Emmett and Trayvon: How racial prejudice has changed in last 60 years
Series on Race in America - Past and Present
Elijah Anderson | 7/28/2013, 7:45 p.m.
Most consequentially, Black skin when seen in public, and its association with the ghetto, translates into a deficit of credibility as Black skin is conflated with lower-class status. Such attitudes impact poor Blacks of the ghetto one way and middle-class Black people in another way.
While middle-class Blacks may be able to successfully overcome the negative presumptions of others, lower-class Blacks may not. For instance, all Blacks, particularly “ghetto-looking” young men, are at risk of enduring yet another “stop and frisk” from the police as well as discrimination from potential employers, shopkeepers, and strangers on the street. Members of the Black middle class and Black professionals may ultimately pass inspection and withstand such scrutiny; many poorer Blacks cannot. And many Blacks who have never stepped foot in a ghetto must repeatedly prove themselves as non-ghetto, often operating in a provisional status (with something more to prove), in the workplace or, say, a fancy restaurant, until they can convince others-either by speaking “White” English or by demonstrating intelligence, poise, or manners-that they are to be trusted, that they are not “one of those” Blacks from the ghetto, and that they deserve respect. In other words, a middle-class Black man who is, for instance, waiting in line for an ATM at night will in many cases be treated with a level of suspicion that a middle-class White man simply does not experience.
But this pervasive cultural association-Black skin equals the ghetto-does not come out of the blue. After all, as a result of historical, political, and economic factors, Blacks have been contained in the ghetto. Today, with persistent housing discrimination and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, America’s ghettos face structural poverty. In addition, crime and homicide rates within those communities are high, young Black men are typically the ones killing one another, and ghetto culture - made iconic by artists like Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, and the Notorious B.I.G. - is inextricably intertwined with blackness.
As a result, in America’s collective imagination the ghetto is a dangerous, scary part of the city. Above all, to many White Americans the ghetto is where “the Black people live,” and thus, as the misguided logic follows, all Black people live in the ghetto. Black people of all classes, including those born and raised far from the inner cities and those who’ve never been in a ghetto, are by virtue of skin color alone stigmatized by the place.
Trayvon Martin’s death is an example of how the current type of racial stereotyping works. It appears unlikely that Zimmerman shot and killed Martin simply because he hates Black people as a race. It seems that he put a gun in his pocket and followed Martin after making the assumption that Martin’s Black skin and choice of dress meant that he was from the ghetto, and therefore up to no good; he was considered to be a threat. And that’s an important distinction.
Zimmerman acted brashly and was almost certainly motivated by assumptions about young Black men, but it is not clear that he acted brutally out of hatred for Martin’s race. That certainly does not make Zimmerman’s actions excusable, Till’s murderers acted out of racial hatred.