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Hoodie Politics: Trayvon Martin and Racist Violence in Post-Racial America
Posted on Apr 4, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
What the shooting of Trayvon Martin tells us is that too many young people are not only being stripped of their hope and dignity, but also their lives. American society has become what Steve Herbert and Elizabeth Brown refer to as a “political culture of hyper punitiveness,” one in which it has become easier and apparently more acceptable to punish children who do not obey, who refuse to be invisible, who question authority - children whose presence reminds us of how far we have moved from the ideals that once allowed Americans to make a claim on democracy. We now live in a bifurcated country of gated communities organized to protect at all costs their isolated privileges and desperately poor no-go zones, also isolated and armed to the teeth. Living in these paranoid life worlds we have become a nation that emulates the fictional Dexter, the much-celebrated serial killer in the cable TV series of the same name. Crime now drives social policy and vigilante culture increasingly plays a prominent role in shaping American life. This is a bunker culture where guns rule, corporations have learned to capitalize on the growing culture of cruelty and punishment, Hollywood thrives on the spectacle of racial violence and the American government devolves into a torture state. But it is also a society that has intensified its racism behind the cloak of colorblindness and other post-racial myths while at the same time exercising with more diligence its policing and punishing functions. Glen Ford, the editor of Black Agenda touches on this in his comment about why the George Zimmermans of the world think that they can get away with assaulting and punishing black youth. He writes: “They do these things because they can, and they think they can because they believe they’ve been given permission by a significant segment of society to carry out these attacks on young black men. And inevitably, if they are given what they believe is the green light, some people are going to take it.”
Given these contexts and conditions, the issue is not whether a crime takes place because a young person wears a hoodie, but, what kind of society do we live in when a child can be shot for emulating a style that is associated with that of black and brown urban youth? Since the arrival of the Puritans, punishment has been inextricably woven into the fabric of American life, and increasingly it targets young people who have been pushed to the margins of society. Hence, it is not surprising that in America there is a rush to punish individuals for committing crimes but no longer a passion or commitment to examine the larger issues that produce the crimes. We now believe that some individuals were just born evil and our responsibility begins and ends with their expulsion-not their salvation. We gloat over justice being served by sentencing young people such as Dharun Ravi to years in jail for a horrific, homophobic crime that prompted the suicide of his roommate Tyler Clementi, but we never raise questions about the forces at work in a society that daily reproduce and reinforce this hateful culture in the first place.
Too many young people have not only been expelled from American society, but they are being punished with a kind of mass vengeance that suggests the emergence of a new political and economic culture in which life has become cheap and democratic values extinct. Trayvon Martin’s death should not be trivialized by the distracting discourse of hoodies; nor is reducible to the actions of a potentially mentally unbalanced shooter. It is not (yet) about a clear-cut act of racial violence, nor, for that matter, simply about the isolated and yet shocking death of a young man. It is about the death of the idea of justice, not merely its practice. It is symptomatic of the way in which an entire generation of young, poor, minority youth are being punished, excluded, starved and thrown up in the elimination system of a new and violent, self-mutilating social order. It is about the stench and reality of death being promulgated by a society that has become cruel, corporate-owned, politically corrupt and morally bankrupt. Martin’s death is symptomatic of a war on young, poor, white and minority youth, the destruction of youthful human minds and bodies, and the slide of a hyper-market-driven country into a moral and political coma which enables it to function without apology, without ethical considerations into a world of power relations, values, and practices that are punishing in their effects and cruel in their conception. For many young people, the hoodie is not the central danger. Violence is the central force in the lives of poor minority youth, and the rhetoric and metaphors through which it gains legitimacy extend from an ever-pervasive reality of police brutality to the modes of punishment creep that extend from their schools and the streets to their homes. Violence now is the major force for producing identities, desires and social policies. Unfortunately, for too many young people, violence has become the normal condition of their lives, the only space left where many of them can even recognize how their agency might be defined and what their future has to offer them. What Trayvon Martin’s death tells the American public is that, as Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse have pointed out in a different context, we live in a society, “in which the production and circulation of death functions as political and economic currency.” The price paid for that is not simply the tragic death of a young African-American boy, but an ongoing assault on millions of poor young people in this country. The cost is high, and with it comes the tragic violation of human life and the death of democracy itself. Surely, in remembering the death of Trayvon Martin, we can and must do more than don a hoodie to signify the superficial solidarity of the new post-racial world order.
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1. I take this up in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave, 2010).
2. Rich Menjamin, “The Gated Community Mentality,” New York Times (March 30, 2012) p. A27.
3. James Carroll, “A Nation Lost,” Boston Globe (April 22, 2003) online at Common Dreams.
4. Jorge Mariscal, “Lethal and compassionate: the militarization of culture,” CounterPunch (May 3, 2003).
5. Zygmunt Bauman, “Wasted Lives” (New York: Polity Press, 2004), pp. 92-93
6. Erica Goode, “Many in U.S. Are Arrested by Age 23, Study Finds,” New York Times (December 19, 2011).
7. Reuters, “45% Struggle in US to Make Ends Meet,” MSNBC: Business Stocks and Economy (November 22, 2011).
8. Etienne Balibar, “Outline of a Topography of Cruelty: Citizenship and Civility in the Era of Global Violence,” in “We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 128.
9. Steve Herbert and Elizabeth Brown, “Conceptions of Space and Crime in the Punitive Neoliberal City,” Antipode (2006), p. 757.
10. Glen Ford, “Vilification of Young Black Youth Deeply Embedded in American Culture,” The Real News (April 1, 2012).
11. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse, “Beyond Biopolitics: The Governance of Life and Death,” in Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse, eds. “Beyond Biopolitics” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 3.
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