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By David C. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan

Monday, March 12, 2012.

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.

At the halftime of the 2012 All Star game, 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 ‘criminal blackman’ whether they have ever been to prison or not" (p. 194).  In a review of Alexander’s The New Jim CrowMax 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 mother, 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. 

None of this is surprising given its racial and national tropes and narratives.  The video itself, and the subsequent discourse surrounding Uganda, constructs Kony as evil, as the source of all pain and suffering for the people in the region. Whereas (white) Westerners are imagined as saviors, as beacons of hope, change, and peace, Kony is a despicable criminal who is the source of all problems. 

In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, its director shows a picture of Kony to his son so that he can see “evil” and what a “bad guy” looks like.  In what feels like a postmodern twist of Kenneth Clark’s famous doll test (h/t to Usame Tungur for making this point), where black children were asked to describe black and white dolls (bad versus good) as evidence of the consequences of white supremacy.  In this case, a white child and his father locates evil in the body of an African man with whiteness remaining as goodness since he (we) are saving the many African children suffering because of Kony.  With “the Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012,” Max Fisher highlights the racially comforting narrative offered by the documentary. 


The much-circulated campaign subtly reinforces an idea that has been one of Africa's biggest disasters: that well-meaning Westerners need to come in and fix it. Africans, in this telling, are helpless victims, and Westerners are the heroes. It's part of a long tradition of Western advocacy that has, for centuries, adopted some form of white man's burden, treating African people as cared for only to the extent that Westerners care, their problems solvable only to the extent that Westerners solve them, and surely damned unless we can save them. First it was with missionaries, then "civilizing" missions, and finally the ultimate end of white paternalism, which was placing Africans under the direct Western control of imperialism. And while imperialism may have collapsed 50 years ago, that mentality persists, because it is rewarding and ennobling to feel needed and to believe you are doing something good.

Similarly, Natasha Jackson (@NatashaTheory) focuses on benevolent racismwith her discussion of Kony 2012: “White liberals who have dedicated their lives to “helping” people of color have a hard time seeing, let alone addressing, the benevolent racism that can undermine even their best intentions. How can they be racist when they want to help so badly?”

Akin to a Rambo, Invisible Children/the West is reimagined as white savior, as a source of peace and tranquility for the despair facing Uganda.  As with Rambo, the potential violence inflicted above Kony or others is justifiable in the eradication of evil.  As noted by Susan Jeffords and by Richard Manson, in his dissertation on white masculinity, the white savior has been central to a national reconstructive project since the 1980s:

Led by the Ronald Reagan cowboy image, the decade saw the appearance of He-Man, Rambo, and the Terminator, one powerfully over-muscled white male image after another which relocate the white male at the center of power in the imagined American community. To this day, the "normative body that enveloped strength, labor, determination"3 which is "like Reagan's own, male and white"34 has retained if not increased its potency, likely as a result of "winning" the Cold War.

In a twitter conversation about Rambo and ultimately Kony 12, Sarah Jackson (@sjjphd) rightfully identified the film as an example of how “white violence is framed as necessary to save humanity, but the black violence...its downfall.” The representation of blackness as evil, as threats to humanity and peace, as unredeemable and perpetually dangerous, especially in comparison to a kind, gentle and benevolent white body, not only justifies the mythical Rambo figure or the Kony campaign, but mass incarceration and daily forms of violence.  The white savior complex imagines black violence as a threat to civilization and thus any form of state violence, whether international war or the prison industrial complex is repositioned as “saving” and “civilizing.” 

This leads me back to Trayvon Martin, whose death can be tied to an ideological and representational reality that imagines blackness as a threat to peace, tranquility, and civilization.  His presumed unlawful entry into a white-gated community raised suspicion.  His criminalized body, as opposed to the innocence and bravery afforded to Zimmerman’s white body in the national imagination, is suspect, helping explain both the media and police response to date.   While Trayvon Martin is the farthest thing from Joseph Kony, the fear they cause, the criminality within the dominant imagination, and their presumed threats to civilization leads to similar treatment irrespective of their polar existences.  If this wasn’t the case, maybe we could see a nationwide push to bring about justice for Martin.  In this transformative world, financial contributions would be directed not to an organization that seems intent on supporting military intervention in Uganda; instead money would flow to groups committed to challenging the criminalization of blackness within the United States and throughout the globe.  How about a Justice for Trayvon 2012 movement?  What about a movement committed to eradicating AIDS or infant mortality throughout Africa?  What about one that listens to and works alongside of those already engaged in these fights for justice? Under these circumstances we may actually see accountability, justice, and peace for millions of people.


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman, USA. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.



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