May 19, 2013
Hoodie Politics: Trayvon Martin and Racist Violence in Post-Racial America
Posted on Apr 4, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
This article originally appeared at Truthout.
The killing of a young African-American boy, Trayvon Martin, by an overzealous white Hispanic security guard who appears to have capitulated to the dominant post-racial presumption that equates the culture of criminality with the culture of blackness, has devolved into a spectacle. While there is plenty of moral outrage to go around, a recognition that racism is alive and well in America, and that justice has been hijacked by those who can afford it, the broader and more fundamental questions and analyses are not being raised. Complex issues get lost when spectacular events are taken over by a media frenzy that feeds on sound bites and simplified answers. Yet, under the intense spotlight on the personal defects of the two men involved, important issues such as the social and human costs of a corporate-driven gun culture, the privatization of security forces, the price paid by poor minority youth whose every act is criminalized, and the crimes committed through an all-embracing racism are shrouded in darkness, off stage and invisible. To bolster the incredulous claim that we live in a post-racial society, crimes such as these are often isolated from a larger set of socio-economic forces that might provide a broader understanding of both the needless death of a 17-year-old black youth but also its relationship to a much more all-encompassing war on youth that is causing massive suffering and needless deaths among many young people in America.
While it is the tendency of liberals to rush to universalize the deeply felt personal loss that resulted from Trayvon Martin’s death, the rosy raceless sentiment was ruptured when President Obama uncharacteristically drew attention to his own racial difference and suggested that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. But the fact of the matter is that since the dawn of the post-civil rights era young black and brown youth have been routinely and radically othered as a generation of suspects, if not a dangerous scourge. While poor minority youth may garner some sympathy when their needless deaths get public attention, too many of them experience an existential and real death every day that often goes unnoticed. The popular slogan “We are all Trayvon” may be paved with good intentions, but it bears the burden of hiding more than it reveals. Young poor minorities are not “us”, they are the excluded, the other, the excess and the disposable. What needs to be remembered is that they have been made voiceless, powerless and invisible in America. Marginalized by race or class and forcibly excluded from the American dream, they register more as a threat to be either contained or eliminated than as an object of compassion and social investment. They are not merely excluded but punished for living outside of the power relations that give rise to the corrupt privileges of the Second Gilded Age. One notable example is made clear in the question raised by Rich Benjamin in a New York Times op-ed where he writes: “After all, why did the police treat Mr. Martin like a criminal, instead of Mr. Zimmerman, his assailant? Why was the black corpse tested for drugs and alcohol, but the living perpetrator wasn’t?” 
What is missing in this debate over the legalities of the case (as against questions of justice) is a hard look at the underlying economic, racial and political conditions that make such a senseless act of violence possible. While it is easy to ridicule as racist Geraldo Rivera’s claim that the boys “hoodie” was somehow responsible for his death, as if it carried an unequivocal and dangerous signifier for all young people, regardless of what their race, neighborhood, or class location might be. The real question in this case is, what kind of society allows young black and brown youth to be killed precisely because they are wearing a hoodie? Indeed the politics of diversion runs deep in American culture. And questions concerning what kind of society we have now become as reflected in such a tragic killing are simply ignored. Such questions are dangerous because they invoke wider social considerations and prevent us from wallowing in a purely privatized discourse that, in the end, for instance, only allows us to focus on the most narrow and restricted of issues such as the personality of the shooter, George Zimmerman. Defined by the parameters of an utterly privatized discourse the only question that seems to matter is, “Who is George Zimmerman and why did he shoot this young man?” Actually, the more plausible question is, “What kind of society creates a George Zimmerman along with a formative culture that elevates vigilantism over justice, emotion over reason, fear over shared responsibilities and violence over compassion?” This is not to suggest that Zimmerman should not be brought to justice through a fair trial, but that Zimmerman’s dreadful act is symptomatic of a larger war being waged on poor and minority youth that places them in ongoing conditions of uncertainty regarding their education, health care, employment and also their future, particularly in terms of whether they will live or die. Nor does the narrow focus on the prevalence of a gun culture, gated communities and private security forces (Rambos for hire) in the United States provide either an adequate focus for understanding why, “Military force has replaced democratic idealism as the main source of US influence” or why war is a source of national pride rather than alarm. Nor does it tell us why the spectacle of violence has become the greatest source of entertainment in American popular culture, furthering enabling, “the process whereby civil society increasingly organizes itself for the production of violence.”
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