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White versus black justice

By Martha J. Cutter

My nephew Jake Silverman is a brainy, confident, energetic, and strong-willed six-year-old. He eats more food than I ever thought it was possible for a six-year-old boy to consume, loves my iPad with a passion, and sometimes has temper tantrums when he doesn’t get precisely what he wants. He already knows he wants to be a doctor, and I have no doubt that he will be an unruly teenager who will mature into a brilliant, handsome, and talented young man. At least that is my hope.

You see, Jake was adopted from Ethiopia by my brother (who is white), and so Jake is black. After the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin on 13 July 2013, I thought about all the black parents having talks with their teens, and about all the vicious racial crimes of the past that went unpunished. But I also thought about Jake, who in a decade will be almost the same age Trayvon Martin was when he went out to buy skittles and ice tea and never came back.

I have no doubt Jake will be a smart-talking, smart-aleck of a kid (like everyone else in my family) and when told to get out of the neighborhood he actually lives in, might just refuse. Will he be shot for this? It seems that being black in the United States allows vigilante-like acts by individuals who fear this blackness. In ten years, will skittles + ice tea + being black still = random acts of unpunished racial violence?

Street art protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Artwork by Scott Peehl.
Street art protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Artwork by Scott Peehl.

My neighbor’s white son was just sixteen last year when he stole his mom’s credit card, another neighbor’s car (which he hotwired and drove to Florida), and was pulled over for speeding on Daytona Beach. He was asked to show a driver’s license (he had none) and registration (upon which the officer realized the car was stolen). He had smoked some marijuana on the way down to Florida and when the officer said, “You are in big trouble, mister!” he sassed the officer, saying “Whatcha gonna do, call my momma?” at which point the officer threw him in the holding cell and left to in fact call his mother, my neighbor. My neighbor called her father, who had been a judge, who called a judge in Florida, and all charges (car and credit card theft, speeding, driving without a license, drug use, and possession of two ounces of pot he planned to sell in Florida) were ultimately dropped.

When I heard this story, I thought: yeah, so it goes, white privilege. If he was black, he might have been shot, detained, or imprisoned. But so it goes and goes and goes.

A rally in protest of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Photo: Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times
A rally in protest of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Photo: Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times

The Trayvon Martin case is the Emmett Till of our time. Or at least it should be. Remember Emmett Till, who was beaten to death on 28 August 1955 by four white men because he supposedly wolf-whistled at a white woman? He was fourteen, and his body was bloodied beyond recognition; his momma bravely insisted on an open casket so that the world could see what had been done to her baby.

We do not know what happened on the evening of 26 February 2012 in Florida, beyond George Zimmerman’s words, for the only other witness to the violence is dead. But let us imagine that Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year-old boy who liked some of the things other seventeen-year-old boys like, such as being a wise guy, swearing, and not always answering questions posed to him by adults (to say nothing of skittles and ice tea). Yet if he was a white teenager with these predilections, walking down the street in a hoodie, and was assaulted by a black man, would the black man have been found innocent of any crime? The statistics suggest not.

Drawing on data from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports: 1980-2010, John Roman shows that when there is a homicide with one shooter and one victim who do not know each other and a firearm is used, “less than 3 percent of black-on-white homicides are ruled to be justified [self-defense].” Yet when the races are reversed, the percentage of cases ruled to be self-defense jumps to a staggering twenty-nine percent in non-stand-your ground states and to almost thirty-six percent in stand-your-ground states. This means that whites are ten times more likely to be able to kill a black stranger with impunity in the name of “self-defense” than if these racial roles are reversed. We might think of differential justice systems as a product of the past and of Jim Crow, but they are with us now, in the present moment.

So I mourn this verdict, this miscarriage of justice. It shows how divided and unfair our judicial system still is. We have one set of standards for crime and punishment of whites like my neighbor’s son and another set for Trayvon Martin, my (black) nephew Jake Silverman, and African Americans in general. Will it ever change? When will the scales of justice indeed be color blind? For they are clearly not. And so I fear for the future we all must live in, as well as the present we all must try to endure — together.

Martha J. Cutter is a professor of English and African American at the University of Connecticut. Since 2006 she has been the editor-in-chief of MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States and writes a quarterly column for the journal; her current column mediates on the Trayvon Martin Case and the “new Jim Crow”. Her articles on African American literature and mixed-race identity have appeared in many journals and several essay collections.

MELUS, a prestigious and rigorous journal in the field of multi-ethnic literature of the United States, has been a vital resource for scholarship and teaching for more than thirty-five years. Published quarterly, MELUS illuminates the national, international, and transnational contexts of US ethnic literature. The journal is sponsored by the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. Founded in 1973, the society endeavors to expand the definition of American literature through the study and teaching of Latina/o American, Native American, African American, Asian and Pacific American, and ethnically specific Euro-American literary works, their authors, and their cultural contexts.

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Image credits: (1) Street art protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Artwork by Scott Peehl. Do not reproduce without permission. (2) A rally in protest of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times. Do not reproduce without permission.

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