This article appeared at The Huffington Post on July 19, 2013.
For Trayvon Martin and his family I feel a sadness that will not lift. For America, I feel a dread that certain horrors repeat again and again, chief among them the murder of young men of color, not only with impunity for their killers but under the cover of judicial sanction. A re-armed George Zimmerman walks free, after a trial in which references to racism were forbidden by the judge. The unarmed Trayvon Martin, under the interpretation of the law, had no right to stand his ground against an armed vigilante. The “incident” considered by the jury, according to the instructions given by the judge, began with a physical confrontation between Trayvon and Zimmerman, not when Zimmerman launched his armed pursuit, muttering, “Fucking punks. These assholes, they always get away.”
Trayvon died bravely. But is that the only option for the many who are targeted deliberately and gunned down from the Arizona border to the boroughs of New York? The norms are broken, the laws are futile and the Black Panther Party no longer exists to serve notice of vengeance.
The evidence of a violently divided America can be understood in the failure of the criminal justice system, where rationality and objectivity are supposed to prevail. In the case of Trayvon and countless others, however, the courts are where objectivity comes to an end.
The six jurors almost surely did not see themselves as driven by racial prejudice or stereotypes, but were in the grip of those stereotypes unconsciously. In the same way, poll after poll of New Yorkers shows a deep racial divide over the police stop-and-frisk policy, with whites believing it to be justified and people of color sharply opposed.
For a short while it appeared that this case would be different. At first, Trayvon appeared to be a fallen angel, a good boy grabbing some Skittles and iced tea before watching television with his family, a young man with no criminal record, assaulted by a vigilante who was completely out of control. But gradually the prosecutors and media began dropping suggestions that Trayvon was a potential menace. There was the hoodie. The use of marijuana. The school suspension. Not that these factual crumbs were evidence of anything. But the public and media perception grew that Trayvon was “suspicious”, precisely the conclusion of George Zimmerman on that rainy and fateful night.
Altering this initial – and accurate – perception of Trayvon was necessary to reframe Zimmerman’s account of a struggle in which the killer feared for his life. Trayvon Martin had to fit the profile of a super-predator. Trayvon was no longer an innocent kid in the mainstream view; he was an aggressive young man who considered Zimmerman nothing more than a “creepy cracker.” Having super-masculine powers, his aggression could only be stopped by a bullet directly into his heart of darkness.
And where did the concept of the super-predator originate? One can find it from the beginning of slavery times, but its contemporary resurrection came from neo-conservative intellectuals, not from Southern crackers. To be precise:
- In the 1980s and 1990s, the official “wars” against gangs and drugs were unleashed in America, resulting in what Troy Duster has described as “the greatest shift in the racial composition of the inmates in our prisons in all of US history.” By the year 2000, the US had 25 percent of the world’s inmates. The inmate population of California alone rose from 28,000 to over 150,000.
- Incidents like the rape of a white female jogger in Central Park in 1989 fueled the new racial hysteria. All charges against the so-called Central Park Five – five early Trayvon Martins – were not vacated until 2002.
- UCLA professor James Q. Wilson predicted in 1995 that a teenage crime wave was inevitable. He said Americans should “get ready” for an 30,000 “young muggers, killers and thieves than we now have.” This plague was as inevitable as demography, Wilson declared, the year Trayvon Martin was born.
- In 1996, Ronald Reagan’s drug war czar, William Bennett, and another top drug warrior, John Walters, wrote a book predicting “a new generation of street criminals is upon us - the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known.” Trayvon Martin was one year old.
- The Bennett thesis was based on an article titled, “The Coming of the Super-Predators,” by John J. Dilulio, in The Weekly Standard, the house organ of the neo-conservatives. Dilulio predicted there would be an additional 270,000 juvenile super-predators who would “terrorize our nation” by 2010, just when a kid like Trayvon would turn fifteen years of age. A few years later, Dilulio acknowledged that his research was all wrong, but by then it was too late.
Politically, the message of “the coming storm of super-predators” swept the nation. The leading perpetrators were New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and “Amerca’s cop” William Bratton, not George Wallace and Bull Connor. The super-predator concept was supposedly based on factual research, not age-old prejudice. Even today, the image of what Bratton called “homeland terrorists” dominates the American imagination. The research overlays and reinforces the white subconscious to this day.
It is vitally important to understand, however, that the super-predator thesis was without intellectual justification and was promoted for ideological and partisan purposes. The reason that Dilulio rejected his own research was it was based only a demographic projection without any consideration of economic, educational, political or other policy changes. Only on this basis could a future super-predator be predicted while in diapers. Nothing in that child’s future – jobs for their parents, a good preschool experience, great teachers, nothing whatever – could prevent the evolution into a beast. And since the teenage demographic was growing, the nation would be overwhelmed, as even Bill Clinton predicted.
The political purpose of the super-predator thesis, according to those like Bennett, was, first, to discredit the idea of rehabilitation, which was “emasculating” the criminal justice system. Instead the view was that youthful super-predators were incorrigible and infected with the disease of “moral poverty.” Private orphanages were often recommended as an alternative to prison. The second political message was to demolish as “politically incorrect” the notions that poverty causes crime or that there was any such thing as disproportionate mass incarceration. The neo-conservatives and their allies were employing public fear of violent crime to carry out their longtime agenda of slashing government social programs. Even prisons were to be privatized.
The neo-conservative messaging was tremendously effective. Not until recent years, when the fiscal costs on states and municipalities grew too burdensome, has there been a lull and slight reduction in the incarceration rate, the highest or second highest in the world. The human damage is incalculable, so severe that even the right-wing Chief Justice John G. Roberts' Supreme Court has found California in systemic violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
(Some of the hunger strikers in California’s Pelican Bay prison have been in solitary confinement for decades, precisely because they are considered incorrigible super-predators. The official state hypocrisy is revealed by the policy of easing restrictions on inmates if and only if they provide evidence of gang affiliations among other prisoners with whom they are serving time. The point is that they are not “incorrigible” if they change their behavior by putting their lives at risk.)
The super-predator thesis is racism with a pseudo-academic cover. The irony is that our civil rights progress has driven prejudice underground, into the unconscious, into a discourse and vocabulary of denial. Perhaps I am being too generous, but I believe the judge, prosecution, Florida jury and most of Mr. Zimmerman’s supporters perceive Trayvon Martin as a super-predator without being aware of the racial filter closing their minds. The mainstream media, which did so much to bring awareness of the historic case, also is likely unaware that they, too, would be afraid of a Trayvon walking anywhere near them, especially at night.
How does one break the grip of what Michele Alexander calls this “new Jim Crow”, if it is both covert and unconscious?
First, we need to deepen our understanding that this is the way many in the Tea Party, the white south, and the Republican Party view Barack and Michele Obama. Not that the Obamas are lurking super-predators themselves, although millions of white Americans were stricken with ancient fear when O.J. Simpson – in their eyes, the perfectly acceptable black man – could kill his white ex-girlfriend and a white man in her presence – in such a “savage” act. (See Gilligan, James. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, for a brilliant dissection of this point.) The O.J. murder trial marked the moment that awakened the white fear that even an educated black man was inherently suspicious. (See the 2009 case of Dr. Henry Louis Gates and the Boston police for another example.)
In other words, we need to “get over” the broad assumption that sadistic racism is a thing of the past, when in fact it might increase because certain white people are extremely threatened at the loss of their superiority. (See the 2009 Homeland Security Report on increasing violent threats, including assassination threats, because of the recession and election of Obama. The report was shelved under Republican attack.)
Screen showings of the new documentary about Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station, killed by the Oakland BART police in 2009, and the Ken Burns film, The Central Park Five. Learn about and support juvenile justice organizations in your community. Demand that cities adopt gang intervention programs like those fostered in Los Angeles after decades of community pressure. Organize the juvenile justice movement with a stepped-up attack on racial profiling, arbitrary stop-and-frisk, and mass incarceration. Demand accountability from the neo-conservatives who fabricated the “super-predator” doctrine as surely as their propaganda about “weapons of mass destruction” or the sweeping authorization of the Global War on Terrorism. Counter the propaganda that government budget cuts and free-market extremism will lift the underclass to a better future. Defend the New Deal as a great beginning, not the cause of our deficits.
Finally, consider building monuments and permanent memorials to the memory of Trayvon Martin. In his death, Trayvon becomes an iconic figure in our history and the future of the younger generation. His story, and the story of George Zimmerman’s trial, will be told and taught for decades to come. The story will be as sharply contested as the verdict, and Trayvon’s supporters will need to claim his life and story as precious. Politicians at all levels can be challenged to commemorate his name. Public parks and school buildings can be emblazoned with his name as well. The photo of his young face should be included on the rolls of martyrs. Let the rock be rolled back so his spirit can ascend, while his demonizers are sentenced to oblivion and shame. Let the world know: he died for our sins.