by Marissa Jackson
On the morning after the Morning After, the racial tension in this country could be popped with a needle. If the prevailing narrative is to be believed, Black America is furious, outraged and depressed about George Zimmerman’s acquittal while White America is, through the mouthpiece that is Ann Coulter, screaming “Hallelujah” in jubilant celebration that white supremacy in America has won one more battle.
In reality, the reaction to the verdict has been much more complex, perhaps too complex for news cycles who simply don’t have the time for in-depth reporting and disaggregation if they are to successfully catch the next big story. The massive Bastille Day protests, in the streets of New York City and San Francisco, on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, represent an outrage and dismay that has transcended race, creed, sex, gender, sexual orientation, class and nationality. While post-racial America, it has been proven, is a cruel and violent myth that is perpetuated in order to further disarm racial minorities even in the sphere of discourse, multicultural America is a very real reality.
Much of the outrage may be coming from a sense of disappointment and betrayal that the nearly all-white Southern jury, the victim-shaming and posthumous character assassination of Trayvon Martin, the impunity, the right-wing glee over the death of a black teenager should not be possible in Obama’s America. According to the post-racial script, racism died on November 4, 2008. Every bad thing that happens to black Americans now can be attributed to some internal failing of the black community. Racism is over. Get over it.
Then again, much of the outrage may be coming from a culmination of frustrations and confusions that people of all backgrounds have felt since Barack Obama’s election. It has become painfully clear to them that post-racial America is a lie, that racism has become more potent, more angry, more violent since 2008, justified as defenses of the country’s American values. These frustrations mounted when Trayvon Martin was assassinated and over 40 days passed before George Zimmerman was even arrested.
They became more potent with every racist assault-- the Birther movement; the banning of African-American hairstyles by an Ohio school; Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s crusade against Latinos and Latinas; the arrest of 14 year old Tremaine McMillan for allegedly giving Miami police officers “dehumanizing stares”; the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on employment rights, affirmative action, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and voting rights. For many, perhaps the not guilty verdict was simply the final straw, and that is why broad swaths of the American population are now mobilizing in memory of Trayvon Martin, in protest of George Zimmerman and the Stand Your Ground law, and in disgust at what feels like the pervasiveness and permanence of systematic racism in the United States.
Where was this outrage in 2012, when then-31 year old Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment for firing a warning shot in order to defend herself against her abusive husband? How many people had even heard of her until yesterday, when stories of her conviction went viral, causing many to think she had been convicted on the same weekend as Zimmerman was acquitted? Why is her case only considered in comparison to Trayvon Martin’s killing? Why is there still no petition on her behalf, still no midnight marches through Union Square in her name?
Women’s rights activists have long complained about the indifference that society and the media have towards women’s issues. Black women have long noted that there is an exception to this reality--that young white girls who go missing are highlighted in the news for days and days (this phenomenon is known by social scientists as missing white woman syndrome), while missing black girls and women go entirely unnoticed. But not only by the mainstream media and white America, but also by black American men and women. The NYPD’s stop and frisk policy is controversial and newsworthy because it is bound up with black and Latino masculinity, but what of the systematic underreporting of sex crimes by the NYPD? What of the all too pervasive issue of street sex harassment in the inner-cities by black men of black women? Where were the protests for Romona Moore? Where is the outrage there?
I, too, stewed and brewed in the immediate wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. I worried a lot, as I always have, about my two burly black younger brothers, knowing that their prestigious college degrees and multicultural groups of friends will not save them should some vigilante feel intimidated by their existence and decide to shoot them to death. I worry about my husband, who speaks mostly French and recently arrived in the United States from a country where blackness is the norm--what would happen to him if he were stopped and frisked? Would he know how to behave, or would he freak out, unintentionally committing suicide-by-cop? But I also felt in my stomach a deep grief for black womanhood, and a jealousy of sorts, that our oppressions will never mean as much as those of our brothers. I felt absolutely browbeaten over the sobering reality that if Trayvon Martin’s life meant nothing, than the lives of my sister and I mean less than nothing--even to members of my own community.
The stereotypes about black women and men are not so overwhelming different. Black men are assumed to be criminal. They are stereotyped as dangerous, as sexual threats to white women, as intimidating. Even when they are slight and young, they are viewed as big and bad. Their mere existence is a violence upon social order. They must be controlled, and put down if necessary.
Black women are also assumed to be criminals, and we are also assumed to be shiftless welfare queens, exploiting a system into which we invest nothing. We are stereotyped as angry, emasculating, intimidating. Even when we are physically fit, we are viewed as fat and sloppy. We are stereotyped as sexually insatiable, wild and exotic in the bedroom. Our mere existence is viewed as a cantankerous, loud and unruly disruption. We, too, must be controlled, and neutered if necessary. Consider the characterizations of Rachel Jeantel, of Serena Williams, of First Lady Michelle Obama. Consider the recent revelation that California prisons sterilized up to 250 women--many of them black and brown--without approval between 1996 and 2010. Consider the relative silence from just about everyone when the story broke just a few days before the Zimmerman verdict was announced: Twitter did not go ablaze, the NAACP did not send around a petition, and there were no marches.
I have dedicated much of my professional life to the advancement of human rights, and in particular, to lobby African Americans--and all Americans--to engage the international human rights community. As Professor Carol Anderson helps to explain in Eyes Off the Prize, that there is very little human rights discourse and culture in the United States is not quite accidental. In the United States, we talk about civil rights, and as soon as the words “civil rights” are uttered, blackness (likely embodied as Dr. Martin Luther King) is imagined.
In post-racial America, the concept of civil rights is sneered at, associated with race-baiting and the playing of the race card by ungrateful gimme gimme African-Americans who want handouts instead of a chance to stand on their own feet. It is passe, retrograde, and racist in reverse. It is easily ignored. Meanwhile women’s rights are associated with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gloria Steinem, and opponents of women’s rights activists label them insultingly as feminazis and lesbians (the latter label assumed to be an insult by the insulter), characterizing them as shrill and frigid and possibly in need of a violent rape to sufficiently pacify them. They, too, are easily disregarded. If black women are to get any attention, would we need a Black Women’s Civil Rights Movement? Given the extreme racism and sexism black women experience from within and without the black community, would such a movement even register on America’s political Richter scale?
The answer to both questions, I believe, is “no”. The last thing that black women, black men, or Americans at large need is more civil rights, at least as civil rights have been imagined and narrated and effectuated up until today. What we need is a complete paradigm shift. What we need are human rights.
Not only have advocates of conservative postracialism and colorblindness pegged the Civil Rights movement to years gone by and subjected well-known black civil rights leaders widely ridicule and dismissal, but they have mountains of state legislation and Supreme Court precedent on their side. Colorblindness--a concept advanced by Dr. King himself 50 years ago in his I Have A Dream speech--is now used against black Americans and other racial minorities as a matter of increasingly settled law and policy.
The American civil rights paradigm itself is hopelessly flawed. The Southern Civil Rights Movement has been irreparably marred by black America’s own demons--misogyny and sexism chief among them. The “I am a Man” campaign was a celebration of black masculinity that was not accompanied by an equivalent celebration of black femininity. More than a few black nationalist leaders mistreated their wives; Eldridge Cleaver famously practiced his rape of white women on black women because he knew that the rape of black women was not considered remarkable or abnormal; Maulana Karenga spent time in prison for viciously torturing a number of black women. The civil rights movement was a bastion of patriarchy, requiring black women to stand behind black men in order to avoid emasculating them, and in so doing, has dehumanized us and underscored our invisibility.
Further, the success of the Southern Civil Rights Movement were largely had in the federal courts, causing black America to look for justice in the courts right up until 6 women pronounced George Zimmerman innocent. This reliance upon the government has stifled greater grassroots, more creative approaches to achieving justice. The reliance upon the courts has necessitated that some cases are heard while others are not. And so, Trayvon Martin became our named plaintiff in 2012, to the exclusion of numerous other stories warranting the nation’s attention and outrage--including Marissa Alexander’s. The chopping down of a young man in his prime--the offense against masculinity--has always been considered more valuable than kidnappings and rapes, murders, sterilizations and wrongful convictions of women of color, by people of all ethnic backgrounds. It has become clear that the civil rights paradigm is simply unsuitable for those of us interested in liberty and justice for all.
Human rights offers to Americans never-before realized possibilities. Human rights encompass civil rights and socioeconomic rights, recognizing that we really cannot have one form of rights without the other. Where civil rights are associated with masculinity, socioeconomic rights--which are largely disregarded and denied by the United States--are associated with femininity. Human rights recognizes that the feminization of poverty is real, and that the realization of the rights to food, health, education, adequate housing are just as important as the rights to vote, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and speech.
Human rights are not a black thing, a white thing, a woman thing, an immigrant thing or a gay thing. Human rights are universal. In the human rights paradigm, racism is not a black problem. Human rights recognize that being black, that being female is not a problem. Human rights recognizes that those who violate a human’s rights--any human’s rights--are the problem, and that violators are to always be held accountable for their violations. Human rights specialize in the interests of the unnamed, unheard, unseen masses rather than picking the case that is the most politically salient, most likely to win, most sexy. In the human rights paradigm, Trayvon Martin does not have to defend himself against George Zimmerman and cable news from the grave; rather, the state has to give account to the world for why its criminal justice system authorizes vigilante white-on-black violence and why it does not better protect women such as Marissa Alexander from domestic violence.
A human rights-based approach to racism in America would take a longitudinal view at American jurisprudence and could potentially hold the assault upon racial minorities by the court and the prison system to be a mass human rights violation. The international community has concerned itself with all the unnamed men and women in the Niger Delta, the thousands of Congolese rape victims, and it has demonstrated a keen interest in the persistence of state-sponsored racial oppression in the United States. Unless we truly wish to languish in the insult of invisibility, with our freedoms, our very breaths, at the mercy of prosecutors, prison physicians, parole boards, and armed neighborhood watch men, we must consider, as Malcolm X suggested decades ago, engaging the global human rights movement and taking our criminals to court. No matter how fervently we black women defend our brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers, it seems certain that under the current paradigm, nobody will ever march for us.
The day after the Zimmerman verdict came down, Melissa Harris Perry reflected upon the relief she felt when she discovered that she was pregnant with a girl and not a boy. In her view, a black girl is safer in the United States than a little black boy. I would submit to her that her opinion is very likely based in her belief in a narrative sustained by politics, some patriarchy, and availability heuristics. Pointing to cases of unlawful acts of violence against black men is easy because crimes against them get attention. We know some of their names: Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Tremaine McMillan, Rodney King, Medgar Evers, Emmitt Till, Martin Luther King, Trayvon Martin. Professor Harris Perry could easily be forgiven for believing that being a black girl in America is a walk in the park by comparison--and it is always by comparison, even as the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Church Bombing approaches.
The United States is a very dangerous place for young black men, but at least they have defenders and supporters. I am somewhat encouraged by the widespread outrage expressed over the Zimmerman verdict, because it signifies that unless we are distracted by latest news story or the commencement of football season, that there is a possibility that we will mobilize together as we did in during the 2008 Presidential campaign to make our mark on the world as the United Races of America. But I will never be optimistic until black women become weary of their invisibility and take the steps necessary to march for ourselves, all the way to the General Assembly or the Hague.
Marissa Jackson is a 20-something attorney who will clerk on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, for the Honorable Damon J. Keith in the fall of 2013. She previously clerked for The Honorable Sterling Johnson, Jr, in the Eastern District of New York, and was most recently a visiting scholar at the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal. Marissa is the founder of the 4th World Initiative, an interdisciplinary think tank and grant-making organization dedicated to advancing human rights and development in the pan-African world. She currently lives in Harlem and blogs at www.marissaaljackson.com.