Toward a Non-Binary Discussion of Race: Thoughts on Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The killing of Trayvon Martin moved me, like so many other Black people, to my core. It seemed that every African American family had its tale. I had had my own moments. Traveling south with my godmother the year after Emmet Till was murdered, my mother had told me to behave and not to “sass.” Years later, as a professor in Chicago, I was confronted by a squad of white policemen crouched with weapons drawn. The officers of the law told me to freeze, frisked me, and then told me to follow them. Had I moved, I would have probably been shot. They pushed me toward a Brownstone where a young woman stood in the cold doorway. “He’s too old,” she said. She had allegedly been raped.

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Young protesters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, take part in a "Justice for Trayvon" rally in June 2013. Credit: Creative Commons/Light Brigading.

As President Obama commented after the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, Black men and boys face special suspicion and stereotyping in the United States. Obama’s reflections appeared heartfelt and personal. However, as time went on I was surprised by the comments made by the proliferation of pundits on TV, each talking about race in America. Almost all made reference to events a generation ago. Sadly, generals are always fighting the last war. A rotund mestizo of Peruvian descent was transformed in the hoopla to the poster boy of “crackerdom” (A thousand miles away, his face might have been the face of oppressed migrants in Arizona.) However, once the Black/White narrative was launched, it gained steam. While in interviews Zimmerman’s brother stressed his sibling’s mixed-race roots, the press de-ethnicized him to an unimaginable degree in one of the most bizarre cases of blanqueamento (racial whitening) in the Americas. The fact that Zimmerman might be a racially motivated killer without being a Son of the Confederacy seemed impossible to fathom—or too much of a threat to perceived ethno-racial coalitions.

We need to get real. Americans talk a lot about “race” but are bound up in a highly specious construction of it. We are caught up in what I shall call the “Dixie Narrative.” In the American telling, chattel slavery was an institution unique to the United States, the “peculiar institution” driven not by economic interest, but by racism. In reality, far more massive slaveries stretched in a bloody arc from Havana to Rio. Only 4.5 percent of enslaved persons were transported to what is now the United States. (How do you think we got the word Negro in the first place?) For most of our new arrivals, racism, either as victims or perpetrators, is a preexisting condition.

Travyon Martin’s death is a local story gone national. Black scholar Cornel West, in a furious jeremiad, condemned Zimmerman and then went on to call Obama a “global Zimmerman.” Looking beyond the boundaries of the Dixie Narrative, West condemned the president for the deaths of over 200 children in Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan. West’s outburst was certainly off-message in Obama’s America. However, he reminds us that we are living in multiracial America in 2013; this is not really a replay of Emmet Till in the mid-1950s.

We now have before us the trial of another young man who wore a hoodie, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He, along with his brother Tamerlan, exploded two homemade bombs in April 2013 in Boston, killing three people and wounding over 200. Shock radio in Boston thundered that the attack was in some way related to Obama’s lax polices on immigration, especially from Latin America. On the day that the nineteen-year old Dzhokhar (“Jahar”) Tsarnaev was apprehended, I stood in Boston’s North Station as a rather burly white (but swarthy) man bellowed at a TV screen, “All I want to know is were they white!”

I am sure that it greatly discomforted him to find out that the Brothers Tsarnaev were white; indeed, they were real “Caucasians,” immigrants of Chechnyan origin. The week after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the face of Jahar graced the cover of Rolling Stone and a minor tempest broke out. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino decried the publication. Major chain stores banned it. Jahar’s picture was not new; it had been around Boston for weeks. But it was the new face of evil—young, photogenic, and pouty. This was no tattooed Trayvon or pudgy Zimmerman.

Americans can’t deal with “race”—especially when it really is not binary. It should not be necessary to say that the vast majority of Muslims in America are law-abiding and seeks ways of coexisting within a pluralistic society. However, Islam stretches across a wide color spectrum and prescribes outward manifestations of communal belonging and is little concerned with learning the hoary racial formulations of Dixie. (Specifically the twenty-six-year-old older brother, Tamerlan, was disdainful of the down-home homilies of Martin Luther King). When I visited the Roxbury Mosque in Boston a month after the bombing, I could not help but be struck by the fact that the gathering was probably much more integrated in terms of class and hue than an Obama cabinet meeting.

The Boston tragedy may mark the death of old racist assumptions as well as the easy platitudes of diversity. Assimilation is not what it used to be. What is new is that the long queue to enter American-ness (long construed as “non-blackness”) now has people who, because of radical religious ideology, really get out of line. We live in a new world in which some men (and some women) spit back the proffered gift of becoming “mainstream.” Some newcomers don’t embrace assimilated American-ness as did George Zimmerman. At the same time many young immigrants, especially Muslims, do not embrace the vaguely defined “people of color” designation sloppily used by most of us.

The old game of Black and White will now have many more players. We can expect a world in which men with names like Jorge Gutierrez (Gutierrez was Zimmerman’s mother’s last name) tangle with men with names like Albert Martin (Trayvon’s brother). Tragically, we can also expect a world in which some legally white men and women, inflamed by news of drones over Pakistan, act out their murderous revenge fantasies. We need a discussion, but one not statically rooted in the Dixie Narrative.

Unfortunately, we shall have more Trayvons. And, until we work out a more just relationship with the roiled Islamic world, we shall have more Jahars, young men who would blow both Martin and Zimmerman to kingdom come. We need to have real discussion about our changing ethnoracial order, including religious division, color, class, and imperialism, if we are to survive as a society. West may not be correct that Obama is the “global Zimmerman,” but he does well to remind us that there are issues of global justice involving far more than a replay of the peculiar history of the Southern United States.

Sundiata Ibrahim is professor emeritus of history and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University and a lay speaker at Union Methodist Church, the only church of its size and denomination to be welcoming and affirming of the LGBT community. He is currently working on his fifth book, Not Out of Dixie: Obama and the American Identity Crisis.
 
tags: Race, US Politics, War & Peace   
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