinSanity and the Blackness of Basketball.

NewBlackMan: Beyond the Classroom and the Cell: An Interview with Marc Lamont Hill

Beyond the Classroom and the Cell:

An Interview with Marc Lamont Hill

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Marc Lamont Hill and Mumia Abu-Jamal are two of the most visible intellectuals of my generation. Separated by the walls of injustice, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America brings these two giants in the struggle for justice together.

Discussing family, life and death, hip-hop, love, politics, incarceration and so much more, this book highlights their prominence and passion in the fight to “make America again.” As Susan L. Taylor describes in her endorsement of the book: It “gives voice to what is rarely heard: African American men speaking for themselves without barriers or filters, about the many forces in their lives.” Inspiring and illuminating, informative and insightful, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America is a conversation about issues and about these prominent figures. Amazing as the book is, I had the opportunity to talk to Marc Lamont Hill to discuss the book and its power.

David J. Leonard: How did the book come about?

Marc Lamont Hill: The book really emerged naturally out of my relationship with Mumia. I have been working on his defense, advocating for him for years, but it was in 2008 when we actually started a direct personal relationship. He called me out of the blue, right in the middle of the Democratic primaries, and we talked. He reached out and told me that he read my work and that he had seen me on TV; he appreciated the work. It was all love so we rapped about the work; we talked about Obama, we talked about whether or not he could beat Hilary Clinton and that almost became the source of our weekly conversations.

He would hit me every Friday at 5:30. We would just talk and as we began to talk more we developed a critique of Obama and what it meant for him to become President. We also talked about our lives, about our children, and about the other intellectual interests we had; we talked about culture and so much other stuff that we developed a bond and friendship that continues until now. After a while, we said lets do some work together.

Initially we thought we would write a book, a more traditional book on black life in America. It was an interesting project. We started to write essays together and the thing that we noticed was that we were melding our voices into one; we were losing our distinctiveness, we were losing the thing that made our conversations so rich: we had similar politics, we had similar values, but we also different perspectives, we came from very different places, we occupy very different social locations.

We decided that instead of trying to transform these conversations into something else we would spotlight the conversations in the tradition of Cornel West and bell hooks, and James Baldwin and Margaret Mead.

We decided to do a book of conversations, talking about the things that matter to us, the stuff that we care about. Politics came up, issues of life of death, leadership, education, love and relationships. Over the course of a year, we talked every Friday at 5:30 and that became the basis of many of the chapters in the book. Between prison visits, letter writing and phone conversations we produced this book, which I hope reflects the depth and breadth of our conversations as well was the deep love, commitment and respect we have for each other

DJL: When I was reading I was thinking about the West-hooks and Baldwin-Mead dialogues of the past, but this book felt different because of the level of respect and the love between the two of you; it felt more intimate than what we often get with dialogues and discussions between two prominent public figures. You give readers not only your assessment about the world, but also insight about yourselves.

MLH: That is what we wanted to do. We have each written a lot; we each occupy public lives and because of that, certain parts of who we are get exposed all the time; our ideas, our perspectives, our ideologies all get revealed. But we wanted to locate ourselves in this work. We wanted to give more perspective on who are we, but we really wanted to go deeper, to show who we are, to expose our anxieties and fears; we wanted to link the ideas to our personal stories. We wanted to tell a different story and we also wanted people to know that people conversing in this book are people who care deeply for each other and can model a kind of love ethic necessary for social change. It should feel more personal because it was.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Beyond the Classroom and the Cell: An Interview with Marc Lamont Hill.

Emancipate the NBA: Struggling for Justice in the NBA (New piece from @NewBlackMan)

Emancipate the NBA: Struggling for Justice in the NBA
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan


I have been trying to write this column for several days.  I have thought and thought, and spent several hours writing, resulting in nothing.  I am just too angry.  My anger about the NBA LOCKOUT has nothing to do with the players.  I am actually proud of their courage and their refusal to kowtow in the face of pressure to accept an unfair proposal.  I am happy they told David Stern to file his ultimatum under “U” for unacceptable.  In fact, when I heard the news on Monday that the players indeed rejected the proposal, I found myself giving a little fist pump.  The prospect of a lost NBA season is disheartening at one level, yet I am encouraged by their refusal to accept an unjust economic arrangement.

Despite a public narrative that continually focuses on money as the only issue of contention, the LOCKOUT isn’t simply about how to split NBA pie.  It isn’t about greedy, out-of-touch players that already make millions for playing a game (this idea is so disrespectful to not only their talents but their hard work and dedication).

Players have already given up billions of dollars when they apparently agreed to a 50/50 split (or thereabouts).   Yet that wasn’t enough for the owners.  Their proposal would dramatically restrict player movement, ostensibly ending much of free agency.  The LOCKOUT in many ways is an effort to roll back free agency, to overturn the legacies of Curt Flood and to create a system where owners don’t have to compete for the services of all players (Ric Bucher made this point eloquently).

The proposed structural changes would dramatically alter the landscape of the NBA, severely limiting the options and free agency potential of NBA players.  In 2010-2011, where the players received 57% of basketball related income, the salary cap was $58.044 million; that year teams paid a tax at $70.307 million.  If the owners have their way, these numbers would fall to $50,915,789 for the cap and $61,672,807 for the luxury tax.  So what does this mean?  It means, that only 10 teams would be under the salary cap (these calculations include potential rookie salaries).  It means that 14 teams would be paying a luxury tax, which would be higher in the new system.  It means that the many teams that have empty roster spots would have little or no money to spend on free agents.  Faced with a luxury tax and only able to use a reduced exception that allows teams to exceed the salary cap, the new system is an assault on free agency and “free-market capitalism.”  It allows teams to ostensibly eliminate player leverage in getting the most possible money.

Imagine if this system existed in other industries.  Imagine if every company in your respective field was restricted in how much money they could spend on salaries.  Imagine if these companies were taxed if they spent over a certain threshold.  How would it impact your ability to garner employment?  How would it impact your ability to move from one company to the next?  How would it impact your ability to increase your salary because two competitors were forced to compete for your services?  What the owners and David Stern are trying to do, through the reduction of the BRI, through the changes in the mid-level of exception, and the tax structure is to limit the power and choice of the players.  It will invariably depress wages, bolster profits for owners, kill the NBA’s middle-class, and otherwise limit player power.

The owners’ proposal will likely HURT many teams and the quality of their basketball.  Look at the Boston Celtics: they have 7 players under contract for the 2011-2012 year, meaning they would need 5 more players just to get the 12-person minimum (teams often carry 15 players).  Based on estimates of a 50/50 BRI split, the Celtics would be roughly $15 million dollars over the cap, meaning that in order to fill out their roster they would be limited to minimum veteran salaries and one exception (unless they sign players previously under contract in 2010-2011).  They would be forced to pay a tax for every dollar they spend.  How do you think that will impact player movement?  How will it impact jobs?  What team will be willing and able to sign players beyond 12-man roster?  As much as it pains me to say this (as someone born and raised in Los Angeles), the proposal would be horrid for a team like the Celtics.

The NBA LOCKOUT is not about fans, despite claims that it is about helping the small-market teams and their fans.  As I have said before, I don’t buy the parity argument.  I buy it even less as it imagines the LOCKOUT as a struggle to protect small market teams from future player exodus. Focusing on LeBron James, Deron Williams, and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom left their teams for “greener” pastures in big markets, this argument focuses on the lack of fairness to the fans in these respective cities.  They cite the potential exits of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard as further evidence that the NBA needs structural change.  I am angered that anyone accepts this seriously flawed argument.  Whether thinking about the success of the Mavs or Spurs, or the failures of the Clippers, Knicks and the Warriors, market size does not guarantee success or failure.  It isn’t about the fans or fixing a broken system, but enhancing owner profits and further creating a league where players are     treated as “the help.”  It is about owners asserting their power to control the players.

Continue reading @NewBlackMan