Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin
The brutal murder of innocent Emmitt Till in Money, Mississippi a generation ago was so horrific that it galvanized national and international media attention and became pivotal in mobilizing the civil rights movement. When Mamie Till courageously decided to have an open casket for her fourteen-year old son so that the world could see what violent racism looked like in America, there was a shift in the community’s consciousness in response to both the racially motivated murder and the blatant miscarriage of justice. Not only were the perpetrators acquitted, but they also sold their story to a popular magazine after the trial in which they boldly described their crime of torture with legal immunity. They were as safe in their egregious actions as the precedent setting plantation slave owners before them.
Today’s version of murder and legal immunity appears with the automatic police response to the fatal shooting of unarmed, seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin as self-defense. The uproar over the failure to arrest the confessed killer and to fully investigate Trayvon Martin’s death has underscored the institutional resistance to justice and an entrenched orientation that is not uncommon in “post-racial” America as long as you play by the rules. The rules today require you always to denounce racism, to blame the victim and to allow the terror of murder to teach the subtle lesson of role and place. Emmett Till should have known his place and not whistled at a white woman; Trayvon Martin should not have worn a hoodie. Racist conditioning provides the prism through which deadly force is embraced as a right and a subtle instrument of control. African American male youth who are oblivious to the conditioning process of racial intimidation and control pay a high price.
In spite of the declarations that slavery ended over a century ago and that the race card is unnecessarily inflammatory, remnants of abuse, injustice and supremacist entitlement persist. This worldview is echoed on conservative news networks and in local police departments. This racist conditioning can be seen in constitutional constructionists, who worship the wisdom of the founding fathers and deny their failure to resolve the issue of African humanity. The polarization remains evident today in a deadlocked in Congress, in the coded remarks of presidential campaigns, and in the church house, where transformative power is no longer expected from the pulpit or pew. The pain of uncovering such internalized behavior causes many to become paralyzed with guilt, repression and fear. Avoiding these effects of the past too often means that we are unable to identify the remnant of intolerance and hatred that festers in our midst. Emotional reaction makes it difficult to identify the psychopathic racial personality, mentacide, white privilege or what the New Jim Crow looks like today. The price we pay goes beyond the tragic deaths of innocent youth. Decision-making humanity is compromised; spiritual values are attenuated; capitalist enterprise is undermined; and there are only perfunctory tools for study and correction. Instead of healing and moral resilience, the best society can do is react, deny and defend. Compassion, integrity and healing are thwarted and a century long pattern of hate and confusion continues.
However, there is another voice, another worldview. In order for us to move forward as a nation, this historically silenced voice must be considered. It would be too simplistic to say it is the voice of freedom. No, it is the voice of a culture and a people who are rarely seen without distorted lens. Regrettably, the reinforcement of this distorted conditioning has taken place under our watch. African American men have not only been incarcerated at epidemic rates, which parallel post Reconstructionist oppression, but the images that bombard us “normalize” criminal imagery. This artificial stereotype was strategic for the defense of slavery and today, works so well that stereotype is more readily accepted than authentic identity. The parents of Trayvon Martin-and a million others-force us to address our failure in what could be a watershed moment. They offer America yet another chance to move towards a redeemed reality of reconciliation and justice. What comes after the marches will suggest the decision we have made.