The chilling sounds of Trayvon Martin screaming and begging for his life are a disturbing siren, silencing the mutterings of those who have claimed that we live in a “post-racial” society.
It’s also a wake up call to the rest of us who decry racism and racist acts, but have bought into many of the racist stereotypes that are pervasive throughout the media.
Growing up in Oakland, anything we wore as young Black folks was criticized as uncivilized and somehow threatening- whether it was sagging pants, oversized clothes, sweatsuits, derby jackets, baseball hats, beanies, or hoodies. Even hairstyles were attacked: shags, cornrows, plats, perms, and curls. When, later, we bought suits to go the club, we were criticized and being gaudy or garish- as if somehow we hadn’t grasped the subtle details necessary to stop from looking “too Black”.
The criticisms were delivered loud and clear through news stories, movies, school administrations, police, store owners, and- loudest and clearest of all- other Black folks, mainly older Black folks.
Somehow, by the time I was in junior high and high school in the 1980s, the prominent Black folks in my community- teachers, school administration, Black elected officials, pastors, and youth workers, had gone from Civil Rights and Black Power-era “Let’s-Fight-The-System” rhetoric to a “Change-Your-Attitude-And-Image-You-Young-Savage-And-You’ll-Make-It-In-This-System” rhetoric. And this was in Oakland, when the Black Panther Party was a recent memory.
The message was that we would be treated differently if we looked like “thugs”, or “hoodlums”, or “gangsters”. That if we changed what we wore, that we might receive a better lot in life. However, I submit that whatever the popular style is for young Black folks at any given time, this is what becomes known as the “thug” look, or the “gangster” look of that time. When doo-rags were a popular accessory for Black men in the 1950s and 1960s, that was thought of as the look of a “hoodlum”.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Million Hoodie March in Philadelphia. One of the speakers was a well-meaning older Black woman who said to the crowd of thousands: “We’ve got to stop our young men from hanging on the corner, wearing hoodies, and getting into trouble!” Some in the crowd clapped, others didn’t react. I suspect some were wondering how to respond at this time to something that we’ve all heard time and time again. The dreaded, threatening image of Black folks on the corner. At least one other speaker echoed her sentiment before the night was through. At some point in the last century, Black folks hanging out in public has gone from being complained about by White racists to also being complained about by Black folks. As a contrast, the neighborhoods that I’ve lived in where people do hang out on the corner- drinking and hanging out with each other- are the ones that are most family-oriented and communal.
To be truly aware of these racist stereotypes means being clear on why they exist in the first place. We must be clear on the useful function that these stereotypes fulfill, for this is why they are put forth in media in the first place.
Capitalism is an economic system in which a large percentage of the world MUST be poor and/or in poverty in order for it to work. (In the Wall Street Journal, for instance, their analysts worry when the unemployment rate gets too low. This would mean that those who are employed could demand more pay.) This is the reason why there is poverty. Nothing else. If people know this, they might join together and tear down this system, creating another one in which we all share the wealth.
People Of Color are at the very bottom of this giant pyramid scheme. If the media puts out the idea that poverty comes from laziness, savagery, lack of education, or other “bad choices” that poor people make, then they are able to blame poverty on the poor and shift blame away from the Ruling Class. The quickest way to do this is racist stereotypes. During slavery the racist stereotype that was pushed about Black folks was not that we were savage or violent. It was that we were docile, lazy, stupid, and jolly. This served the purpose of justifying slavery. The idea put forward was that slavery benefitted Black folks, who were happy just to be here. If Black folks were portrayed as violent, it might imply to the rest of the public that we didn’t want to be slaves. So, now, Black folks are portrayed as violent. Whatever we’re commonly known to wear is associated with that violent image. Even Black folks and other folks of color buy into this.
The “Stop The Violence” campaigns are an example of this. Many of these campaigns aim to stop violence in our communities by putting out a public message that young folks of color need to be more “peaceful”. The argument is that there is a culture of violence and that spreading a “positive” message of being less angry or violent is the solution. Often in these campaigns, music, peer pressure, or a distorted view of manhood, is cited as the cause. The logical conclusion of this flawed argument is that the source of this violence is the culture of Black folks and other People Of Color. Otherwise, how would spreading positive message be the solution?
The source of the violence is this system. Culture is derived from necessity. The truth is that because, in this system, there HAS to be poverty- those in poverty are going to come up with ways to survive. This is not surprising, it’s human nature. People have a right to survive. So, people get involved in the Illegal Economy- the most popular being to sell dope. Most business under Capitalism is regulated. There are contracts, courts, and zoning laws to allow these businesses to function. Obviously, not so with dope. You can’t go to court and say “Your honor, sir- he was SUPPOSED to sell me a whole key of coke- but it was really only a quarter!” You can’t go to the zoning commission and object to another dope business jumping up on your same block. However, business must still be regulated. The way to enforce regulations in an illegal economy is through force or threat of force. Violence. Most of the shootings that happen in Oakland are related to the dope game- or something else money related. If people are going to carry out violence in order to participate in illegal business, there has to be a culture around it.
If we want to stop violence in communities of color, we will have to start at the source. The source is this system that, by it’s nature, must keep us in poverty. In the long run, this means changing this whole system. In the short run, you’ll have less violence if we make a movement that forces the employers that are already in our community to actually pay a wage that people can live on. It will take a militant movement that uses direct action and strikes to make that happen. Not anger management classes. The source of the violence is not our out-of-control anger. Not asking the youth to be peaceful and “Stop The Violence”. This is vague and again ignores the source. It’s not a self-esteem problem. Many of the folks I know who actually got into the dope game were A-type personalities with an extreme sense of self. The folks who might’ve been leaders in a movement had their been one to join instead. Until we make a militant, direct-action movement that fights for our material needs, we will fight each other for the crumbs of this system.
If we want justice for Trayvon Martin, this will take a movement that forces the prosecution of George Zimmerman and those who covered up his crime.
If we want justice for all people of color and to stop racist violence against us, we will have to destroy Capitalism-the economic system that necessitates racism and racist violence.