The Trayvon Martin movement and the national question
George Zimmerman’s acquittal has resulted in waves of mass outrage among Black people and all anti-racists. The verdict should, once and for all, puncture the myth of a “post-racial” or “color-blind” America. The verdict is judicial affirmation of an unrelenting assault on African Americans, manifested in the courts, the prison system and the racist demonization that lies behind it all. As George Zimmerman said, he was out to teach a lesson to those “punks” who always “get away with it.” Whatever the jury says, the racist intent of Zimmerman is clear.
Many of those who defend the verdict have tried not to defend Zimmerman so much as the so-called process of justice. What must be repeated is that this is not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, time the legal system sets free the killer of a Black man because of “reasonable doubt.”
Of course, that Zimmerman was even arrested and brought to trial is a tribute to the struggle, to the masses of people all over the United States who marched in hoodies demanding justice. There is even speculation that the prosecution “threw” the trial, deliberately making errors that cost them the conviction.
The strategy of the defense and its supporters both inside and outside the courtroom was to play to racism. Faced with an uphill battle in the perception of Zimmerman, the defense immediately resorted to racist stereotyping, trying to turn Martin into a “thug” or in Zimmerman’s words one of “those punks.” They even trotted out the old hobby horse of “reverse racism,” attempting to turn Martin’s comments that Zimmerman was a “creepy-ass cracker,” into proof that he was motivated to attack Zimmerman out of racial animus.
It is absurd to view marijuana use, fistfights, or for that matter identification with popular and sometimes violent hip-hop music as being uniquely prevalent only among Black youth or having any broader implications on moral character. However, the rapidity with which this caused “doubts” to be raised points clearly to deeply ingrained racial bias in society.
The verdict represents the continued disconnect between, on the one hand, the rise of Black figures in politics and the corporate world, and on the other hand, the poverty and deprivation—maintained with police harassment and abuse—experienced by significant numbers of Black people. To fully understand the significance of the Trayvon Martin case requires we understand something of the roots and history of racism and its persistence today.
Repression, resistance and the formation of a people
While America was never quite “color-blind” in its earliest days, particularly in the Virginia colony, there was a unity of resistance among sections of the oppressed, whether they were African or poor white, and to a lesser extent Native. Noted scholar Edmund Morgan relates:
“It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.”
The oppressed always outnumber the oppressors, and it is clear that the not entirely established colonial elite feared a unified resistance from slaves and indentured servants. From the mid-1600s to the early 1700s, borrowing tactics from the British oppression of Ireland, the colonial ruling class instituted a series of laws that created a legal framework for the special oppression of people of African heritage.
Slaves were banned from owning property and free Blacks could not own guns, thus limiting the right to self-defense. Marriage between the races was prohibited. Finally, enshrining the word “white” into the legal code created for even the poorest whites a sense of relative privilege vis-à-vis Blacks, breaking up a natural unity among the oppressed. A new “white identity” emerged to be defended for its relative privilege. The division of the oppressed underclasses protected the new planter elite.
As the slave trade exploded and Africans were brought from all over the western coast of the continent, many nations and peoples were forged into a collective and distinctive “Black identity.” The racial system meant to hold the Black laborer in a state of bondage fed ideas of Black inferiority. Intense labor competition also allowed racist ideas to permeate American culture in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Two opportunities to smash the oppression of Blacks, Reconstruction and Populism, were crushed through a mix of racist betrayal and brute force on the part of a rising imperialism. This left, by the turn-of-the-century, not only a Jim Crow system oppressing Blacks in the South, but the almost total exclusion of Blacks from public life throughout the United States.
Ultimately, the history of racism is not a problem of “race” per se but rather national oppression. Black people in the United States make up a nation. The long process of oppression and resistance has created on the one hand a distinctive culture, a body of musical, literary and religious—among other things—expression. And on the other hand, it has created a system of racism that affects Blacks from top to bottom, rich and poor, systematically excluding and limiting their ability to participate in almost every arena, consigning the majority to a deprived, impoverished existence, all under a banner of inferiority.
While some shy away from this conclusion, in our view racism is a function of the oppression of Blacks as a people, based on a distinctive history of repression and resistance, which in its particularities has resulted in the formation of a distinct people—that is, a nation.
Trayvon means ’fight back!’
The significance of the Trayvon Martin case lies in the fact that national oppression of Blacks in the United States is not simply “racial” but economic, a key element of the establishment of the U.S. capitalist-imperialist system.
It is not as if the capitalist ruling class has not tried to deal with some of the effects of national oppression. More recently, they have shown a fairly remarkable openness to “Black faces in high places.” The need for more “diversity” on television, in the movies and at the news desk is more or less accepted. The continued existence of disparities between Black and white is denounced by even the right-wing, if often disingenuously.
The reality, however, is that to uproot these disparities would require a significant effort to provide employment and social services, something that goes entirely against the grain of the neoliberal strategies of capital. In fact, the response to disparities by the ruling class has been to ruthlessly attack the economic position of white working people, attempting to eliminate disparities by driving down the living standards of white workers rather than uplifting poor and working Black people.
The persistence of concentrated poverty and unemployment, in other words the persistence of ghettos, has provided fertile ground for “culture of poverty” blaming the victim demonization. The “thug” image that the defense attempted to place on Trayvon Martin is simply a reflection of these characterizations.
This is what “Justice for Trayvon” is all about. The protests that swept the nation, from right after the murder to the verdict, have been predominantly Black with significant attendance from anti-racist whites and other oppressed peoples. These protests have focused not simply on finding a way to arrest George Zimmerman but arresting the continued existence of oppression and exploitation.
Confronting racism means confronting the long history of national oppression that continues to stalk Black America. This means recognizing that this oppression has deep roots in capitalist-imperialist U.S. society. Trayvon Martin’s killing must spur all who hate oppression and exploitation to fight harder and recognize the need for fundamental social change.
Justice for Trayvon Martin!