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Trayvon Martin and American Exceptionalism | Religion Dispatches (Participation)

March 23, 2012

Trayvon Martin and American Exceptionalism

Post by Anthea Butler

Is a black person’s life worth anything in America? Not as long as America remains “Exceptional.”

Here’s how America is Exceptional: as Joanna notes, a 17-year-old African-American boy, Trayvon Martin, is shot and killed with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea in his hands, by a white man with a gun on “neighborhood watch.”

Trayvon’s trip to the 7-11 was not just a run to the store, but another statistic in the long arc of racialized violence in America. George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon in his role as neighborhood watch captain and executioner, is, according to his father, “half Hispanic with black friends.” Really? Having a black friend makes it okay to shoot a black person?

Zimmerman, a serial 911 caller, decided to hunt and kill Trayvon after muttering “These A—holes always get away with it” to the 911 operator. Zimmerman even calls Trayvon a “F’in coon” in the 911 recording. As of this writing, Zimmerman is not charged with any crime, courtesy of his friends on the Sanford, Florida, Police department reading of the “stand your ground law” which allows one to shoot if they feel threatened. Last time I looked, a pack of Skittles isn’t threatening, nor can it pack a gun.

Zimmerman and Trayvon are players in America’s ongoing narrative of racial strife and animosity. As a historian of the African-American religious experience, Trayvon’s murder is a sad and familiar tale. A “fearful” white person, complicit white policemen, and a botched investigation all point to white privilege and power, while a dead black child lies cold on a slab for three days in the morgue. The police in Sanford can’t even have the courtesy to check Trayvon’s phone for his mom and dad’s telephone numbers because it’s just a black criminal’s body to them. While Zimmerman the trigger man slept in his bed, the police ordered a drug and alcohol test for Trayvon’s lifeless body. A black body that was representative of evil against the whiteness of George Zimmerman.

I hesitated to write about this story, because there are many good stories about Trayvon and his parents’ quest for justice on behalf of their beautiful child. Yet the cold burning in my heart and head won’t let me leave it alone. So much of what I teach is about the violence and pathos of the African-American experience, that I have to say what is in my heart. It grieves me to know Trayvon died in such a horrible way, but it does not surprise me.

Violence is at the core of much of the African American experience. As a scholar, I know that black lives and bodies are cheap in the psyche of “white America.” If we aren’t dancing, catching a ball, or cleaning houses, we are “othered.” Even with the leader of the nation inhabiting his own skin, the blood of his African father and white mother are a constant reminder to whites that he is Other, and for many, inferior. What could Trayvon expect when even the President of the United States is not respected simply because of his skin color? If President Obama had been the one to walk in a hoodie in Zimmerman’s neighborhood, with no secret service, he may have met the same fate.

George Zimmerman and the Sanford police department are just another iteration of J.W. Milam, Bull Connor, and George Wallace. Honestly, I’m weary of teaching about the deaths of innocent black men and women at the hands of white supremacists. I am damn tired of folks marching in the streets to receive due process and “justice for all”—not just for white people.

So when white Christians start with the American Exceptionalism talk, I want to show them the bodies of black men and women hanging from the lynching trees, the maimed body of Emmett Till, the picture of Trayvon Martin with blood coming out of his mouth that the callous, insensitive police chief Lee decided was perfectly fine to show Trayvon’s father. I want them to look into the abyss of pain that permeates the African-American experience soaked in the blood of our ancestors. I’m sick of the platitudes about Christianity that come from inane pastors who can’t see the blood that runs in rivers throughout our nation. The blood of African Americans deemed expendable by the whims and wills of the white masters. Sure, America is exceptional. Exceptionally racist, and exceptionally violent.

Recently I was asked if I find beauty in anything. I do. At the time the question irked me, and I felt that the person who asked me was being insensitive. I realize now why he will never understand my acerbic tone. When you teach the history of African Americans, it is hard to find beauty in so much painful history. I don’t know where there is beauty in rapes, killings, maimings, poverty, and the specter of violence that haunts our communities, self-inflicted or otherwise. For every good story history, there are 100 awful ones; each more troubled than the last. Trayvon Martin’s murder is just another marker of that legacy.

Despite this history, Trayvon was a trusting young black man, a gift in this day and age. Trayvon was beautiful. It took his girlfriend to tell him to run away when he thought he was being followed. Now, in death, he has joined a cloud of witnesses to the horrors of America’s racist past and present. My hope is that Trayvon’s senseless death is punished, and that it will serve as a painful reminder to fearful white people that their constructed fears of the Other will destroy all of us if allowed to continue unchecked.

via Trayvon Martin and American Exceptionalism | Religion Dispatches.

via Trayvon Martin and American Exceptionalism | Religion Dispatches.

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4 Comments
  1. Olivia Newhouse permalink

    I really like how Butler talked about how if our president had been walking down the street with no secret servicemen he could be dead in this situation also. I think this story is so interesting because it is just proving to us that racism is still very much alive in our society and race does matter.

  2. Kyla Chappell permalink

    I think this article does a really good job of explaining how racism exists and that race does matter in our society today. It adds to the sadness of Trayvon’s murder and how wrong it is that Zimmerman has had no charges against him, had the tables been turned I feel as though this case would have been a done deal and the shooter (had he been black killing a white) would be behind bars for life already, rather than living Zimmerman’s life of going on normally.

  3. Hailey Pusich permalink

    I think this article really does prove that race does still matter today and have an effect on our society. Trayvon was an innocent young black man and I there needs to be justice for his murder. I agree with Kyla above that if the tables were flipped and it was a black man killing an innocent white man then he would be in jail already no questions asked. I think this is a really sad reality and something needs to be done to give Trayvon justice and all other innocent victims of race.

  4. Payden Bjornesatd permalink

    I have expressed my absolute anger towards the Trayvon Martin murder again and again in class. I will not deny that this is an extension of white privilege and institutionalized power aimed against minorities. The “stand your ground law” is also incredibly vague, so much so that it can be interpreted and enforced almost at the officers disgression. We can see how it ended up in Trayvon’s murder. George Zimmerman, a psychotic and worrisome neighborhood watch “goon” was on patrol and murdered a promising young man. Honestly, He could have murdered a homeless man and I would be enraged. Murder is just that, the stealing of in innocent live. Trayvon wasn’t a homeless man, however, he was a very promising young man. However in the eyes of the police department, Trayvon might as well have been homeless or a gang leader or some sort of criminal because he is being treated, not like a kid, however like another “worthless” black person in America. I can’t see how this is even possible. I wasn’t aware that our government was this racist. Had Trayvon been white, Zimmerman would have immediately been arrested, parents would be notified and thousands of Americans would be enraged. What I am trying to say is that the justice system would have actually provided justice. Trayvon isn’t white, he is black. So apparently this means that his parents aren’t to be notified for 3 days, girlfriend isn’t to be questioned, however has to come forward on her own to give incriminating evidence that Zimmerman was essentially stocking Trayvon, and Zimmerman isn’t even arrested while the proceedings are pending…. Shocking, right? Not really, as this article states, this is just another statistic. It makes me sick! I wonder why it takes a million people to march in the streets to gain equality and acknowledgement in our justice system. Why do these marches HAVE to happen? Well, in all honesty, if they don’t than half of America would never even know. I asked my 3 roommates if they had heard of the Trayvon martin case and they had no idea. Once I explained what had happened, they were shocked and couldn’t believe they hadn’t heard about this. This can also be blamed on the media. Fox, the worst news station of all time, only played one segment on the Trayvon martin murder. Fox, aside. The other news channels didn’t give it the time of day, either. CNN has aired over 40 segments, which is well and above any other station by about 20. The point is, our country is flawed, immensely. I search Trayvon martin and the first thing that pops up is an article stating “Trayvon martin was the aggressor, police sources say”… even if his girlfriend never came forward to state otherwise, this apparently makes it ok to shoot a young boy. I wish I had an answer for how to fix our country but I don’t, if its still ok to kill an unarmed black person, not only ok but un-warranting of an arrest, than I don’t see a promising future. It’s sad but true.

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