Tag Archives: Trayvon Martin

The Paralysis of “White Privilege”

Note: The piece below was written as a quick response to several folks who’d asked my opinion of the YouTube video in question. I was somewhat flabbergasted that 16,000 people read it within hours and treated it as though it were a treatise on Marx and race, which is why I have posted Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s article on Marx, Race and Class above, an excellent exposition of the question.-Sherry

There’s a troubling YouTube video, “I AM NOT TRAYVON MARTIN,” making the rounds on Facebook that was posted by a young white woman attacking white antiracists who wear “I am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts. Because the 3-minute video expresses so much of what’s paralyzing and wrong-headed about the “white privilege” argument popular among some left activists, it’s worth a comment.

Essentially, her argument amounts to this: 1) social-justice minded white people (all described as middle class) should not and cannot identify with victims of racism like Trayvon; 2) white people, including antiracists, can only identify with homicidal racist maniacs like George Zimmerman; 3) people of color are multifaceted individuals capable of independent thought and action; white people are an undifferentiated mass of privileged racists who must constantly resist the urge to oppress racial minorities — no matter what they do, say or think they think, all whites are racists and benefit from racism.

This is a rather bleak picture of race and class in America. It is also a completely inaccurate description of and response to a rising tide of multiracial unity in the face of Trayvon Martin’s killing, and Troy Davis’s execution before it.

I haven’t the time here to flesh out all my disagreements, but here are my big three.

One, wearing an “I am Trayvon Martin” t-shirt, or chanting it, is an act of solidarity with victims of racism, not an assertion that everyone faces the same oppression because obviously we don’t. Trayvon’s own mother  has called for multiracial crowds of protesters to identify with Trayvon and the fact that thousands have done so is a testament to a growing disgust with racist police, courts and actions.

Wearing these t-shirts and chanting that you are anybody other than who you actually are is a collective means of expressing outrage at the system, sympathy with victims of injustice and unity with others who feel the same way. It’s why it became so popular among abolitionists to wear “I am Troy Davis” t-shirts in the run-up to that innocent Black man’s execution in September 2011, and why his sister Martina Correia insisted everyone wear one. Visual solidarity is powerful.

The video woman argues that white people wearing these t’s must think that they are making Trayvon into a white, middle class person — presumably like themselves — in order to render him sympathetic in the eyes of racists.

Isn’t it possible, even likely, that people protesting racism wearing these t-shirts actually oppose racism and don’t seek to justify it? If not, then everything we do is called into question as possibly its opposite; nothing we do matters, nothing we say or argue has any validity, but must be suspect as meaning its complete opposite. This is possible, I suppose, but it’s a also a recipe for doing nothing, saying nothing, challenging nothing — paralysis.

Two, arguing, as the video woman does, that white people could only wear “I am George Zimmerman” t-shirts exposes the essentially reactionary core of this argument. Like Zimmerman, who is Latino, white people have been indoctrinated in racism and though video woman, according to her account, has managed to escape the worst of its clutches through great parenting, education and critical thinking, she along with all other whites are condemned to only identify with oppressors, never the oppressed. In fact, to identify with the oppressed, she argues, is an act of immaturity. Au contraire!

Racism, according to this thinking, is not the result of a ruling class’s need to structure oppression in order to gain profits and spread crappy ideas that divide the working class majority from itself. The social construction of racism by those in power centuries ago in order to justify slavery is absent in this analysis.

Instead, racism is conceived as a sort of ideological cancer of no clear origin that metastasizes in all white people, regardless of what they do, think or say. And like a dystopic nightmare, there’s no way out.

Third, according to her “white privilege” argument, there are no distinctions between whites in positions of power and the majority without. In fact, there’s no accounting for how a Black president could preside over a racist system in which a Latino man has killed a Black man and was let off by a mostly white police force led by a Black police chief.

She refers to “the system,” but has no class outlook in which to analyze how the system works and in whose interests. Because if all white people benefit— which includes the majority of people on food stamps, on unemployment and living in poverty in the United States — then these benefits are rather illusory, aren’t they?

Of course, on nearly every economic and social gauge, white people on average in this society have it better than Blacks on average. There are clear advantages to being white in a racist society, but that is not the same as arguing that an injury to Blacks is to the benefit of all whites. To assert, as this argument does, that all white people benefit from racism because they don’t experience the same kind of oppression is false and actually lets the real architects and beneficiaries of racism off the hook.

Employers, politicians, landlords, mortgage lenders and others in positions of power have set up these structures and keep them alive to benefit themselves and their class. Most working class people have no say in these matters and the persistence of a racial divide in the U.S. continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to unified resistance to austerity and joblessness to this day. The fact that many whites accept racist ideas is hardly a privilege or to their own advantage.

The Black historian and NAACP founder WEB DuBois captured this dynamic perfectly:

The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.

The video ends with an argument for whites — again, all conceived of as middle class in the midst of the worst depression since the worst depression — to jettison racist ideas and use their “privilege” to fight the system. While I certainly agree with challenging racism, the video ideologically disarms any antiracist white person from actually joining the struggle — whites better not show up to Trayvon marches wearing “I am George Zimmerman” t-shirts!

This video reflects a politically confused way of talking about race as if it were simply about bad ideas in people’s heads and not conscious structures of oppression kept in place by the 1% in the interests of the 1%.

Worse, it’s often counter-productive because by reducing racism to bad ideas and telling all whites they’re beneficiaries, the privilege argument demands ordinary white people relinquish privileges that they do not have, rather than unite to win what’s been stolen from all of us.

Perhaps the most telling thing about this “white privilege” argument is that many radicals have had their sights for justice set so low that it has come to be thought of as a privilege not to be gunned down in the night on a snack errand while wearing a hoodie because of the color of your skin. Isn’t that simply a human right?

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Bringing the Fight for Justice to Sanford

My report from the Justice for Trayvon protest in Sanford, FL:

AS MANY as 3,000 people joined the NAACP and the 1199SEIU health care workers union on March 31 for a protest through the central Florida town of Sanford where Trayvon Martin was killed in late February.

The nearly all-Black crowd marched past boarded-up pawn shops and crumbling shacks where the town’s poorest African Americans reside. The police headquarters–the only modern, state-of-the-art structure in sight–was the rallying point for the angry protest.

Calls to 911 and the accounts of witnesses corroborate the basic facts: Trayvon was walking through a gated community wearing a hoodie when he was spotted by self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who decided he was “suspicious.” Zimmerman followed Trayvon in defiance of instructions from the police dispatcher and, after a later confrontation, shot and killed him.

But Zimmerman has still not been arrested–because police and prosecutors say they can’t challenge his claim that he acted in self-defense.

After days of enduring the media’s unrelenting character assassination of Trayvon and its defense of his killer, the crowd was defiant. Many carried placards with the pictures and names of other young Black men from Sanford who have been killed without any justice in their cases.

This record feeds local skepticism about whether Trayvon’s death, too, will be brushed aside, despite international attention and outrage. “It’s taking too long,” said Gwendolyn, a 69-year-old veteran of civil rights struggles who too wary to give her last name. “They’re waiting it out. That’s justice in Florida.”

Janice Mortimer, a member of the NAACP in Bradford County in the northern part of the state, said, “If Trayvon’s family got the attention they deserved, it wouldn’t go this far.” Cynthia Berry, who traveled for three hours from her home in Starke, Fla., to get to Sanford, said: “It’s just sad that in 2012 we still have to fight this fight.”

Phyllis Young came from Jacksonville with her sons to march in Sanford. “I do have three sons, and that very well could be any of my boys any day, any moment,” Young told the Florida Times-Union. “I don’t see it as just a fight for Trayvon, but a fight for all young men.”

The speakers at the rally and the crowd agreed that protests are crucial if the Martin family is to receive any kind of justice for the murder of Trayvon.

On the speakers’ platform, NAACP President Ben Jealous introduced Brenden Mitchell, a NAACP youth leader. “I am 17 years old,” Mitchell said in a fiery speech that was enthusiastically received. “I’m a high school student. I’m a young Black man. I could be the next Trayvon Martin.”

Many people at the demonstration were marching for the first time. Buses came from across the state to bring veteran activists and young people alike. A group of white college students drove in from Gainesville, Melbourne and Tampa, and were met with appreciation for stepping over this state’s heavily drawn color line to express solidarity.

Ben Jealous drew attention to the turnout both from out of town and in Sanford itself–“people from throughout this community,” he said, “students, parents, teachers. We’re tired of racial profiling. We’re tired of the lives of young Black men not being treated with the same level of importance when they’re killed.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THIS WAS the third major demonstration in Sanford in the weeks since Trayvon’s murder came to national and international attention, and there have been many more protests and actions around Florida. In Miami, where Trayvon went to high school, there were walkouts and student marches in mid-March.

On March 26, at the University of Florida’s flagship campus in Gainesville, more than 250 Black and white students marched together to the FBI building to demand that the Feds take action to arrest George Zimmerman. That may not seem like a lot compared to some of the bigger demonstrations in other cities, but in a deeply segregated town where Blacks literally live on the other side of the tracks, and where activists passed a Klan rally of dozens along the road home recently, a multiracial march of this size is a triumph.

There are Floridians who say they’re forever changed by this case, and some of them–to the horror of bigots–will cite this as their entry into a life of organized left-wing politics. That the students in Gainesville hoped their protest would be part of a new civil rights movement is a heartening sign. Seasoned activists insist this hasn’t happened in the past, despite an endless stream of outrages over the years.

The spreading radicalization was clear at the Sanford march as well. A literature table set up by the International Socialist Organization was swamped by well-wishers who were thrilled to see antiracist books and the banner calling for an “end to the new Jim Crow.” The paper edition of Socialist Worker sold fast, often followed by spirited discussions about Trayvon and the roots of racism in America.

From the podium, the largest cheers went up when Rev. Al Sharpton echoed the sentiment that surrounds this case. “We live in the middle of an American paradox,” he told the crowd. “We can put a Black man in the White House, but we can’t walk a Black child through a gated neighborhood. We are not selling out, bowing out or backing down until there is justice for Trayvon.”

Sharpton, along with many of the speakers from the NAACP and Rev. Jesse Jackson from Rainbow PUSH in Chicago, pressed for activists to register and vote as the way to “unlock justice in the community.” Though appeals to reelect Barack Obama and local Democratic officials were met with applause, few in the crowd expressed hope that voting was the most important way to fight the racist injustice system.

“It’s up to the masses to change things,” insisted Ayanna Miller of Fort Lauderdale. “We have the power. We have to stop being afraid.”

Joe Richard contributed to this article.
This story originally appeared at socialistworker.org

Is Trayvon’s Killing Sparking a New Movement in Central Florida?

Central Florida leftists insist something new is happening here since Trayvon Martin’s killing. In the era of Occupy and global resistance, small towns draped in Spanish moss are now home to budding activists raising their fists to demand justice for Trayvon.

I’m down here from Brooklyn on a long-planned speaking tour that I hastily shifted to talk about Winning Justice for Trayvon: Socialism and the Fight to End the New Jim Crow. My impression so far is that these local activists living amidst boarded-up strip malls and forests of foreclosure signs are onto something.

The multiracial protests and meetings here seem to indicate that perhaps a new civil rights movement is developing in a region where the Klan still holds public rallies and newspapers uncritically report racist tirades against Trayvon.

Where this will go from here I have no idea, but one thing is certain: There are Floridians who say they’re forever changed by this case, and some of them  — to the horror of bigots — will cite this as their entry into a life of organized left-wing politics.

On Monday at the University of Florida’s flagship campus in Gainesville, more than 250 Black and white students marched together to the FBI building to demand the Feds take action to arrest Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman. That is not a large protest to folks in New York or Chicago, but in a deeply segregated town where Blacks literally live on the other side of the tracks, where  activists passed a Klan rally of dozens along the road home afterward, a multiracial march of this size is a triumph.

The demand from students at the march for a new civil rights movement is a heartening sign. Seasoned activists insist this hasn’t happened in the past, despite an endless stream of outrages over the years.

On Wednesday in Melbourne, a beach town about 80 miles from Sanford where Trayvon was killed, a diverse crowd of 45 or so attended my meeting. The young people there, like young people everywhere nowadays, are scraping by on jobs at Radio Shack, sandwich shops and are moving back home with mom and dad, desperately hoping for something to change.

Several left the meeting with copies of The Meaning of Marxism, Sexuality and Socialism and The Communist Manifesto tucked under their arms, excited to join reading groups in coming weeks. They’re carpooling to Sanford on Saturday for the big NAACP march for Trayvon, excited to be part of history, but outraged by the latest character assassinations of Trayvon.

Last night in Gainesville after I spoke a crowd of students participated in the wide-ranging discussion about the roots 0f racism, comparisons to the sixties and how multiracial unity can be forged. Several young Black women wearing hoodies participated in an animated discussion, the campus NAACP rep grabbed a Socialist Worker, a young Black alum leafleted for a Million Hoodie March today. When a retired transgender activist who’d been a postal strike militant in 1970 denounced the divide and conquer tactics of the 1%, she was applauded.

One Cuban-African American student who’d read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was elated to find socialists on campus — finally a political home for a young woman whose Miami Beach youth was spent being ridiculed for expressing antiracist ideas. She’s joining the local carpool to Sanford on Saturday, too.

I’m off to Tampa tonight to speak at the University of South Florida and will be heading to Sanford on Saturday where I’ll Tweet from the protest (@SherryTalksBack) and file a report for Monday’s socialistworker.org.

Who knows where all this pent up anger and rage will eventually lead? Times like this we’re reminded that the system doesn’t just produce oppression, exploitation and division, it sparks resistance as well.

How long it will last, how deep it will sink roots, how much change it can win are open questions. But something’s happening here.

Below is a little Brooklyn love for Trayvon:

Trayvon in the Alps

It has been disorienting to be out of the country while a social explosion erupts back home over the murder of Trayvon Martin and the indifference of the American state to its own racism that criminalizes all Black men and boys.

I’ve been on a speaking tour about Occupy and U.S. Politics Today throughout Switzerland all week, traveling from German to French and finally Italian-speaking cantons of this unimaginably pristine island of prosperity amidst a world rocked by economic implosion. I’ll leave it for another post to explore the museum-bank of capitalism that is Switzerland.

For me, the backdrop of my train rides past medieval forts and castles, through vineyards and alpine magnificence has been the news of Trayvon’s murder. Each evening I stand before a new crowd of workers and students — in Zurich, Geneva and last night here in Bellinzona — to describe not only the features of Occupy, but the 30 years of neoliberal restructuring that has hollowed out every aspect of American society. Workers and students sit in rapt attention as I attempt to explain the social retrogression of the American Empire. I begin my talks with Trayvon.

Last night was a little different. This breathtakingly beautiful village tucked into the foothills of the Swiss-Italian Alps was rocked by a factory occupation in 2008 when 400 or so railway maintenance workers facing privatization and outsourcing occupied their factory and won their month-long strike. The leadership of that factory occupation attended last night’s meeting and we spoke afterward of how despite their victory they did suffer losses, including 130 workers who are no longer employed by Swiss Railways.

In commemoration of their loss, workers hung 130 pairs of orange work pants on the wall of the factory. Each section of the factory flies the flag of their magnificent strike. It is a testament to their ongoing militancy that to this day management is unable to take down those pants or flags and can only dream of removing statements posted on factory walls by strike leaders. Three managers have been sacked in as many years, each one incapable of smashing the workers’ resolve.

I got to thinking about the importance of memorializing victories and losses, about how memory in a society that aims to wipe away our past is a form of resistance in itself. And so this morning when I awoke to a gorgeous spring day, I went for a stroll and looked for a bag of Skittles, the candy Trayvon had purchased right before he was gunned down for snacking while Black.

Not surprisingly, this tiny Swiss town doesn’t seem to have any Skittles, but I did find Mentos. I started up the footpath that leads high up above the forts and churches and impeccably maintained gardens and homes of this town. Everywhere spring is in bloom here and clean river water has begun to rush down the rocks from the snow-capped peaks all around me. I hiked for a couple of hours until I found a serene place where purple and yellow flowers were already growing up from the mossy rocks. Someone made a bench of tree trunks here to sit and stare out at the peaks, which is where I decided to make a little memorial for Trayvon.

I’m not a religious person, but when you are surrounded by extraordinary natural beauty it seems even the most pragmatic Marxist is given to moments of soulful contemplation. I dug a little hole near the log, poured the Mentos in, placed a rock on top and said a few words in commemoration of a young man who probably never saw the Alps. 

It wasn’t really a prayer, I suppose, but a hope and a promise that I would do whatever was in my power to ensure that some day racism and the structures that require such brutality and ignorance to divide and crush us would be undone.  

And in a sunny spot beneath a rock, in full view of beauty more permanent than the crass stupidities of our society, lies a sweet memory to a young man whose resistance will live on through others. 

Next week I’ll be speaking in Florida. 

Wednesday, March 28th at a community college in Melbourne, FL

Thursday, March 29th at Univ. of Florida in Gainesville

Friday, March 30th at University of South Florida in Tampa