• Strange fruit of race and region
    July 21,2013

    People of all colors raise their fists in protest last Sunday in Times Square, New York City, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

    On Sunday, July 13, a jury of six women acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in relationship to the killing of the African-American teen Trayvon Martin. From the maelstrom of mainstream media coverage to the intimacies of kitchen table talks, Americans have been trying to come to terms with the verdict and the tragic loss of life. Discussions about racism, gun laws, and the legal system, among others, have been undertaken to answer the question asked by many of us: What does the Zimmerman verdict mean for America?

    One of the most popular readings of the case, often posed by Vermonters and other New Englanders, attributes Martin’s death to classic Southern racism. True, the U.S. South has a troubling racist past and present. The violence of plantation slavery established the region’s hardened racial apartheid. The lynching of black men in the post-Civil War era occurred with the frequency and attendance of sporting events. As famously sung by Billie Holiday in “Strange Fruit” in 1939, “Southern trees b[ore] a strange fruit”— the strange fruit of tortured black corpses. The violence against black boys like Emmett Till and the four black girls in a Birmingham church, the protesting black bodies of the Civil Rights movement, the neglected black bodies abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina all support the well-known story of Southern racism.

    The story of Southern racism does offer us an important view. It illustrates how Trayvon Martin, like many of his black forbears, was not just killed by a person. Martin was murdered by a long-standing Southern tradition in which racist disenchantment, fears, and anxieties have been acted out on the bodies of African-Americans. Yet for all of its value, a regional explanation for the death of Trayvon Martin can generate blind spots for those interested in understanding the tragedy’s broader implications.

    A regional account of the Martin killing prevents us from acknowledging that Martin’s death tells a national story. The Martin-Zimmerman incident speaks to the troubling implications of institutional racism like that demonstrated by the judicial system. On the one hand, this racism has influenced the disproportionate sentencing and incarceration of African-Americans nationwide and reinforced the criminalization of black people writ large. On the other hand, the racism of the criminal justice system has disproportionately validated the perspectives, property and lives of the country’s white majority and wealthy elites.

    Yet more than reinforcing racial and class inequality, the national problem of institutional racism has fed and justified distorted views of ethno-racial minorities. A black teenage suburbanite with candy is mutated into a stranger, a threatening criminal with a gun. A community resident who racially profiles and kills another resident is transformed into a citizen rightfully protecting himself and his property. The former is given no legal protection because of his potential to fit a racist social script. The latter is shielded by the law.

    Far from a Southern problem, institutional racism is sadly an important part of the Vermont social landscape. In our state, the second least racially diverse in the nation, people of color tend to draw disproportionate attention from police and some community members. We lock up a grossly unequal number of African-Americans in jail, 10 percent, when blacks make up only 1.1 percent of Vermont’s population. This rate is second only to Iowa, another overwhelmingly white state. A recent national study showed African-Americans in Vermont are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though usage rates of the drug by blacks and whites are similar. And a closer examination of initial findings about police stops showed that if a black driver is stopped in Vermont, he or she is much more likely to have their car searched, or be issued a ticket, than a white driver.

    Right now in Vermont studies on race and criminal justice are being conducted, but the new insights from this work are not being discussed in depth or used to change current practices. This prevents the police, government authorities, and community members from doing all they can to battle the legacy of institutional racism that continues to impact our society.

    Instead of using the South as an explanation for racial violence or as an alibi for our silence on racism locally, let’s broaden the net of responsibility and accountability and personalize the Martin story. In recognizing the national and local dimensions of institutional racism, hopefully we will be able to change our perspectives. We will be able to tell the American story of Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. We will be able to change our geographies of racism to see some of Vermont in Florida. We will be able to see all of our neighbors more clearly. And we will be better able to protect all of our youth and create new stories of inclusion and community for our children to inherit.

    Todne Thomas Chipumuro is a professor of religion at the University of Vermont.

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