No Innocence Left to Kill: Racism, Injustice and Explaining America to My Daughter
Posted on July 14, 2013
remember, forever and forever, that moment when you first discover the
cruelties and injustices of the world, and having been ill-prepared for
them, your heart breaks open.
I mean really discover them, and for yourself; not because
someone else told you to see the elephant standing, gigantic and
unrelenting in the middle of your room, but because you saw him, and now you know he’s there, and will never go away until you attack him, and with a vengeance.
Last night, and I am writing it down so that I will not
forget — because I already know she will not — my oldest daughter, who
attained the age of 12 only eleven days ago, became an American. Not in
the legal sense. She was already that, born here, and — as a white child
in a nation set up for people just like her — fully entitled to all the
rights and privileges thereof, without much question or drama. But now
she is American in the fullest and most horrible sense of that word, by
which I mean she has been truly introduced to the workings of the system
of which she is both a part, and, at the same time, merely an
inheritor. A system that fails — with a near-unanimity almost
incomprehensible to behold — to render justice to black peoples, the
family of Trayvon Martin being only the latest battered by the
machinations of American justice, but with all certainty not the last.
To watch her crumble, eyes swollen with tears too salty, too voluminous for her daddy to wipe away? Well now that is but the latest of my heartbreaks; to have to hold her, and tell her that everything will be OK, and to hear her respond, “No it won’t
be!” Because see, even though she learned last night about injustice
and even more than she knew before about the racial fault lines that
divide her nation, she is still a bit too young to fully comprehend the
notion of the marathon, as opposed to the sprint; to understand that
this is a very long race, indeed that even 26.2 miles is but a crawl in
the long distance struggle for justice. And that if she is as bothered
by what she sees as it appears, well now she will have to put on some
incredibly strong running shoes, because this, my dear, is the work.
This is why daddy does what he does. Now you know.
And yes, I am fully aware that there are
still those who would admonish me for even suggesting this case was
about race. Not just the defenders of George Zimmerman, with whom I
shall deal in a moment, but even the state, whose prosecutors
de-racialized this case to a point that frankly was as troubling as
anything the defense tried to do. Maybe more. I mean, the defense’s job
is to represent their client, and I cannot fault them for having done
so successfully. But the prosecution’s job is to make it clear to the
jury what the defendant did and preferably why he did it. By agreeing to
a fundamentally colorblind, “this isn’t about race,” narrative, they
gave away the best part of their arsenal before the war had really
Because anyone who still believes that this case had nothing to do
with race — or worse, that it was simply a tragedy, the racial meaning
of which was concocted by those whom they love to term “race hustlers” —
are suffering from a delusion so profound as to call into question
their capacities for rational thought. And yet still, let us try to
reason with them for a second, as if they were capable of hearing it.
Let’s do that for the sake of rational thought itself, as a thing we
still believe in; and for our country, which some of us still believe —
against all evidence — is capable of doing justice and living up to its
promises. In short, let’s give this one more shot.
Those who deny the racial angle to the killing of Trayvon Martin can
only do so by a willful ignorance, a carefully cultivated denial of
every logical, obvious piece of evidence before them, and by erasing
from their minds — if indeed they ever had anything in there to erase —
the entire history of American criminal justice, the criminal suspicion
regularly attached to black men, and the inevitable results whenever
black men pay for these suspicions with their lives. They must choose
to leave the dots unconnected between, for instance, Martin on the one
hand, and then on the other, Amadou Diallo or Sean Bell or Patrick
Dorismond, or any of a number of other black men whose names — were I to
list them — would take up page after page, and whose names wouldn’t
mean sh*t to most white people even if I did list them, and that is the problem.
Oh sure, I’ve heard it all before. George Zimmerman didn’t follow
Trayvon Martin because Martin was black; he followed him because he
thought he might be a criminal. Yes precious, I get that. But what you don’t get — and by not getting it while still managing to somehow hold down a job and feed yourself, scare the sh*t out of me — is far more important. Namely, if the presumption of criminality that Zimmerman attached to Martin was so attached because
the latter was black — and would not have been similarly attached to
him had he been white — then the charge of racial bias and profiling is
And surely we cannot deny that the presumption of criminality was
dependent on this dead child’s race can we? Before you answer, please
note that even the defense did not deny this. Indeed, Zimmerman’s
attorneys acknowledged in court that their client’s concerns about
Martin were connected directly to the fact that previous break-ins in
the neighborhood had been committed by young black males.
This is why it matters that George Zimmerman justified his following
of Martin because as he put it, “these punks” always get away.
In other words, Zimmerman saw Martin as just another “ punk” up
to no good, similar to those who had committed previous break-ins in the
community. But why? What behavior did Martin display that would have
suggested he was criminally inclined? Zimmerman’s team could produce
nothing to indicate anything particularly suspicious about Martin’s
actions that night. According to Zimmerman, Martin was walking in the
rain, “looking around,” or “looking around at the houses.” But not
looking in windows, or jiggling doorknobs or porch screens, or anything
that might have suggested a possible burglar. At no point was any
evidence presented by the defense to justify their client’s suspicions.
All we know is that Zimmerman saw Martin and concluded that he was just
like those other criminals. And to the extent there was nothing in
Martin’s actions — talking on the telephone and walking slowly home from
the store — that would have indicated he was another of those “
punks,” the only possible explanation as to why George Zimmerman would
have seen him that way is because Martin, as a young black male was presumed to be a likely criminal, and for no other reason, ultimately, but color.
Which is to say, Trayvon Martin is dead because he is black and
because George Zimmerman can’t differentiate — and didn’t see the need
to — between criminal and non-criminal black people. Which is to say,
George Zimmerman is a racist. Because if you cannot differentiate
between black criminals and just plain kids, and don’t even see the need
to try, apparently, you are a racist. I don’t care what your
Peruvian mother says, or her white husband who married the Peruvian
mother, or your brother, or your black friends, or the black girl you
took to prom, or the black kids you mentored. If you see a black child
and assume “criminal,” despite no behavioral evidence at all to suggest
such a conclusion, you are a racist. No exceptions. That goes for George
Zimmerman and for anyone reading this.
And here’s the thing: even in the evidentiary light most favorable to
George Zimmerman this would remain true. Because even if we believe, as
the jury did, that Zimmerman acted in self-defense, there can be no
question that were it not for George Zimmerman’s unfounded and
racially-biased suspicions that evening, Trayvon Martin would be alive,
and Zimmerman would be an entirely anonymous, pathetic wanna-be lawman,
about whom no one would much care. It was he who initiated the drama
that night. And even if you believe that Trayvon Martin attacked
Zimmerman after being followed by him, that doesn’t change.
But apparently that moral and existential truth matters little to
this jury or to the white reactionaries so quick to praise their
decision. To them, the fact that Martin might well have had reason to
fear Zimmerman that night, might have thought he was standing his
ground, confronted by someone who himself was “up to no good” is
irrelevant. They are saying that black people who fight back against
someone they think is creepy and who is following them, and might intend
to harm them, are more responsible for their deaths than those who
ultimately kill them. What they have said, and make no mistake about it,
is that any white person who wants to kill a black person can follow
one, confront them, maybe even provoke them; and as soon as that black
person perhaps takes a swing at them, or lunges at them, the white
pursuer can pull their weapon, fire, and reasonably assume that they
will get away with this act. I can start drama, and if you respond to
the drama I created, you are to blame, not me.
But we know, if we are remotely awake, that this same logic would
never be used to protect a black person accused of such an act. Let’s
travel back to 1984 shall we, and hypothetically apply this logic to the
Bernhard Goetz case in a little thought experiment so as to illustrate
Goetz, as you’ll recall, was the white man who, afraid of young black
men because he had been previously mugged, decided to shoot several
such youth on a subway. They had not threatened him. They had asked him
for money, and apparently teased him a bit. But at no point did they
threaten him. Nonetheless, he drew his weapon and fired several rounds
into them, even (according to his own initial account, later recanted),
shooting a second time at one of the young men, after saying, “You don’t
look so bad, here, have another.”
Goetz, predictably, was seen as a hero by the majority of the
nation’s whites, if polls and anecdotal evidence are to be believed. He
was a Dirty Harry-like vigilante, fighting back against crime, and more
to the point, black crime. Ultimately he too would successfully plead
self-defense and face conviction only on a minor weapons charge.
But let us pretend for a second that after Goetz pulled his weapon
and began to fire at the young men on that subway, one of them had
perhaps pulled his own firearm. Now as it turns out none of the boys had
one, but let’s just pretend. And let’s say that one of them
pulled a weapon precisely because, after all, he and his friends were
being fired upon and so, fearing for his life, he opted to defend
himself against this deranged gunman. And let’s pretend that the young
man managed to hit Goetz, perhaps paralyzing him as Goetz did, in fact,
to one of his victims. Does anyone seriously believe that that
young black man would have been able to press a successful self-defense
claim in court the way Goetz ultimately did? Or in the court of white
public opinion the way Zimmerman has? If you would answer yes to this
question you are either engaged in an act of self-delusion so profound
as to defy imagination, or you are so deeply committed to fooling others
as to make you truly dangerous.
But we are not fooled.
We don’t even have to travel back thirty years to the Goetz case to
make the point, in fact. We can stay here, with this case. If everything
about that night in Sanford had been the same, but Martin, fearing this
stranger following him — the latter not identifying himself at any
point as Neighborhood Watch — had pulled a weapon and shot George
Zimmerman out of a genuine fear that he was going to be harmed (and even
if Zimmerman had confronted him in a way so as to make that fear more
than speculative), would the claim of self-defense have rung true for
those who are so convinced by it in this case? Would this jury have
likely concluded that Trayvon had had a right to defend himself against
the perceived violent intentions of George Zimmerman?
Oh, and would it have taken so long for Martin to be arrested in the first place, had he
been the shooter? Would he have been granted bail? Would he have been
given the benefit of the doubt the way Zimmerman was by virtually every
white conservative in America of note? And remember, those white folks
were rushing to proclaim the shooting of Martin justified even before
there had been any claim made by Zimmerman that Trayvon had
attacked him. Before anyone had heard Zimmerman’s version of the story,
much of white America, and virtually its entire right flank had already
decided that Martin must have been up to no good because he wore a
hoodie (in the rain, imagine), and was tall (actually according to the
coroner he was 5’11″ not 6’2″ or 6’4″ as some have claimed), and that
because of those previous break-ins, Zimmerman had every right to
No, Martin-as-shooter would never have benefitted from these public pronouncements of innocence the way Zimmerman did.
Because apparently black people don’t have a right to defend themselves. Which is why Marissa Alexander,
a woman who had suffered violence at the hands of her husband (by his
own admission in fact), was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison
after firing a warning shot into a wall when she felt he was about to
yet again harm her.
And so it continues. Year after year and case after case it
continues, with black life viewed as expendable in the service of white
fear, with black males in particular (but many a black female as well
and plenty of Latino folk too) marked as problems to be solved, rather
than as children to be nurtured. And tonight, their parents will hold
them and try to assure them that everything is going to be OK, even as
they will have to worry again tomorrow that their black or brown child
may represent the physical embodiment of white anxiety, and pay the
ultimate price for that fact, either at the hands of a random loser with
a law enforcement jones, or an actual cop doing the bidding of the
state. In short, they will hold their children and lie to them, at least
a little — and to themselves — because who doesn’t want their child to believe that everything will be alright?
But in calmer moments these parents of color will also tell their children the truth. That in fact everything is not
going to be OK, unless we make it so. That justice is not an act of
wish fulfillment but the product of resistance. Because black parents
know these things like they know their names, and as a matter of
survival they make sure their children know them too.
And if their children have to know them, then mine must know them as well.
And now they do.
If their children are to be allowed no innocence free from these
concerns, then so too must mine sacrifice some of their naiveté upon the
altar of truth.
And now they have.