This morning I came across this on Twitter. It's a quote, purportedly by Bell Hooks, on the Zimmerman trial. I traced that tweet to a Facebook post by someone with no connection to Bell Hooks, and there was no link to the original quote.
I always look for original links to anything I'm going to quote, since I want to be as accurate as possible. I was beginning to think the quote had been made up, when I Google'd a phrase from the quote. This turned up dozens of Tumblr pages, and then I spotted a Goodreads source.
So not a quote about the Zimmerman trial at all, yet strangely prescient.
When I searched the book on Amazon, I found the entire passage, as well as more, for context. Bell Hooks was writing about, obviously, love, and the lack of it in our society. This passage was concerned with how we seem incapable of loving strangers: "We cannot embrace the stranger with love for we fear the stranger. We believe the stranger is a messenger of death who wants our life." (I would urge you to read the context, starting around page 193 of the book.) It's also about the culture of death, and the anxiety and irrationality our fear of death produces.
Here's the quote that's been going around:
"White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged to feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat." This is what the worship of death looks like.”
I believe she was referring to a case that occurred in Baton Rouge, La., when a young Asian man showed up at the wrong house for a Halloween party. He was a student at LSU from Japan, and was shot by the homeowner who believed he was coming to rob him. I remember a lot about his case. To me, it represented the worst tendencies of my home state, and the dangers of an armed society.
Right before I saw the tweet that took me on this journey of discovery to Bell Hooks, I was answering a friend on Facebook, a British woman who was puzzled by the different reactions of her American friends to the Zimmerman trial. Here's what I told her:
There's a long answer and a short answer to your question. First, there's a polarization happening in America right now, encouraged by the broadcast media (Fox News, primarily) that pits conservatives against liberals, black against white, etc. From the beginning, the Martin murder was seen in this light. If you were conservative, you believed what the right-wing media told you, that Trayvon Martin was a frightening punk who jumped Zimmerman and had a history of violent, illegal behaviour. There were photos floating around, most with no connection to Trayvon (one was a 30 year old rapper who looked similar), and every scare story you can imagine. This ginned up the outrage on the right, and Zimmerman was able to collect a large defense fund of $300,000. The truth is that Trayvon Martin was returning home (in a gated white community where his father happened to be staying) after buying candy and iced tea at a convenience store. He'd done nothing wrong, yet Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, was waiting for someone like him to come along. Basically, Zimmerman followed the young man, confronted him, and a struggle ensued. Martin got a punch or two in, apparently, from the head wounds on Zimmerman.
Then Zimmerman pulled out a gun and shot Trayvon in the heart.
That's the facts, as presented in the trial. But because Florida (where so many other legal oddities happen, including the strange 2000 election that resulted in Bush becoming President) has very lenient self-defense laws, Zimmerman was able to argue he was entirely justified in shooting Trayvon simply because he feared for his life.
It doesn't matter that this fear arose from a very stupid mentality, that no normal person would stalk and kill a boy walking through their neighborhood, especially when the police were already on their way. None of that mattered, since Zimmerman, through his own ignorance and racist views, did actually, if not legitimately, fear for his life.
That's what resulted in an acquittal. The all-white jury was, again, something that can still happen in Florida in this day and age. One juror was Hispanic, as was Zimmerman, but Hispanics can be every bit as racist against blacks as whites.
So, there are the facts and there's the us vs them mentality that your friend exhibited. The fear of blacks is very, very real in certain segments of the US population. Having a black man as president has in some ways aggravated that fear, oddly enough.
"They always get away" is what Zimmerman told the police dispatcher, just before he left his car to pursue Trayvon. That is exactly what many, many people in the South, particularly, think, and so to their minds, the fact that the boy was innocent didn't matter. Someone had to pay for this irrational fear they felt, and that was Trayvon.
And combined with the increasing tendency of people of a certain mindset to carry guns (while overall, gun ownership is actually declining) that fear is only going to result in more situations like this, particularly in Florida. Shoot first, claim self-defense later.
But only if you're white.
(Clearly, I never got around to the short answer.)
As always, and as Bell Hooks alluded to in that short quote, the media bears much responsibility for the Zimmermans out there, for the white homeowners who are so terrified that someone is coming for their property, for their lives. Sensational trials are covered wall-to-wall on 24-hour "news" networks, and since controversy converts to ratings, anchors try to gin up controversy any way they can. If you're scared of those "other" people, then the network you watch has probably fostered this by repeatedly telling you stories about those scary other people who are constantly trying to break into your home.
When a black man tries to get into his own house, located in a white neighborhood, by breaking in after he's lost his key, he's confronted by the cops, called by a neighbor. (Some neighbor!) When a white woman tries to steal a bike with a saw, she's offered help, but when a black man tries the same thing, he's confronted by an angry mob in this disturbing video, which shows just how our prejudices play out every day.
That video experiment may have been inspired by this 2006 video, which shows a white man stealing his own bike seven times in Portland. No one stops him, not even when he's wearing a hoodie, and in fact, one man does stop and offer help: "You need to get leverage," he says helpfully.
We need more videos like these, that show us our prejudices, albeit painfully, and fewer eager correspondents interviewing Black Panthers ("whose membership barely approaches Westboro Baptist Church levels") which simply feeds our fears.
I remember once, when I lived in a gated, mostly white community in Albuquerque, I saw a group of a half dozen or so black men running down the street as I walked my dog. That wasn't a usual sight, needless to say. Fortunately I didn't call the neighborhood security: they were world-class athletes, training with the former Olympian and marathon trainer who lived up the street. They were from Kenya and had come to Albuquerque to train at high altitude. If it had been late at night, if the men had been of normal size instead of extraordinarily tall, if they'd been wearing anything other than running attire, would I have assumed the worst? Very possibly. But my rational mind told me there was a different story, based on the clues I described, and my own hard-earned proclivity to disavow any racist thoughts that creep into my mind. (That's another story, for another blog post.)
Does racial profiling only happen in Florida? In Boston suburbs? What about in the enlightened heights of Albuquerque? If George Zimmerman had shot one of those young athletes, would we have identified with him? Or condemned him for not only stupidity but racial prejudice?
Bell Hooks knew the answer, even in 2001.