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