By Zillah Eisenstein
I am white and female, like the almost-white jury that acquitted Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin. But I am also an anti-racist feminist. My head spins. I grew up in a family dedicated to civil rights and lived in communities that ostracized us because my father taught at Black Atlanta University, or when my mother worked with Black women on welfare at the South Side Community Center in Columbus, Ohio. My sisters and I were seen as worse than black; as race traitors.
When I write about race I think it is complex, fluid, unchanging and also changed—and that whiteness matters as structurally privileged, always. Being Black is frozen in slavery and also evolves in incredibly new ways—and it is always implicated with gender, sex and class meanings as well. I am not using “white” or “Black” as pre-determined meanings. We know that Clarence Thomas would have his own take on the trial, despite his color. But color matters most when it is said to not matter.
Race and Gender
During the trial the 6-woman jury was described as such with little or no mention of their race. They were not described as five white women because whiteness has a silent neutrality—you name race when it is other than white. One juror is described as Black/Latina so that may also have allowed for a lessening of the “whiteness” description for some. After the verdict the jury is more often described as white as well as female but with little attention to this fact. There is little examination of the relationship between being white and female, or what (white) motherhood might mean to and for these women, or their fears of young black men, as they sat in judgment of Trayvon Martin.
We know little of these women and my attempt to think deeply here is not to form some kind of personal attack or demonization of them. We know that 3 of the women are gun users, that 5 are mothers, and now we know given the CNN interview with juror No. B37 that 3 of the jurors started out in deliberations for acquittal, 2 for manslaughter, and 1 for murder. And Ms. Anonymous also tells us that she feels equally bad for Trayvon and George; they “both” got themselves into a regrettable situation that they could not get out of; and race played no part. Yet she speaks disparagingly of Rachel Jeantel for an assumed lack of education with little regard for who she really is.
The entire interview is stunning. Trayvon is dead but yet her feelings are “equally” extended to both victim and assaulter. Zimmerman is the predator and race mattered in who he chose to surveil, but race is e-raced here. The erasure masquerades as neutrality and fairness. Maybe given the silenced racism of the trial these jurors in the end cannot really allow themselves to wonder and imagine Trayvon as their own son. Why? Because he is Black and they are white and/but race supposedly does not matter. So the possibility that their gender—being mothers—that might be helpful to having them see the unfair danger that Trayvon was put in does not get put into play. Their race—white—silently, “objectively” trumps their gender.
I am white and female and a mother. I asked my lawyer spouse what would he have done, as a (white) male when he was 17 if he thought someone was tracking him. Would he run and try and get away? Would he turn around and challenge the aggressor? Before he could answer I said that I thought as a female I might run, no matter what, fearing that I would be overpowered. I was/am not sure—but I do think men and women think differently about assault, and aggression. So I was trying to think like I was Trayvon—what would he have done to get away. No matter what, he was trying to protect himself, and save his life. I assume he was terror filled. That he was terrorized because he was a young black boy being stalked by a white (Hispanic) man.
Thinking like Trayvon means that I first have to know how I am different than him, and then maybe also similar. So I have to try really hard to imagine what it feels like to a young black man/boy who is racially profiled and wary of a man who is stalking him. Whatever the provocation and the series of events that led to his death Trayvon was not initially the predator, or stalker, or gun carrier. It really is just not fair that Trayvon, who is dead has the total burden of proof at his end—so he has to be beyond doubt faultless. It is impossible to be a young black man and assumed to be faultless in this country. There is no neutral/objective starting point for this legal case so the best that the jury could do is try to become neutral and not think like a “white racist.” That did not happen.
If you are thinking “like a white female”—which would mean that you do not think you need to be self-conscious about this limitation for seeing and hearing and listening to the facts about an assault that involves racial profiling—then you are not able to see the difference between reasonable doubt and racism. If you see “racially” to begin with, “like a white female” with no recognition of white privilege, then you won’t see the racial motivation in the killing. If Trayvon Martin were white, he would still be alive. And if Zimmerman were Black he almost assuredly would have been arrested immediately and found guilty of murder. What more does one need to know here?
Of course I know almost nothing about these women of the jury other than what we have been told which is hardly anything. But I can wonder what they were not thinking about when they followed the strictures of the court the way they did. This same wondering should be applied to the white female judge who gave a total endorsement to the stand your ground law in her instructions to the jury along with her insistence that racial profiling was disallowed as a term in her court.
No one is bias free. And no one in this country is racially bias free. But you have a chance at controlling the limitations of bias if you recognize it, name it, and curtail for it.
I hate the fact that the jury’s race seems to have trumped their gender—they could not see themselves like Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother. Instead they allowed a piece of sidewalk to be a weapon; as though Trayvon had done something to cause his own death. Instead of “imagining” themselves as a Black mother (maybe) these women allowed their own fears about (sexual) assault by a black male youth to stand in for the actual crime. We will not know given that racialized viewings and their sexualized meanings remained silenced and “irrelevant.”
I am wondering if they ever wondered if they were Trayvon what they would have done? Or what their child would have done if caught in such a circumstance.
(In)justice and White Privilege
The U.S. justice system in unjust. It is rooted in law that pretends to be impartial and objective and rational when it simultaneously protects inequalities of race and gender and sex and class. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of the trial and the verdict, that it is “not a miscarriage of justice but US justice itself”; that it is not a mal-functioning of law, but its effective functioning.
I live with my spouse who is an attorney. For the past 28 years I have heard about “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the “burden of proof,” “insufficient instruction to the jury,” and “procedural (in)justice.” Given Florida’s stand your ground law many have argued it was impossible to find Zimmerman guilty beyond a “reasonable doubt.” There is no reasonable doubt that Trayvon Martin was racially profiled. The facts by now are well known. Martin was doing nothing out of the ordinary. Zimmerman had a thing about Blacks in his neighborhood.
It was clear mid-way through the trial that Zimmerman was not truthful. He lied about knowing stand your ground law. He knew enough to know that he needed to lie in order to not be seen as a vigilante, or at fault as a stalker. Again, my lawyer spouse says that usually the client, if innocent, takes the stand. It is also not insignificant to learn, post-verdict, that Zimmerman was a thug with domestic abuse charges filed against him on two separate occasions. Zimmerman supposedly feared for his life? Really? And Florida law backs him up. Again, really?
Trayvon’s story intersects with multiple crises today. The problems are ferocious. Guns are too plentiful and the access to them is too easy, especially in Florida. Stand your ground laws are inherently aggressive and lethally dangerous. Juries of 6 are too small to make racially mixed juries more probable, especially in the predominantly white parts of Florida.
Racism—the profiling of others as dangerous because of their skin color—is not named or called into question so it parades silently and dangerously. The whiteness of the jury is not inevitably a pre-determined problem, but it usually will be. Neither is the all femaleness of it. But when unquestioned and unconsciously so, the homogeneity is. Racism has blurry lines. The law knows only true/false; cause/effect; guilty/innocent.
The only hope for justice in a racially, gendered, class unequal society other than fundamentally changing this is to try and take responsibility for seeing the injustice in the system of justice. Otherwise, it is simply one injustice on top of another. The only hope to counter prejudice is to recognize it, name it and try to see more by pushing yourself beyond it. This is the closest we can get to fairness while pushing hard for structural change.
Marissa Alexander was recently sent to prison for 20 years for shooting into the air to avert a violent and abusing husband, also in Florida. Clearly, (Black) women do not get protection under “stand your ground” law in Florida. It is reserved for (white) men.
I do not think the legal system in the US can attempt justice as long as it pretends to have objectivity as its pretense when inequality of race, gender and class obfuscate the possibility of fairness. Racism in its gendered forms remains the problem here, not simply the law.
Racialized gender in the form of the dangerous black boy/man is a form of white privileged terrorism. With new laws like “stand your ground” and with the anarchy of guns and gun laws the verdict in this trial endorses a terror filled society, most especially for Black people and people of color other than white. Let us begin a real war on terror: begin real gun control, dump stand your ground law, and re-structure white privilege.
Zillah Eisenstein is one of the foremost political theorists and activists of our time. She has written feminist theory in North America for the past twenty-five years. Her writing is an integral part of her political activism. She writes in order to share and learn with, and from, others engaged in political struggles for social justice. She writes about her work building coalitions across women’s differences: the black/white divide in the U.S.; the struggles of Serb and Muslim women in the war in Bosnia; the needs of women health workers in Cuba; the commitments of environmentalists in Ghana; the relationship between socialists and feminists in union organizing; the struggles against extremist fundamentalisms in Egypt and Afghanistan; the needs of women workers in India, and the organizing of migrant women workers in Indonesia.
Zillah Eisenstein has been a Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in New York for the past 35 years and is now “Distinguished Scholar in Residence” there. Throughout her career her books have tracked the rise of neoliberalism both within the U.S. and across the globe. She has documented the demise of liberal democracy and scrutinized the growth of imperial and militarist globalization. She has also critically written about the attack on affirmative action in the U.S., the masculinist bias of law, the crisis of breast cancer and AIDS, the racism of patriarchy and the patriarchal structuring of race, the new nationalisms, corporatist multiculturalism, and the newest gendered and classed formations of the planet.
Besides her recently published THE AUDACITY OF RACES AND GENDERS, A PERSONAL AND GLOBAL STORY OF THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN (2009, Zed Press, London; Palgrave, U.S.), her most current books include: SEXUAL DECOYS, GENDER, RACE AND WAR IN IMPERIAL DEMOCRACY (London, Zed Press; New York, Palgrave, 2007); AGAINST EMPIRE, ibid.; HATREDS, RACIALISED AND SEXUALIZED CONFLICTS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, (Routledge, 1996); GLOBAL OBSCENTITIES: PATRIARCHY, CAPITALISM AND THE LURE OF CYBERFANTASY (NYU PRESS, 1996); and MANMADE BREAST CANCERS, (Cornell Univ. Press, 2001). For more information see: www.ithaca.edu/zillah