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 (in Exile): Blaming Hip-Hop for Hate Rock?

Blaming Hip-Hop for Hate Rock?

David J. Leonard & C. Richard King | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Little says more about the state of racism and the centrality of the white racial frame in the USA today than the rapidity with which pundits transformed a conversation about white power, racialized violence, and hate rock into a critique of hip-hop. Indeed, a number of discussions of the spree killing at the Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee, echoing broader political currents, reference the evils of hip-hop as both a defense and a scapegoat.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in The New Republic, John McWhorter rehearsed this well worn conversation to turn the killings into another referendum on hip-hop. “It has been fashionable,” he asserts, “to speculate on whether the White Power music he [Wade Michael Page] listened to helped stoke him into the senseless murders he committed…such speculations,” he suggests are both “incoherent” and “pointless—and they are marked, above all, by a cloying air of self-congratulation.” To “prove” his point, he invoked the tried and tested “hip-hop” comparison as if it represented mainstream rap, failing to note, of course, that he is specifically talking about a small subset of hip-hop music):

A comparison with another musical genre helps put the debate into relief. Indeed, in assessing White Power music’s influence on Page, it helps to acknowledge that rap music—savored by people of all colors, ranging in age from “youth” to middle-aged—has its own tendency to celebrate the indefensible. Some practitioners casually boast about hurting women—whether attacking a partner during intercourse (Cam’ron, “Boy, Boy”), or kicking a woman in the stomach to make her abort (Joe Budden, “Confessions II”) and, of course, all varieties of maiming and murder.

However, nasty as all of this is, and whatever one might say about its implications for the street culture that produced it, it’s all symptom rather than cause. Those who listen to rap—including myself—are not passively consuming its message, but actively seeking it as a release. Indeed, last I heard, the enlightened take on rap lyrics is that their violence must be taken not as counsel but as poetry, poses of strength from disenfranchised people—“Black Noise” as Brown’s Tricia Rose calls it. Other academics, priding themselves on their connection with the music, crown the makers of violent rap as “Prophets of the Hood” (Imani Perry, Princeton) or “Hoodlums” (William Van Deburg, University of Wisconsin), the latter meant as an arch compliment to men celebrated for speaking truth to power.

And there is more than a little bit of truth to this treatment of rap’s violent strain. It is, indeed, an attitude that functions as a response to the frustrations of everyday life. In that light, rapademics have been fond of noting that old-time “toasts” among black people had their violent strains as well. Despite the prevalent anxieties in the 1990s about the social consequences of rap music, evidence that the music causes actual violence never actually surfaced.

These arguments are as tired as they are simplistic; the failure to see any difference between rap music and hate rock is absurd on every level. Yet, they keep getting published. Yet another failure to account for white supremacy. Importantly, invoking the purported ills associated hip hop simultaneously recycles dangerous stereotypes about blacks and lets whites off the hook. Indeed, it encourages white readers to misrecognize the force of white racism and dissociate themselves from deeper structural arrangements, while essentially giving a pass to the violence, antipathy, and dehumanization at the core of white power music specifically, and white power thinking more generally. It is as if McWhorter would like to conclude: there are haters everywhere, stop picking on isolated whites who do bad things and pay attention to the ubiquitous threat of black pathology.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): Blaming Hip-Hop for Hate Rock?.

NewBlackMan (in Exile): In the Army Still? White Supremacists and the American Military

In the Army Still?

White Supremacists and the American Military

by David J. Leonard & C. Richard King |

NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Increasingly since 9/11, American political discourse and popular culture has acknowledged, if not celebrated, the sacrifices of members of its armed forces. The often self serving praise of the service of others, which so few with privilege have ever seriously contemplated, has not resulted in heightened care for soldiers and veterans, nor deeper reflection among many on those who opt to serve, and what their service might mean for American democracy.

Unfortunately, Wade Michael Page likely will not foster the needed conversations about these issues, but instead prompt attention to the dispositions and drives that led to Page to commit what has repeatedly been described “as a senseless act.” Yet, as noted by Rinku Sen in Colorlines, these murders “are neither senseless nor random, and the vast majority of such incidents here involve white men. Racism holds a terrible logic, for a concept with no grounding whatsoever in science or morality, yet too many white people don’t see any pattern.” Equally powerful, Harsha Walia reminds readers to break down the walls between extreme and mainstream, between individual and societal, between civilian and military, to look at this violence not as yet another instance of a bad apple but yet another of the rotten tree(s):

The crimes of white supremacists are not exceptions and do not and cannot exist in isolation from more systemic forms of racism. People of colour face legislated racism from immigration laws to policies governing Indigenous reserves; are discriminated and excluded from equitable access to healthcare, housing, childcare, and education; are disproportionately victims of police killings and child apprehensions; fill the floors of sweatshops and factories; are over-represented in heads counts on poverty rates, incarceration rates, unemployment rates, and high school dropout rates. Colonialism has and continues to be shaped by the counters of white men’s civilizing missions.

To our minds, if this properly projects the arc of media coverage, until the next trauma or panic, we fear we will have lost real occasion to put into dialogue two key elements of Page’s biography: he was a veteran and he was a white supremacist. We do not know how these elements of his identity and experience interfaced with one another, though apparently his general discharge in 1998 was not related to bias. We do know, however, that thinking about the connections between white nationalist groups and the U.S. military, between the mainstream and the extreme, will help us better apprehend the shooting in Wisconsin, and more engage their implications more sensibly. “It would be a mistake to dismiss Page was an isolated actor from a lunatic fringe disconnected from the mainstream of U.S. society. In fact, the reality is that white supremacy is a persistent, tragic feature of the American cultural and political landscape,” writes Jessie Daniels. “The extreme expressions of white supremacy – like this shooting, or like some of the violent images and messages previously circulated in print and now online – are part of a larger problem. White supremacy is woven into the fabric of our society and it kills people.” We see this fact in the relationship between white supremacy and the U.S. military.

This is not a new issue, but it one that continues to resurface, often in association with tragic acts of violence. Nearly 25 years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) brought to the attention of the Reagan administration that “active-duty Marines at Camp Lejeune, NC, were participating in paramilitary Ku Klux Klan activities and even stealing military weaponry for Klan use.” Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger acted decisively, clarifying for members of the armed forces that involvement with “white supremacy, neo-Nazi and other such groups…[was] utterly incompatible with military service.”

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): In the Army Still? White Supremacists and the American Military.

DEAR WHITE FOLKS: You Don’t Know How Easy You Have It – News & Views – EBONY

You Don’t Know How Easy You Have It

by David J. Leonard

Dear White folks:

Between the racist comments, the constant use of the race denial card (this country’s most frequently used “race card”) and the absurd claims of White victimhood, you have really grated my last nerve.

Sure, we got teary during The Blind Side and Antoine Fisher; we maybe even gave money to KONY2012 and after Hurricane Katrina; we maybe even donned a hoodie to protest the murder of Trayvon Martin. I don’t even doubt there are individuals out there who are genuinely concerned about racism and injustice; I don’t doubt that there are many Whites that marched with Dr. King and whose “best friends” might be Black. None of this matters if African Americans continue to die at the hands of guns held by security guards and police officers all without justice

I have heard that “we are all Trayvon Martin” over the last few weeks, yet we are not Trayvon Martin – and we never could be. White America is never suspicious. White America can walk to the store without fear of being hunted down. White America can count on justice and a nation grieving at the loss of White life. We aren’t Trayvon Martin, we are George Zimmerman: presumed innocent until proven innocent.

I want you to close your eyes for a second, and imagine that your son or daughter, sister or brother, granddaughter or grandson, ventured to the corner store for some Skittles and tea but never returned? Can you imagine if Peter or Jan were gunned down right around the corner from your house and the police didn’t notify you right away? Can you imagine if little Sydney or Bobby sat in the morgue for days as you searched to find out what happened them? Can you even imagine the police letting the perpetrator go or the news media remaining silent? Can you even fathom learning about background and drug tests on your child? Can you imagine the news media demonizing your child, blaming your child for his own death?

Can you imagine the outcry if seven White youths had been gunned down by police and security guards in a matter of months? Can you imagine the extensive political interest, the media stories that would saturate the airwaves? Can you imagine Fox News or any number of newspapers reporting about a school suspension for one of the victims or doctoring pictures in an attempt to make these victims less sympathetic? Can you imagine a person holding up a sign calling these victims “thugs” and “hoodlums.”Just think about the media frenzy, the concern from politicians, and the national horror every time a school shooting happens in Suburbia or every time a White woman goes missing…can you imagine if women routinely went missing from your community and the news and police department simply couldn’t be bothered?

No, you can’t. And you don’t have to.

Yet, from Florida to Los Angeles, from Atlanta to Wisconsin, from Chicago to Ohio, Black families are burying the innocent and the future. Doesn’t that make you sad; doesn’t that make your angry? Our silence is telling. We can barely say their names much less acknowledge the epidemic in our midst: Stephon Watts. Trayvon Martin. Ramarley Graham. Wendell Allen. Dante Price. Bo Morrison. Rekia Boyd. Kendrec McDade.

All have lost their lives; and we don’t even say their names. All have died under similarly disturbing circumstances. All should have prompted national outrage and action; or at the least for us to say their names.

I don’t care if you cried during The Help and if the ‘feel good’ movie of the year featuring chicken-frying maids and affluent White women made you feel all post-racial tingly on the inside. Did you cry at the report of yet another lost Black life? If so, what have those tears done – have they led you to join a rally, to demand justice? I don’t care if you voted for President Obama; have you demanded dramatic changes to our criminal (in)justice system? It is time for us to check ourselves, to listen and demand a better America starting with ourselves. It is time to stop denying racism and defending White privilege, distracting and deflecting with “what ifs” and excuses. It is time to demand justice for the Trayvons and the Rekias, not because it could have been one of our sons and daughters–it couldn’t–but because it is simply the right thing to do.

Continue reading @ DEAR WHITE FOLKS: You Don’t Know How Easy You Have It – News & Views – EBONY.

NewBlackMan: Obama is Enslaving the White Middle Class? The GOP Ramps Up Its Racial Rhetoric

Obama is Enslaving the White Middle Class? The GOP Ramps Up Its Racial Rhetoric

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Having already literally and proverbially stuck their finger in the face of the President of the United States, having already deployed the food stamp rhetoric, the GOP launched its newest attack: Barack Obama as twenty-first century slave owner.

Mark Oxner, a Republican congressional candidate from Florida, recently released a campaign advertisement that shows a group of entitled and wealthy people sipping from their gold cups. Celebrating “bank bailouts,” “health care for life” and “corporate subsidies” aboard the U.S.S. Obamaship. Amid the celebration, and captain Obama stifling any questions, the advertisement works to expose the underbelly and consequences of the entitlement society: enslaved children rowing the ship. With the ship venturing toward a cliff, Mr. Oxner announces, “let’s not enslave our children. It’s time to turn this ship around.”

Of course, this racial line of attack, one that plays on a fallacious view of history, one that denies the connection between white supremacy and the history of slavery, and that otherwise plays on “racial anxiety,” is nothing new. A 2011 advertisement from American Future Fund warned of a future of “economic slavery,” lamenting Obama’s efforts to hand over America’s future to China. Signs representing President Obama as slave master and “tax payers” or “citizens” (whites) as slaves have been visible at various Tea party rallies (example #1, #2, #3, #4). Reiterating the thirty-year platform of the GOP – waning power of whites, the end of American prosperity, exceptionalism and civilization because racial change – the advertisement and this sort of demagoguery is emblematic of the GOP’s ideological foundation.

Michelle Bachman, in 2011, connected the national debt to the history of slavery: “It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status, it didn’t matter whether they descended from known royalty or whether they were of a higher class or a lower class, it made no difference. Once you got here [to the United States] you were all the same.” In her eyes, slavery has changed, with the process of enslavement merely changing alongside who is master and who is slave. “From the time when George Washington took the presidency on his first day to the day George W. Bush left as president of the United States, all 43 presidents, if you take all of the debt combined of all of those 43 presidents, do you know that all of that debt is less than the debt that was accumulated by Barack Obama in one year? That is the level of debt and spending that we have engaged in. So this isn’t hyperbole. This is facts.”

She is not alone with these types of “facts.” Allan West, who described himself as Harriet Tubman, denounced “Barack Obama as the ‘overseer’ of a plantation on which modern blacks are captive.” In 2009, published a blog post entitled, “Barack Obama, a Black Man, is Now the Most Grotesque Slave Owner in History,” where the author argues that the policies and power of the Obama administration reflects the enslavement of the (white) populace

Continue reading NewBlackMan: Obama is Enslaving the White Middle Class? The GOP Ramps Up Its Racial Rhetoric.