George Zimmerman, White Supremacy and Black and Brown Criminality: It’s Much More than Racism — by Gyasi Ross

I wish George Zimmerman was simply a racist.  I wish I could say that he was a white redneck that hated brown-skinned people.  If he were, then the shooting of Trayvon Martin would be explainable.  It would still be tragic and wrong and heartbreaking, but at least it would fit into historical terms that we could understand: “racist,” “white person,” “black person,” “gun,” “fear” and “tragic death.”

But he’s not white, and he’s not a racist.

Zimmerman was the perpetrator of this awful crime.  Horrible.  And as evil as that crime was, it would feel good to be able to demonize him and pretend that he is an aberration.  But he is not unique—in fact, he is very typical in this Nation.  As much as I’ve seen the memes and facebook posts that “We Are All Trayvon,” I think that we are also likewise “All George Zimmerman.”  That is, much like pretty much every person in this Nation of all colors, he is a by-product of a culture that criminalizes all brown and black males.  That’s not racist—it’s bigger than mere racism.  It’s almost a universal presumption that every American holds, whether brown, white, black, yellow or red.  That’s what makes this case—and many, many others like it—so vexing, because it pretty much guarantees that other cases like it will happen again.

It’s almost innate in America.

George Zimmerman is not unique—his paranoia, his fear of brown and black people has been echoed many times by people of all color.  Bernard Goetz had that fear.  Sarah Page had that same fear.  Ian Birk had that fear.  But it’s not just white people—Hispanic people like George Zimmermen have it.  The murderers of massive amounts of young black men whose trials are not on CNN and MSNBC because they are killed by other young black men—are have that same fear.  So they act and kill—not racist, but in accordance with white supremacy.  I’m informed by Chris Rock’s piece “Niggas vs. Black People” on his 1996 CD “Bring the Pain.”

“(People say) It isn’t us, it’s the media. The media has distorted our image to make us look bad.” … Please. … When I go to the money machine at night, I’m not looking over my shoulder for the media. I’m looking for niggers.”

Even Reverend Jesse Jackson, a civil rights activist, who probably has every incentive not to admit that he is paranoid about brown and black men, displays the same fear:

“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved…. After all we have been through. Just to think we can’t walk down our own streets, how humiliating.”

I repeat: this tendency is not racist.  It’s bigger than racism.  It cannot be racist unless we are willing to accept the premise that people of color—the same folks who scholars such as Professor Michael Eric Dyson says cannot be racist because racism “presupposes an ability to control a significant segment of the population economically, socially and politically by imposing law, covenant and restriction on lives”—are just as capable of racism as white people (as evidenced by the quotes above).  No, instead this fear is a symptom of something much larger than mere racism—white supremacy.  That is, this fear of brown and black males shows that even we, people of color, believe that the morals and social norms of white people are more controllable and civil than our own.  As a result, we have an easier time believing that those that look like us—brown and black males—are more inclined to engage in criminal behavior.

And it begs the question: If we carry that presumption about our own selves and neighbors, how do we expect the white people that do not see or interact with brown and black males every day to see us?

I think of two specific examples from my own life that illuminated this for me—of course the consequences weren’t nearly as tragic as the instant Trayvon Martin tragedy.  Still, they showed me that we’re all just as brainwashed, as fearful as George Zimmerman and Chris Rock and Jesse Jackson to believe that young men of color—specifically brown and black men—are predestined to be criminals.  We’re all victims and believers in a disgusting and insidious type of non-racist white supremacy.  In both of these instances I believe honestly that the folks involved are not racists—they’re just victims of this belief that permeates all levels of Americans.

The first was when I was 15. When I was younger, most of the people around me thought that I was Samoan—long, curly hair, big and brown. As a result of that (and also because I played football in school), I always had a lot of Samoan friends—that was good, because Samoans were the kids you didn’t want to piss off.  Now, I was always a “square”—I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, hell, I barely ever cursed. A good kid. One time, there was a fight at my school and evidently there was word that a Samoan kid was involved.  Immediately, the black security-type (I don’t know his official job title) literally gathered up all the Polynesian kids—Samoan or not—and me and kinda quarantined us to this small area Japanese internment camp-style because, apparently, we were about to riot.  Now, I didn’t even know about the fight—I’m still not sure that there was one.  Still, we were presumed violent immediately—even those of us who are not Samoan—and made to feel like criminals in a setting (school) that was supposed be a slight respite from the ugly realities of the real world.

The second came when I finished law school and moved back to Seattle.  I was getting ready to have my first jury trial after whupping the prosecutors in bench trials for several months. Like any big endeavor for me, I planned to visualize the whole process: me being victorious, where I would walk, the questions I would ask, etc. Therefore, I went to the courtroom where the trial was to happen; I wanted to scope out the space. I was fly, feeling super-duper Ivy League that day—conservative, no earrings, hair back in a bun, new suit, new socks, even new underwear so I could feel supremely confident and wow my jurors. Sitting at the defense table, practicing my posture a little white lady comes in and looks surprised to see me there.  She smiles at me and says, “Are you waiting for your attorney?”

I don’t think these were racist acts.  I think they are acts that show how deeply ingrained white supremacy is into all of our psyches.  Just like I don’t think George Zimmerman’s act was racist.  Just like I don’t think that the defense effectively putting Trayvon Martin on trial during George Zimmerman’s trial was racist.  Just like I don’t think that the jury finding George Zimmerman “not guilty” was racist.  I think it’s simply residue from this horrible thing—white supremacy, that believes that men of color must be doing something wrong at all times—and that’s what scares me.

That residue is not going anyplace anytime soon—it’s been here for 500 years. A guilty verdict would not have changed that; a guilty verdict would have felt slightly better, but it would not change anything about the larger problem—white supremacy.  I’m not sure, honestly, what will.

God bless Trayvon Martin’s family and give them comfort.

Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. He is a father, an activist, an author, and an attorney. He publishes other people’s writings at cutbankcreekpress.com, makes videos at www.youtube.com/rockpaperjet, and writes a regular column at www.indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com. His twitter handle is @BigIndianGyas

About Kiese

Kiese Laymon is a fiction writer and essayist who writes frequently on pop culture, hip hop and politics. He is currently teaches English, Africana Studies and Creative Writing at Vassar College.
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6 Responses to George Zimmerman, White Supremacy and Black and Brown Criminality: It’s Much More than Racism — by Gyasi Ross

  1. Moni Law says:

    Brilliant and edgy commentary as usual, Mr. Ross speaks his truth fearlessly. And much of it rings true. However, I diverge from his opinion on two fronts: 1) as a woman walking at night, I put on my ‘street savvy’ hat and I am slightly anxious passing any man of any race including white men, and I don’t assume criminal intent of all black and brown faces, and 2) I have read racist remarks by George Zimmerman on his old MySpace page and others who have given testimony that wasn’t in his trial of murder of Trayvon Martin. He also was charged with assaulting a police officer (but dismissed) and with domestic violence against his fiance at time. I do not give Zimmerman a ‘pass’ card on being a subscriber to racism as well as white supremacy. And his main label remains for which he should be held accountable: ‘Murderer.’

  2. Chinara Tate says:

    I concur with the above commentary. Personally I find myself, as a black female wary of all men when I am walking alone, and actually more so young white men (particularly if they are intoxicated) because I hold the additional fear that if they do something to me they will not be held accountable and are acutely aware of that fact (a view I held even before this trial). With regard to the two individuals cited as examples of black men who hold the same view of black men as whites I suspect classism more accurately explains the sentiments they expressed. Bill Cosby has made similar remarks and they are generally in reference to a particular class of black men who fit a younger demographic. If an impeccably dressed black man wearing a suit and tie in his late thirties was walking behind any of these men I doubt they’d even flinch. It is the image of the young black/brown male in “urban clothing” who many tend to associate with a lower economic class, drug/gang affiliation and general criminality…and it is that image that seems to elicit tremendous fear in people. Individuals fitting this description in outward appearance are the ones most likely to be labeled criminal by our society and judicial system and I think we need to address why that is the case. It is my conjecture that the answer is at the intersection of both class and race.

    Re Zimmermann regardless of what led him to profile Trayvon, fear of someone’s very existence should not equal a license to kill. Unfortunately this case is just one of many offering just that. (I have to say I’m not entirely convinced changing existing laws will result in a dramatic improvement in our judicial system if the same people are charged with interpreting the law, but that’s another conversation…)

    Separately, I have three questions regarding definitions that felt a bit ambiguous in the article : 1) what is your definition of racism? 2) how do you define white supremacy and 3) what is non-racist white supremacy?

  3. Marta Szabo says:

    I appreciate Mr. Ross’s main point, that white supremacy is deeply ingrained. But I don’t understand why that bias does not count as racism. George Zimmerman believes in white supremacy, as do we all, says this article. Yes, but does not that mean that we are all racist? I don’t get the difference.

  4. Bob says:

    Race baiting nonsense. You’re a racist plain and simple. Being black doesn’t change the fact not matter how much you want to play the race card. Take the boulder off your shoulder and start being color blind instead of complaining about others not doing so.

    Ignorant nonsense disguised as insight.

  5. Ed says:

    The comment from Bob serves to make point Gyasi’s point.
    Bob is certainly blind but not to skin color just to his own prejudice. As a person on the right side of the “superiority” problem he would presume to speak for people on the wrong side of it. Bob is afraid to look into his own soul.

    I am white and I fundamentally believe in white supremacy. That belief and my need to reinforce and cling to that belief informs the way I view the world. I don’t want to be nasty to people of color but I do want to confirm my belief of superiority and desire that the superiority of my race and what I see as my culture continue.

    My wife and daughter are latinas and most of my daughter’s friends are black, some Haitian, some Dominican and some African American. I am pleasant to her friends but I am definitely guarded and less available to them than I would be if they were of my culture. When I work with black colleagues I expect them to be less competent, generally less well educated and less hardworking then I am. I am pretty sure I subject them to a level of scrutiny that just doesn’t occur when dealing with white colleagues. Now I would say that I generally find my prejudices to be confirmed but I am invested in those prejudices so one would have to be a little dubious as to the objectivity of my findings.

    I can remember a few months back seeing a few black kids walking past a a store I was shopping in and the very strong prejudice and conviction that these kids “were no good” that welled up in me. They were quite clearly poor black kids, dressed poorly, darker skinned with surly facial expressions and a kind of vacant, almost animal look in their eyes. In truth, my view is that they were kids who have had such a rough time of it, probably from birth, that they probably don’t see themselves as having too much to lose when considering a deviation into criminality. That said, I can equate them with white kids from the wrong side of the tracks that I ran into growing up in an almost all white town in the UK in the 1970s. I suppose the issue is that in the US, blacks disproportionately find themselves in this burgeoning underclass. This experience bothered me in that it confirmed my deep prejudices.

    What is of concern in the US is that people are allowed to act on these prejudices and that there seems to be very little ability or desire to step away from one’s irrational fear. While I could see a Zimmerman thinking his prejudiced thoughts and sympathize with his fears, he decided to act on his unjustified fears with a gun in his pocket. It’s disturbing that his actions can go unpunished.

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