Why Did Jury NEVER see Trayvon Martin as a CHILD? Ida B Wells Barnett explains in 1895 _A Red Record_
“A Black person has “no rights which a white man is bound to respect.” ~ Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in 1857
In his impromptu remarks this afternoon in the White House Press Room, President Obama asked a most salient question: “If Trayvon Martin had been of age and armed would he have been justified in standing his ground on that sidewalk?” Of course that hypothetical question is premised on Trayvon having the right to carry a weapon as an adult. But Sybrina Fulton yesterday put her finger on the more immediate concern. To her the jury did not consider Trayvon as their own Child. In other words, Empathy Deficit. But there is a reason for that. American culture has NEVER had a place for children of color in its construction of childhood.
Pres Obama’s Remarks on Trayvon Martin – 07-19-2013
Six days since the phrase “Not Guilty” was curtly announced at the George Zimmerman trial about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a lot has been written from various perspectives endorsing, questioning, or parsing the verdict. A wave of activism has also sprung up in its wake demanding revisions to Stand Your Ground laws in states like Florida, while campaigns such as the NAACP’s #HesNotaSuspect seek to validate the human worth of black male children.
However at the crux of the court case, a key element never came up: What were Trayvon’s RIGHTS as a CHILD in the encounter with George Zimmerman that fateful night? What provisions do Stand Your Ground laws have to protect children in any encounter with an adult? What is a child supposed to do when confronted by an armed assailant/stalker/intruder/stranger?
Sybrina Fulton & Tracy Martin Interview with Al Sharpton
Zimmerman’s defense attorneys were ruthlessly successful in zeroing out any such consideration of Trayvon as a CHILD in the jury’s mind, along with all intuitive assumptions that CHILDHOOD invokes in American culture. The message was: Trayvon’s childhood was NULL & VOID. But WHY were they so successful, such that Juror #B37 could casually say that Trayvon was responsible for his own death? That assuming Trayvon did fight back in the manner that Zimmerman claimed, that he was WRONG to do so? How does that thinking square with the advice that public officials, educators, and parents routinely give to children about how to react when assailed by strangers?
We scream with approval when we watch children in our movies hit bad guys in the groin or mount stealth attacks in self-defense. And we mourn and seek retribution when those children’s actions result in their deaths or severe injuries. But not so Trayvon Martin. His very body excluded him from the narrative of American childhood. Why? History provides a clue.
Childhood as a construct in American culture is contrived innocence, a projection of an imagined pristine moment outside of the cruelties of life. That we classify ages 0-18 as legal childhood is a function of our modern K-12 education lifecycle as well as biological growth cycles. Until the last century with the proscription of child labor and the rise of the Middle Classes with the attendant consumer culture, Childhood as blissful innocence with minimal economic productivity, was never intended to be enjoyed by the non-moneyed classes, and certainly not People of Color (POC).
Black Children in these United States historically never had a separate status from their mothers. During slavery it meant that they (derogatorily called “pickanninies”) too were units of the slave owner’s chattel from whose labor wealth had to be extracted through direct sale of their bodies or exploiting their labor working on the plantation. Girls’ bodies suffered the extra terror of being raped to increase the slave holder’s capital. Boys were simply fully-exploitable men in little bodies.
Curiously, the emancipation of slaves wrought the concept of the black male (including child) as a menace to society precisely because his body had ceased being a controllable asset to white America. One of the pioneers of the civil rights movement and ace journalist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, incisively explains why this happened in her 1895 account of lynchings in the US, _A Red Record_:
“While slaves were scourged mercilessly… inhumanly treated in other respects, still the white owner rarely permitted his anger to go so far as to take a life, which would entail upon him a loss of several hundred dollars. The slave was rarely killed, he was too valuable; it was easier and quite as effective, for discipline or revenge, to sell him “Down South….
But Emancipation came and the vested interests of the white man in the Negro’s body were lost…. In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed.”
The relationship was never anything other than transactional. Absent these terms in which the black body has an economic utility, it becomes a threat that MUST be eliminated. Black bodies cannot exist neutrally, let alone idle.
Modern American Childhood enshrines unstructured time as vital to healthy child development. Ergo Trayvon’s very being is scripted out of that narrative. Gingrich’s statements about putting inner city youth to work as janitors during the last presidential season is a facet of this “truism” in the moneyed American mind. Thus black bodies not under the regimentation of productive labor at any time must be up to NO GOOD. A menace to society.
As Ida B Wells-Barnett noted from her empirical study of the wave of lynchings of black men especially across the country, she uncovered 3 justifications for lynching:
“The first excuse given to the civilized world for the murder of unoffending Negroes was the necessity of the white man to repress and stamp out alleged “race riots.””
“Then came the second excuse, which had its birth during the turbulent times of reconstruction. By an amendment to the Constitution the Negro was given the right of franchise, and, theoretically at least, his ballot became his invaluable emblem of citizenship. …But this did not last long. The southern white man would not consider that the Negro had any right which a white man was bound to respect, and the idea of a republican form of government in the southern states grew into general contempt.”
“the murderers invented the third excuse—that Negroes had to be killed to avenge their assaults upon women. There could be framed no possible excuse more harmful to the Negro and more unanswerable if true in its sufficiency for the white man.”
Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was lynched for “whistling at a white woman” in 1955
The common thread in all three justifications is that the black body is given to its PRIMAL passions, and incapable of discipline or cultivating civilized behavior. It is pathological. Therefore the bodies of children of color are similarly pathologically inclined.
This is the cultural, legal, and experiential frame that informs the Trayvon Martin case. He could not simply be a child, warts and all in the minds of those blaming him for his dreadful fate.
And Pres Obama could immediately see himself in Trayvon’s shoes. But as long as we were all children once, regardless of race, ethnicity, cultural, or economic background, we all should be able to walk in Trayvon’s shoes.