Out of Their Place

The Washington Monthly‘s new January/February issue is devoted in no small part to a re-examination of U.S. race relations upon the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the re-election of America’s first African-American president. So it’s natural there is a piece aimed at putting one of our most recent racial traumas, the death of a teenager named Trayvon Martin, into some historical context.

Yale’s Elijah Anderson begins by comparing Martin to Emmett Till, the fourteen year old Mississippian murdered in 1955 for the crime of “acting uppity” in the presence of a white woman in a grocery store. Like Till, Martin died (as best we can tell) in no small part because he was perceived as “out of his place,” a black kid who made the mistake of looking “ghetto” in a gated community that had recently suffered an uptick in crime. But while Till’s death was the product of a white supremacist society that could tolerate no breech in its codes of behavior, Martin ran afoul of more subtle codes about “place:”

While the sort of racism that led to Till’s death still exists in society today, Americans in general have a much more nuanced, more textured attitude toward race than anything we’ve seen before, and usually that attitude does not manifest in overtly hateful, exclusionary, or violent acts. Instead, it manifests in pervasive mindsets and stereotypes that all black people start from the inner-city ghetto and are therefore stigmatized by their association with its putative amorality, danger, crime, and poverty. Hence, in public a black person is burdened with a negative presumption that he must disprove before he can establish mutually trusting relationships with others….

[I]n America’s collective imagination the ghetto is a dangerous, scary part of the city. It’s where rap comes from, where drugs are sold, where hoodlums rule, and where The Wire might have been filmed. Above all, to many white Americans the ghetto is where “the black people live,” and thus, as the misguided logic follows, all black people live in the ghetto.

So Treyvon Martin was by virtue of his skin color a resident of what Anderson calls “the iconic ghetto,” an affiliation that is “both a stigma and a sign of authenticity,” particularly for young men. And whatever else he did–the impression left by his manner of dress and his behavior when challenged–did not pass the test administered to him by George Zimmerman for his right to be in that particular place. You don’t even have to choose sides on who initiated violence, or accuse Zimmerman of any conscious racism, to see how that could have happened, and why it made such a powerful impression on African-Americans used to constant questions about their right to be in some particular place.

So while we’ve come a very long way since Till’s murder, in some important respects–the ability to see past race in interacting with people in our daily lives–we haven’t come very far at all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.