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Trayvon Martin, White America and the Return of Dred Scott

For a while now we’ve known that there were significant numbers of white Americans who wanted to “take their country back” to some mythical period of the nation’s hagiographic past. We’ve known it because they’ve told us so, as often and endlessly as their lungs will allow.

Little did we realize, however, that for at least some in the white community that prior era of glory was not merely the too-often-nostalgized 1950s — with its misremembered innocence still fresh in their minds — but rather, the 1850‘s. Not 1957, the year in which the CBS television network gave us Leave it to Beaver, but instead, 1857, the year in which the Supreme Court gave us its decision in Dred Scott.

But now we know.

It was there, after all, that the nation’s brightest, most accomplished and yet most ethically decrepit jurists reminded the nation that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” They could never be citizens, “entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by (the Constitution),” because the framers of that document (to whom the Court referred as “great men,” “high in their sense of honor”) had never intended them such. And much like today’s conservative theorists, who are equally enamored of the so-called “jurisprudence of original intent,” the highest court, beholden as it was to the insipid moral views of 18th century white supremacists, insisted things must stay that way.

As the decision noted:

“[T]he legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument (the Constitution).

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.”

Importantly, and this is what is particularly relevant for our current discussion, the Court opined that blacks were clearly never intended to be considered citizens, for had they been so, such designation would have extended to such individuals the unacceptable right “to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law…”

And this is what brings us to the terrifying present, a period some 155 years later, but during which time it appears there are still far too many in the white community (and even some among persons of color) who would return us to the logic of Dred Scott. This they make clear from their hateful and bigoted musings about Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black male who made the mistake, in their mind, of forgetting that he had no rights which white men (or even Latino white-male-wannabes like George Zimmerman) need respect. No right to go where he pleased, “without molestation,” no right to be treated like a citizen, indeed like a human being. No rights to due process, to peaceably assemble on a public street, to free speech (which he foolishly tried to exercise by asking his pursuer, Zimmerman, why he was following him), to be free from cruel and unusual punishment (such as extra-judicial execution for being black in a hoodie and thus arousing the suspicions of a paranoid negrophobe). No rights at all.

And not even the well-established right to self-defense — the very right Zimmerman would now claim for himself, but which apparently did not extend to the young man whose life he ended. And so we hear (whether true or not — it remains to be seen) that Zimmerman had a broken nose and head injuries, that Martin attacked him: never mind that Zimmerman took out after Martin, that Zimmerman accosted Martin and asked him what he was doing in the neighborhood, that, according to witnesses, it was Zimmerman who pinned Martin down. We are supposed to feel sorry for the shooter because even in the light most favorable to him, his victim might have actually fought back! Imagine that, fighting back against a total stranger who attacks you. That Martin would still be alive and Zimmerman would never have suffered the indignity of a broken septum, nor the anger of millions aimed in his direction had he just kept his stupid ass in his SUV like the police told him to do apparently matters not. Because, as some wish to remind us, Trayvon Martin had been suspended for school on suspicion of marijuana possession (an allegation so weak that he received no citation for the incident); and because Trayvon didn’t have a receipt for those Skittles he had in his possession when he was murdered (as if any 17 year old asks for a receipt when they purchase candy like they were going to need it for an expense report); and because Trayvon posed like a gangster on Facebook. Oh no, sorry, wrong Trayvon, but racists are like the Honey Badger–they don’t give a shit.

The active and putrescent campaign of defamation now in full swing against this dead child is a reminder of just how little black life matters to some. No matter the facts, their deaths are always justified.

These are the ideological soul mates of those who insisted Emmett Till really did say “Bye Baby” to that white woman, as if such an offense could even theoretically justify shooting him, tying a cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire, and tossing him in the Tallahatchie River.

No rights which the white man is bound to respect.

They are the iniquitous heirs of the white reprobates who insisted against all logic and evidence that Dick Rowland really did attack Sarah Page in that Tulsa elevator, and thus, it was necessary to burn the black Greenwood district of the city to the ground in retaliation.

No rights which the white man is bound to respect.

They are the fetid philosophical offspring of those whites who stood beneath the swinging bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, whom they had lynched, content in their own certitude that they had — again, evidence be damned — raped a white woman.

No rights which the white man is bound to respect.

They are the vile and reeking progeny of those who insisted that even disrespecting white people was sufficient justification to affix black bodies to short ropes dangling from tall trees, to burn them with blowtorches, chop off body parts and sell them — or pictures of the carnage — as souvenirs.

No rights which the white man is bound to respect.

They are the odious inheritors of a time-honored and dreadful tradition, in which virtually no misdeed the target of which is black can simply be condemned for what it is, and then have such condemnation followed by a period at the end of the sentence. No, it is forever and always the case that such condemnations, when and if they issue at all, will inevitably be followed by a comma, and the word “but,” and the attempt, however clumsy and craven, to all but erase the condemnation in a word salad of imbecilic rhetoric and exculpatory exhortation.

They are the carelessly cogitating companions of those who seek to brush aside the killings of Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, or any of the hundreds of other folks of color, who comprise the disproportionate share of unarmed persons killed by law enforcement in city after city across America over the years. They are always to blame for their own deaths.

If they had just put their hands up, like they were asked.

If they had just not run.

If they had just answered the questions put to them politely and quickly.

If they had just not grabbed for their keys or wallet.

If they had just understood that the men dressed in plainclothes, pointing guns at them were police.

If they had just not worn those clothes, or that hairstyle.

If they just hadn’t seemed nervous.

If they just hadn’t fit the description of some criminal the police were looking for, and by “fit the description” we mean had they not been black or brown, between 5 foot 8 and 6 foot 6, walking upright.

Nothing is unacceptable to these people. Nothing. Their fear of blacks allows them to smooth over every bigoted crease in their racialized narrative, to make the indefensible defensible, in the name of their own perceived safety. Their pathological inability to look at black people as anything other than an undifferentiated mass of criminals, rather than encouraging us to condemn them for their utterly stupefying lack of discernment, and mentally diseased dysfunction, is to serve as a defense to every racist act. Black people are to bear the burden of everyone else’s mendacious and morally supine stupidity. Black people are to continue being profiled, suspected, and occasionally killed, so long as those conditioned by white supremacy are afraid of them. And that, we are to believe, is the fault of black people, not the rest of us.

Because black people have no rights that the white man is bound to respect.

A black president will have to prove, again and again, to the utter dissatisfaction of cretinous bottom-feeders, that he is really an American.

A black college student will have to prove, again and again, to the utter amazement of benighted white undergrads that he or she really does belong in the University community to which his or her entrance was secured.

A black teenager will have to prove that he isn’t a criminal, to the satisfaction of anyone who might think otherwise, lest they be tackled and shot.

And some of us will continue trying to prove — as if there could, any longer, be a question about it — that white privilege is real. That any feeling, remotely thinking person could dispute it, when no white mother is having to have the talk with their sons that black mothers across America are routinely having with theirs (both before and after the killing of Trayvon Martin) tells you all you need to know about denial and its impermeability. It tells you all you need to know about the America of 2012, relative to that of 1857. For however much things have changed since then, one thing remains the same.

Black people still have no rights which the white man is bound to respect.