The acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, has a violent history in the American public imagination in which black men are routinely represented as the aggressor to justify white violence.
From late 19th century lynchings in the name of “protecting” white womanhood and Emmett Till’s 1955 murder to recent state executions of black men like Troy Davis, white supremacy in the United States narrates a particular tale of so-called white innocence and black criminality.
This storytelling technique is so imprinted into white consciousness that a grown man stalked and killed a child, yet the child is the one found to be the criminal.
|This storytelling is so imprinted into white consciousness that a grown man stalked and killed a child, yet the child is the one found to be the criminal.|
The white supremacist imagination and its storytelling of black criminality began in the founding of America and its earliest forms of economics, media and law. Consider: Slave traders and slave-owners were allowed to do violence to their “property” without being represented as the unlawful aggressor. How can you be a criminal if the entire structure of law and the psychology of those in power support your violence?
Thus it is today that most textbooks continue to narrate, lopsidedly, a founding figure like Thomas Jefferson as a great and noble man—not the brutal aggressor he was. Jefferson oversaw horrific violence and widespread cruelty on his plantation, and he found it quite profitable.
Colonial newspapers depicted black slaves who tried to escape their abusers as the problem. Black slaves were routinely accused of raping white women while white men could rape the black and indigenous—not to mention their own wives—without being held accountable.
What defined a crime depended not on the act of violence itself but on the social position of the perpetrator and victim, a hierarchy determined by ideologies of race, gender and class supremacy intertwined within U.S. economics.
Today we live in a system descended from these structures and the cultural stories that support them. In our world, Martin is dead, and Zimmerman—who benefits from white privilege in his Florida context—now walks free. It is a world in which racist suspicion and violence is hurled at black and brown persons: daily stop and frisks; traumas perpetuated within our prisons; young lives marked as criminal because punishment and privilege is dispensed according to skin color.
White supremacist storytelling relies on emotionally laden details that trigger the supremacist’s fear and paranoia—and Zimmerman’s defense counsel knew it.
Take for instance the small amount of marijuana present in Trayvon’s body, a detail the defense pushed to be told to the jury. Why might the defense see this particular detail as so important?
As Michelle Alexander has shown in The New Jim Crow, being suspected of using marijuana, if you are black or brown, marks your personhood as criminal in the white supremacist imagination. It does not seem to matter that black, brown and white people use drugs at equal rates. Black and brown folks are held with suspicion and criminalized, given long-term records that forever alter their lives and systemically humiliated in their own neighborhoods by police.
The defense knew to push hard for the marijuana detail because a black teenager smoking marijuana has become cultural shorthand for “criminal” within racism’s storyline.
George Zimmerman’s trial reveals tremendous power in representation—how the story is told and by whom, what associations get triggered by the details of the story and how the storyline taps into historical genealogies. Therefore, let’s consider Rachel Jeantel.
Speaking three languages, Jeantel likely spoke more than most in that courtroom. Yet she was represented as not being verbally skilled because while speaking English, she refused to code switch and speak the form of English white America assumes to be the only English.
Furthermore, she refused to take a white male’s condescension and attempt at verbal control without pushing back rhetorically. Jeantel unequivocally refused to consider the idea that Trayvon was the criminal as a plausible story worthy of address.
Like Trayvon and others, standing up to white supremacy meant she would be targeted, and her character and words contorted into the script of the “combative” black woman.
The white supremacist narrative will have it no other way: Its goal has always been to control the tale. But the truth is there are new and more powerful narratives to write—and creating a world in which Trayvon would still be alive depends on it.
Kimberly B. George was most recently a postgraduate scholar at Yale. In September, she will be a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on how cultural stories of race and gender in the U.S. contribute to violence.