History Lessons

It’s amazing to me that I would even have to point this out—it should be common knowledge—but one big reason for why the killing of Trayvon Martin has generated so much outrage among African Americans is that it evokes a long history of violence toward black males suspected of criminality. Isabelle Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns—a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the black migration to the North—details a little bit of this history in a column for CNN:

No matter the state, the circumstances are eerily familiar: a slaying. Minimal police investigation. A suspect known to authorities. No arrest. Protests and outrage in a racially charged atmosphere. […]

In 1920, a white mob burned down the black section of Ocoee, Florida, 30 miles west of Sanford, when two “colored” men tried to vote. The two black men were killed for having gone to the polls.

The black people who survived the massacre fled. The town remained all-white for generations. Three years later, a white mob burned and leveled the town of Rosewood, a black settlement by the Gulf of Mexico, 140 miles west of Sanford, after a white woman said a “colored” man had attacked her. It was where, a survivor said, “anything that was black or looked black was killed.”

A quick glance at the Jim Crow-era will yield countless stories of young black men being tortured and murdered over accusations of theft or sexual assault, the latter of which was a catch-all term for everything from consensual sex with a white woman, to looking at one the wrong way. Obviously, there are meaningful differences between then and now. But it’s still true that, for many African Americans, Martin’s death is an uncomfortable reminder of violence that used to happen with disturbing frequency in large swaths of the country.

Conservatives will shout that Zimmerman is a “Hispanic Democrat,” but that doesn’t matter—the reactions are less about the shooter, and everything to do with the tragic consequences of what happens when stereotypes about black men are given legal sanction.