excerpted from; Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Policing the Boundaries of Whiteness: The Tragedy of Being “Out of Place” from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, 102 Iowa Law Review 1113 (March, 2017) (439 Footnotes) (Full Document)
February 26, 2017 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin, the African American teenager whose life was tragically cut short when George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain for a gated community in Sanford, Florida called “The Retreat at Twin Lakes,” shot and killed the 17-year-old as he was walking back from a candy and drink run to a convenience store. After the shooting, Sanford police officers released Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man of white American and Peruvian descent, claiming they found no evidence to contradict Zimmerman's assertion that he acted in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Evidence later revealed that Zimmerman, who saw Martin walking in the neighborhood as he was driving to Target, called 911 to report Martin as a “suspicious person,” but then disregarded the 911 operator's directives to remain in his car and leave Martin alone. Instead, Zimmerman chased, confronted, and ultimately shot and killed Martin after a physical struggle. Evidence also showed that Martin, who had no criminal record, was simply returning to the home of Brandy Green, where he was a guest; Green, a resident of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, was the girlfriend of Martin's father, Tracey Martin. At the time of his death, Martin had nothing on his person but his cellphone, an Arizona watermelon soda, a bag of Skittles, $40.15 in cash, a cigarette lighter, and some headphones.
The death of Trayvon Martin inspired nationwide conversations about racism, racial profiling, implicit bias, police brutality, and numerous inequities in the criminal justice system. Martin's death also sparked remembrances of the long history of racial subordination and oppression against African Americans through senseless killings such as lynchings. Notably, media mogul Oprah Winfrey remarked that Martin's death reminded her of the horrific murder, or rather lynching, of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. She proclaimed, “Trayvon Martin, parallel to Emmett Till. Let me just tell you, in my mind, same thing.”
Winfrey immediately came under fire for declaring that the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 were, “in [her] mind, the same thing.” For instance, Stacy Dash, Clueless actress and a conservative political commentator for Fox News, attacked Winfrey in a tweet that read: “If you aren't careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing--Malcolm X. Shame on you @Oprah.” Similarly, former Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck lambasted Winfrey, calling her comparison of the killings “evil.” Beck further asserted, “These are two cases that have nothing in common. I can't think what they have in common, honestly .... [Zimmerman's actions are] not the same as torturing and executing a 14-year-old and bragging about it, it's a disgrace. It diminishes what African-Americans suffered through.” Overall, Winfrey's critics claimed that she was a race-baiter and argued that she and all others who were making comparisons between the deaths of Till and Martin were “distorting the facts” and “ignoring how far we've come.”
In certain ways, Beck and other critics of Winfrey are correct. As sociologist Elijah Anderson has highlighted, there is a critical difference between the social and legal context in which Till was murdered and the social and legal context in which Martin was killed. Indeed, Anderson maintains that the killing of Martin differs from the murder of Till in two important respects. First, unlike Till's murder, Martin's death did not occur under a strict Jim Crow regime. Till was murdered in Mississippi within a system of severe racial segregation and subordination in 1955; at the time that Till was killed, white civilians could murder Blacks in open daylight with impunity. On the other hand, Martin was shot and killed during our post-Civil Rights era of formal legal equality on February 26, 2012. Second, according to the claims of Zimmerman, his family members, and some of his neighbors, Zimmerman, unlike Milam and Bryant, was not a conscious racist.
Yet, the fact that the deaths of Till and Martin occurred under distinct factual circumstances and took place in two different eras--the pre-Civil Rights era and the post-Civil rights era--does not mean that the two killings and trials have no meaningful commonalities. In this Article, I examine and analyze these two cases studies, the Emmett Till murder and trial in Mississippi in 1955, and the more recent killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, as a means of illustrating how the same race-based forces and the same racist tropes that worked in the past--a past that we do not and cannot deny was steeped in the ugliest forms of race hatred--are still operating in today's society. More specifically, I take what many view as an extraordinary case about racial hatred from the 1950s, the Emmett Till murder and trial, and compare it to the Trayvon Martin killing and trial outcome in the 2010s, to reveal how the same racist principles that undergirded the Till case remain quite ordinary today. In so doing, I expose one important, but not yet explored similarity between the two cases: their shared basis in the policing of boundaries of whiteness as a means of preserving the material benefits and the psychological wages of whiteness.
Thereafter, while acknowledging that meaningful changes in both race relations and forms of racism have occurred in U.S. society since 1955, this Article examines the Martin killing as a form of what Reva Siegel calls “preservation through transformation.” As Ian Haney López explains in his book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class, it is not that the racist practices employed during and around 1955 remain unchanged today, but rather that “racial patterns [have] adapt[ed] in ways that [continue to] maintain white dominance.”
In the end, this Article reveals how the two killings and trials centered on the policing of the boundaries of whiteness. This policing occurred in a variety of forms, including: (1) maintaining white racial separation; (2) facilitating cross-class white racial solidarity; (3) articulating blackness, and specifically black maleness, as a threat; and (4) regulating the presence and movement of Blacks in what sociologist Elijah Anderson has defined as “the white space.” This Article also delineates how the strategies, practices, and tactics for protecting whiteness and its attendant advantages and benefits have shifted from explicit actions in thwarting, punishing, and even violently resisting challenges to black racial subordination and white authority to ostensibly “race-neutral” actions that promote a type of thinking that legal scholar Ian Haney López calls “commonsense racism,” and that sustain a form of rationalizing racial inequities and injustices that sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva refers to as “colorblind racism.” Ultimately, this Article reveals the way in which racism (and thus the protection of whiteness as a privilege and benefit) has changed in practice from 1955 to today, while also showing that such changes in the practice of racism have occurred primarily in the consciousness and overtness of the racism, and not in the sense of its power and impact.
Part II of this Article focuses on the murder of Emmett Till and the trial against J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the two white men who were charged with and tried for Till's murder. Specifically, Part II.A offers a theoretical foundation for understanding the material and psychic value of whiteness by describing seminal works from scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois and Cheryl Harris. Part II.A also briefly details key elaborations of the “whiteness as property” and white privilege frameworks by exploring the works of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Ian Haney López, and David Roediger, all of whom have analyzed how these frameworks have evolved in today's society. Parts II.B and II.C. then proceed to reveal how the protection of whiteness as property, particularly the psychic value of whiteness, animated and influenced the killing of Till and the acquittal of Milam and Bryant at trial. Specifically, Part II.B offers a description of the events leading up to the murder of Till as well as key facts from the trial concerning Till's murder. Part II.C then delineates how preserving the property value of whiteness motivated the murder of Till and acquittal of Milam and Bryant. It begins by analyzing an underappreciated dimension of the murder of Till: that it occurred against the backdrop of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that state-mandated racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and which many white Southerners considered a major threat to their segregated way of life in the Jim Crow South and, more so, to the benefits they received under that system. In so doing, Part II.C relies on evidence from the FBI's 2006 Investigative Report of a re-opened Till case and the transcript of the 1955 Till trial, making this Article the first scholarly work to analyze both the Till trial transcript, which had been lost until the FBI found it during the early 2000s, and the results of the FBI's case investigation. Part II.C also shows that, in an era when Blacks had no formal equality rights, spatial segregation, though important, was not paramount for many Whites; rather, Whites focused on thwarting, punishing, and even violently resisting symbolic and actual challenges to white authority and black racial subordination and on maintaining a racial hierarchy that placed all Whites on top, regardless of character, socioeconomic class, and education. Ultimately, Part II.C explains that part of the resistance against Brown took the form of racial violence in which the State was deeply implicated. For, if Brown engendered antiracist solidarity among Blacks, it also produced racist cross-class solidarity among Whites.
Part III centers on an analysis of the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who shot and took the life of the African American teenager in February of 2012. Part III.A. first provides a description of how the patterns and practices of racism have morphed in the post-Civil Rights era. In so doing, it details the role that space and Whites' desire to remain physically separate from Blacks plays in current practices of racism and the maintenance of white racial domination. Parts III.B and III.C explicate how both the protection of whiteness as property and the protection of “the white space” influenced the killing of Martin and laid the foundation for the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Part III.B begins by detailing the disputed and undisputed facts that occurred on the night that Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Part III.C then examines the Martin killing within the context of emerging gated neighborhoods and their racialized meanings to residents and against the backdrop of residential racial segregation in the United States, where white residents frequently “try to make sense” of any “anonymous black person [who] enters the white space.” In so doing, Part III.C explains how white residents of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the neighborhood where Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, began to view their gated community as one besieged by young black males following the downturn in the economy, which caused significant devaluations of their homes and resulted in an influx of renters into the neighborhood. More so, Part III.C explicates how such perceptions devolved into a form of what Haney López calls “commonsense racism,” a form of racism that worked to identify all black males who were unknown to Zimmerman and other neighborhood watch volunteers as potential criminal suspects--as trespassers of their “white space.” Finally, Part III.C of this Article reveals why Zimmerman had reasons to downplay his identity as both a renter and Latino as well as an incentive to underscore his role as a “white” protector and watchdog for the neighborhood.
In all, this Article exposes the relatively small gap between the forces that produced Till's death and trial outcome in 1955 and Martin's death nearly 60 years later in 2012.
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In conclusion, for many African Americans, the killing of Trayvon Martin was the first in many recent signals to expose how the United States is far from being a post-racial society. More so, for many people, Trayvon Martin became this generation's Emmett Till. This Article works to provide a scholarly framework for understanding why the deaths of these two black teenagers, Till and Martin, have been linked together in so many individuals' minds. In so doing, this Article offers a socio-historical contextualization of the deaths of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin and the legal cases regarding their deaths to demonstrate how deeply embedded social and economic structures and practices such as the protection of the material and psychic benefits of whiteness, the protection of “the white space,” and commonsense racism, animated the two killings and may have influenced their trials, even though the cases occurred more than half a century apart. Such connections between these two cases reveal that while U.S. society has come a long way in terms of decreasing the presence of conscious and more blatant forms of racism, it is far from becoming a bias-free society where racial stereotypes and racial bias do not result in negative consequences for African Americans and other people of color.
Chancellor's Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley