We have to win justice for Trayvon

March 21, 2012

Trayvon Martin is dead today because racism is built into the fabric of U.S. society.

TRAYVON MARTIN is dead because he was a young Black man walking where someone thought he shouldn't be. His devastating story is as old as the United States--and it proves that racism is alive and well in 2012, while the first African American president sits in the White House.

The widespread shock and anger over what happened to Trayvon--and the beginnings of protest around the case--tell us something else, too: That large numbers of people are outraged by racist injustice in this and other forms.

A similar sense of outrage has been at the heart of some of the most important struggles for social change throughout U.S. history--struggles that transformed American society, not only for African Americans, but for everyone, in ways people often take for granted.

Those who care about creating a different world need to do whatever we can to win justice for Trayvon--to sharpen the anger people feel at his death, and to turn that anger into protest, against both his senseless murder and all the aspects of racism that caused it.

Students gather at a protest for Trayvon Martin outside the criminal justice building in Sanford, Fla.
Students gather at a protest for Trayvon Martin outside the criminal justice building in Sanford, Fla. (Werth Media)

THE FACTS of Trayvon's murder have made national and international headlines this week. On February 26, the 17-year-old went to a store in Sanford, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, where he was visiting his father and his fiancé. He was walking back through the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community when he was spotted by George Zimmerman, the self-appointed head of a neighborhood watch.

The 911 calls made by Zimmerman and released by police, but only after growing pressure, provide a chilling documentation of how Trayvon was racially profiled and stalked. "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman, who is Latino, told the police operator. In a later call, he says his victim "looks Black," and he defies the operator's instruction not to follow Trayvon.

This week, Trayvon's girlfriend came forward to describe her last cell phone conversation with him after Zimmerman started following him. "He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on," the girl, who wishes to remain anonymous, told interviewers. She said that Trayvon got away from Zimmerman at one point, but that the watch volunteer tracked him down and confronted him.

The call ended abruptly--around the time that Zimmerman shot Trayvon. Zimmerman claims the two got into an altercation; that Trayvon, who weighed about 100 pounds less than Zimmerman, forced him to the ground; and that he fired in self-defense. But other 911 calls from witnesses who heard the confrontation say the cries for help before the fatal gunshot came from Trayvon, not Zimmerman.

Minutes later, police arrived and found Trayvon dead. His body was taken to the medical examiner's office and listed as a John Doe. Authorities apparently never attempted to use Trayvon's cell phone to find out who he was--his father was still desperately calling 911 24 hours later to say that his son was missing.

The cops' apparent disregard for Trayvon after his death contrasted with their treatment of Zimmerman, who was released after questioning--because, police said, they had no evidence to disprove Zimmerman's self-defense claim.

To this day, George Zimmerman has not spent a single minute in custody. Imagine if the roles were reversed, and a Black teenager not from the community had admitted to shooting in self-defense a neighborhood watch volunteer. Can anyone seriously believe that Trayvon would not be sitting in prison right now?

The killing of Trayvon is no exception. While his death in February has gotten increasing media attention in the month since, the killing of Dane Scott Jr. last week in Del City, Okla., passed almost without notice beyond routine "crime" stories in local media outlets.

Scott, who at 18 was one year older than Trayvon, was killed after a routine traffic stop turned into a high-speed chase, with a crash at the end of it. Police claim Scott was armed when he got out of his car and was killed during a "scuffle." But the teen was shot in the back, and witnesses say he was running away from officers with his hands in the air when police fired "four, five, six" shots, said a worker at a nearby convenience store. "It was like being on a firing range." Even the state Medical Examiner's office declared Scott's death a homicide.

Readers of SocialistWorker.org will know about many other examples of police abuse and violence against Blacks--because they take place every day in every city in the U.S.

In New York, to take one example, one side of the story is the horrifying killing last month of Ramarley Graham, another 18-year-old, this one shot by police in the bathroom of his home, in the presence of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother. The other side is the harassment faced every single day by hundreds and hundreds of African Americans because of the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy, a not-so-veiled excuse for racial profiling, whose victims are overwhelmingly Black or Latino.

And the cops, of course, are just one face of a criminal injustice system infected by racism at every level.

The U.S. is the leading jailer in the world, with more of its population behind bars--by proportion or in absolute numbers--than any other country in the world. But the number of incarcerated African Americans is the scandal within this scandal. As of the middle of 2009, there were just under 2.3 million people in state, federal or local prisons or jails, according to federal statistics. More than 900,000 of them were Black--40 percent, or more than three times the percentage of African Americans in the population as a whole.

The U.S. justice system is a machine that victimizes Blacks, especially young Black men. According to The Sentencing Project, African Americans, who are 13 percent of the population and 14 percent of drug users, according to surveys, account for 37 percent of the people arrested for drug charges and 56 percent of those serving time in state prisons for drug offenses.

As a result of these disparities, the federal government calculated that the odds of a Black male born in 2001 going to prison during their lifetime was one in three--compared to a one-in-17 chance for a white male.

Like the experience of police harassment, there is no other possible explanation for these statistics than that racism is pervasive and systematic in U.S. society--something that is reflected in every aspect of life for African Americans.

African Americans are more likely to live in poverty--27.4 percent of Blacks were poor according to the Census Bureau's 2010 figures, compared to 15.1 percent overall. In good economic times or bad, the unemployment rate for Blacks is roughly double that for whites--in February, the official (and vastly understated) jobless rate for Blacks was 14.1 percent, compared to 7.3 percent for whites. By every measure, African Americans get an inferior education from public schools--from number of suspensions and discipline to enrollment in accelerated programs to graduation rates.

AGAIN, THESE statistics will be familiar to many readers, but they bear repeating since the conventional media wisdom after the election of Barack Obama was that we were living in a "post-racial" America.

That was always a myth, promoted mostly by right-wingers. But it is true that the conditions African Americans face today are a stark contrast to the hopes and sentiments of millions when Obama took office--the pride, and not just among African Americans, that a country founded on slavery had elected its first Black president, and also the expectation that life would get better for the have-nots in U.S. society.

The grim facts prove that life hasn't gotten better--and that racism persists in even sharper forms, as the Great Recession has hit hardest among the disproportionately working-class ranks of the African American community.

Not only that, but Obama has proved during his time in office that he isn't interested in challenging racism. He has avoided, in spite of the ever-worsening crisis of the Black community, every opportunity to champion programs that would provide special help to African Americans. He usually hasn't defended himself against the racist smears of Republican opponents, much less stood up against the right wing when it spews hate and stereotypes about Blacks more generally.

This record tells us something important about racism and how to challenge it. The systematic discrimination against African Americans won't be changed by symbolic actions or better education or the legal system.

Racism is built into capitalism as one of the primary means that a minority at the top maintains its rule. As the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, society's masters "secured their ascendency over both the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each."

The economic component to racism dates back to capitalism's earliest days, when the first great fortunes of the bourgeoisie were built on the backs of slave labor in the U.S. South, which produced the cotton that fueled the Industrial Revolution. The ideology of racism was necessary to justify slavery--a crime that was, in the words of Marxist CLR James, "so shocking...that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that the Africans were an inferior race."

Capitalism outgrew the need for slavery, but not the ideology of racism. Instead, it was continually adapted to perform the same function--of both justifying the fact that one part of the working class was being held down, and of keeping workers divided and unable to unite against their common rulers.

Today, the creeps running for the Republican presidential nomination show all the time that open racism is still tolerated in U.S. politics--from Newt Gingrich calling Obama the "food stamp president" to Rick Santorum saying he doesn't want to "make Black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money."

The Republicans' aim is not only to whip up the party's base against Obama, but to invoke racist stereotypes used by politicians of both parties to justify attacks on government programs. Ronald Reagan shifted the war on the poor into high gear in the 1980s with false claims about Black "welfare queens" living the good life, thanks to generous government programs. Gingrich and Santorum--and the Democrats who employ the same arguments, but more carefully, by talking about "personal responsibility"--are following in that tradition.

Even the bigotry of an individual neighborhood watch volunteer must be seen as the product of a system that benefits from the demonization of African Americans.

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has argued, the ideology of racism has shifted, especially in the post-civil rights era, from claiming that Blacks are inferior, to perpetuating a stereotype of criminality, especially for young African American men. For one thing, this justifies the building up of a state apparatus that can be turned not only against persecuted minorities, but anyone who challenges the status quo. And of course, the law-and-order hysteria remains an effective means of keeping working people pitted against one another.

Racism is built into the fabric of capitalism, and so confronting it can't stop with racist ideas--though it is important to challenge those ideas whenever they appear. Racism has to be confronted by struggle--and scapegoating by the spirit of solidarity, with the goal of building a multiracial working-class movement based upon championing the demands of all the oppressed and exploited.

THIS IS why the African American struggle against racism and for liberation has always been a decisive question for the left in the U.S.

The immense wealth of U.S. capitalism and the power of the American state were founded on the basis of slave labor, and the ideology of racism has remained essential to the U.S. ruling class ever since. And so each example of African American resistance has represented a basic challenge, however small or large, to the system.

When this resistance has been victorious--from the abolition of slavery in the 19th century to the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation in the 20th--it has provided some of the highest peaks in the struggle for freedom and liberation in the U.S. Plus, the actions of people standing up against racism--whether Blacks alone or a multiracial struggle--has again and again provided an example that inspired others to take action.

The abolitionist movement in the 19th century--which counted many ex-slaves like Douglass among its leaders--not only contributed to transforming U.S. society with the overthrow the Southern slaveocracy, but its activists went on to play important roles in other struggles, like the fight for women's rights and the labor movement.

A century later, the civil rights movement in the South and then the Black Power movement directly inspired protest and dissent throughout U.S. society. The first demonstrations against U.S. imperialism's war in Vietnam were organized by activists trained by the civil rights movement.

There's a reason for this crossover in the history of resistance in the U.S. The attempt to unravel one injustice in a capitalist society, where exploitation and oppression in many forms are bound together, inevitably pulls at the threads of other injustices.

The struggle against racism is not only an urgent moral obligation for anyone who hates bigotry. It is also an essential part of a wider struggle. That's why all socialists and radicals need to respond to every outrage of hate and bigotry in whatever ways we can--and put the struggle against racism at the center of all our efforts to win change.

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