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By David J. Leonard | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013.

 

 

Watching the George Zimmerman trial has been a daily reminder of the ways that race and the criminal (in)justice system collide. The trial has been a daily display of the different standards, scripts, and narratives afforded to both victims and the accused, and how race sits at the center of these “two Americas.”  Media coverage of the trial has presented judgments  on whose life matters, whose future matters, whose pain matters, whose suffering matters, whose experiences matter, and who deserves, is entitled to, and will receive sympathy, mourning, and justice.

 

Just as every person within America is profiled as guilty or innocent, as desirable or undesirable, violence is profiled as well.  Gun violence is profiled racially. Victims are profiled racially.  Perpetrators of violence are profiled; the families and friends are profiled as well; communities are not spared from this process. Ultimately, the narratives embraced are dissimilar across communities whereupon race creates a dividing line that marks them as separate and unequal.  This is racism at its core. 

 

“Deep in the white American psyche” rests the controlling belief that sees “the impossibility of Black innocence” (Mann 2013).  Inside this same dominant worldview is that impossibility of white guilt. 

 

The perpetual criminalization of Trayvon Martin is telling; the efforts to blame him for his own death; whether from the defense questioning of Sabrina Fulton or the mentions of trace amounts of THC in his system at the time of his death, are evident in the ubiquity of depicting Trayvon as a “thug,” a “suspect” and a “criminal” (a CNN “expert” even justified Zimmerman’s profanity-laced 911 call because he thought he was following a criminal). 

 

All of this is operates from and perpetuates the presumed guilt of Trayvon Martin and black bodies in general.  Zimmerman, on the other hand, is presumed innocent and a good person who is now being victimized.

 

On Fox News recently, Greg Jarrett and Kimberly Guilfoyle lamented the costs and anguish experienced by Zimmerman, citing his weight gain as evidence of his victimization.  “You eat when you’re under stress and pressure and stuff like that,” Guilfoyle reminded the audience, “So, you know, he’s already been punished to some extent. We’ll wait and see whether a Jury punishes him further.” “This is an individual that was trying to do some civic duty by being on the community watch,” Jarrett noted, “that was the purpose of why he was there that night.” In other words, Zimmerman was a victim; victimized in the past, on this fateful night, and through the process.  Sympathizes should rest with him. 

 

While the verdict has not been read, the trial itself, the media coverage of the trial,  the focus on the Newtown shootings as opposed to gun violence in Chicago, as well as the demands for background checks and not jobs, and the focus on mental health and not schools, are testaments to the ways race sits at the center of discourses of gun violence, and the criminal justice system.

 

Black death and white death are conceived as separate and unequal within the dominant white imagination; yet the stories about life and death in black and white are contingent upon one another. White life is privileged over anything else.  

 

The scripts we see with regards to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, or  Newtown, and Chicago, are the stories of guilt and innocence; they are the stories of blacks and whites—evidence of the persistence of racism and the illusion of post-racial America. At the core of dominant discussions of guns and violence, like those of crime and punishment, is a presumption of black guilt and white innocence.  White America clings to the profiles of guilt and innocence as a religion.

 

To look at the stories told of Adam Lanza and James Holmes is to look at the difference in the profiling of and narratives associated with Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, another unarmed black teen shot to death in Florida. W.E.B Dubois once asked when writing about America’s race question, “how does it feel to be a problem?” Contemporary discussions of gun violence, from inner-cities to the suburbs, highlight the continued relevance of his words within America.

 

While the judge limited the ability of the prosecution to bring race into focus and to talk about racial profiling, among other things, race remains at the center of the trial and the criminal justice system—at the heart of life and death. The demands for colorblindness amid the realities of a racist America means that this trial, like those before, are playing out according to the hegemonic script: black criminalization and white innocence.  It is my hope for a new ending where justice and mourning no longer remain a dream deferred.  

 

***

 

 

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman.  Leonard’s latest books include After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness  (SUNY Press) and African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press) co-edited with Lisa Guerrero. He is currently working on a book Presumed Innocence: White Mass Shooters in the Era of Trayvon about gun violence in America.

 

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