Trayvon Martin and Structural Racism
Glen Ford: Vilification of young black youth deeply embedded in American culture
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Every so often, a window opens into the real America. We saw that after the Katrina disaster when all of a sudden for two or three weeks on network news we actually heard there was such a thing as class and race in America. Every so often something happens. Now with the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida we have a similar debate, where there’s talk about systemic racism in the United States.
Now joining us to talk about Trayvon’s murder and what this tells us about America is Glen Ford. Glen’s the executive editor of BlackAgendaReport.com. Thanks for joining us again, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLACKAGENDAREPORT.COM: Thanks for having me here.
JAY: So talk about the wider social significance. There’s been a lot of debate and talk about the details of what happened to Trayvon. But in one of your pieces, you raised a good question, I thought, was why does Mr. Zimmermanâ€”why did he think he could get away with this?
FORD: And the answer was that he could. 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.
I’m glad you mentioned Katrina, because we haven’t seen this kind of groundswell of black public activity since Katrina. If you remember, every church, every organization had some kind of Katrina project. It was a real groundswell and firestorm of activity. And we’re seeing something very much like that with the Trayvon case, in that every organization is taking a position on this murder, that we see what really you’d have to characterize as almost spontaneous demonstrations. I was just talking to some people who had a demonstration yesterday in Minneapolis, and the impetus came from some students who just got on their social networks and in no time had 1,000 people saying, let’s have a demonstration. That’s damn near spontaneous, and it shows that this hits a cord, and especially among the young.
JAY: I guess every so often when I say something happens, it’s something happens that actually the mass media can’t ignore, because every day in the United States something like what happened to Trayvon Martin happens, whether it’s beingâ€”a young African-American being killed or thousands being put into jails, many of whom are innocent or have committed the most minor of crimes. But the mass mediaâ€”but it never breaks through the mass media.
FORD: Andâ€”but the reason it does catch fire is that all these black kids know that it’s happening every day and they come close to it happening to them. The possibility of it happening to them or someone very close to them is quite imminent. It’s an ever-present danger. And that’s why it catches fire.
JAY: Right. So speak a bit more, then, about what this tells us about the sort of deep structural racism in America and the state of it, especially now when you have a president who can say that, you know, he could have been my son. Butâ€”.
FORD: Well, we’ve seen something that we used to call the white backlash. And I got tired of the use of that phrase, because after a while it seems like white folks were in a permanent backlash. But there is a backlash to having a black president. I, however, think that this revived and more aggressive racism and its political manifestations goes way beyond just a reaction to a black president.
The stand-your-ground laws that Mr. Zimmerman apparently thought justified his stalking of and finally killing of young Trayvon Martin, in some form they exist now in about 33 states, in some way, shape, or form, and most of them are of recent origin. And about five other states are considering stand-your-ground laws that greatly lower the bar for people who use deadly force against other folks.
And why now? Why tamper with established legal principles and traditions? It’s because there is a movement out there, a reactionary racist movement, that wants to empower white civilians just as police have increasingly been empowered, to wreak their own form of vengeance on black folks in general. And that’s the reason for the stand-your-ground law. It’s political rhetoric even in its name, and it means white folks not taking any more stuff from black kids who walk around their neighborhood as if they own it and have the nerve, even if they live there, to get in white people’s line of sight. It’s really just that serious. And it harkens back not to recent times, but to those days when black folks couldn’t even offer testimony against white people, either by law under slavery or in practice under Jim Crow. And that in fact gave impunity to white people with guns or knives or just their fists to become justice, that their sovereignty extended as far as their bullets or their fists could reach.
JAY: Actually, when I was mentioning President Obama, I wasn’t referring to a backlash against a black president. It was kind of the other side, going back to President Obama’s speech when he was candidate Obama and his speech on race to do with Reverend Wright, where he says, essentially, we’re living in some post-racial society, that structural racism, to talk about that is sort of old hat.
FORD: And you know that’s nonsense. And even though 95 percent of black folks supported Obama, 100 percent of black folks know that that’s crazy. Life teaches you that that’s a white wishfulness immediately. So thatâ€”I don’t know who is supposed to believe that myth, but it’s certainly not black people.
JAY: Yeah, my point was President Obamaâ€”but not only President Obamaâ€”there’s a lot of African-American celebrities and very wealthy people and politicians who don’t come out swinging about systemic racismâ€”maybe a little bit during these windows, but not most of the time.
FORD: We could talk about the entire civil rights movement, if it can still call itself that. In terms of mass black incarceration and the growingly and grave injustices of the U.S. criminal justice system, it seems that much of the black mis-leadership class is more ashamed that so many black folks are in jail than they are outraged. And that’s not something new. It’s always been a current in black politics that certain classes of black folks believe that what inhibits their upward mobility is the lower classes of black folks bringing them down, and so they don’t come to the defense of those lower classes of black folks. They get upset when black PhDs are racially profiled, and not when street kids get pushed around and RICO’d and treated as if they have no rights whatsoever.
JAY: So what do you suggest or say to young black kids that are watching The Real News? And we have a growing audience, I think, in Baltimore and other places. What should they do?
FORD: Get political. And as a consequence and a byproduct we’ll have less crime. I remember when theâ€”in the late ’60s when the Black Panther Party was exploding and folks that I knew who seemed to be destined for a criminal life all of a sudden became hard-working soldiers in the service of their own people and started talking about the crimes of the real villains in societies and made themselves useful to the community. So, yeah, what black kids need to do is organize on their own behalf, which is in fact on behalf of the whole community and in behalf of justice-seeking people everywhere. Band together for self-defense, and you’ll be defending what’s left of what’s good in the United States.
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Glen.
FORD: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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