In an insightful piece for the Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry tackles the Trayvon Martin case through the prism of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which describes the experience of being black in America as a constant awareness that others view the author as a problem.
Trayvon Martin was not innocent. He was guilty of being black in presumably restricted public space. For decades, Jim Crow laws made this crime statutory. They codified the spaces into which black bodies could not pass without encountering legal punishment. They made public blackness a punishable offense. The 1964 Civil Rights Act removed the legal barriers but not the social sanctions and potentially violent consequences of this “crime.” George Zimmerman’s slaying of Martin — and the subsequent campaign to smear the teenager — is the latest and most jarring reminder that it is often impossible for a black body to be innocent.
Black communities in the United States spent much of late March expressing outrage about Zimmerman’s actions and the Sanford, Florida, police department’s inaction. But the anger and grief are not exclusively about this single act. They are prompted by the ways the case reveals the continuing subordination of full citizenship for black Americans.
This is not a straightforward issue of racial inequality, discussions of which are often reduced to an almost competitive empirical analysis of which Americans have the most problems. On those terms, there’s ample evidence that black Americans have consistently had fewer resources and opportunities. But this case is not about which race or group of people has the most problems. Right now people of all races have problems. With a decade of war, an unemployment rate still hovering at historic highs, stinging gas prices raising the cost of consumer goods and a housing market still on its knees, there are few families untouched in some material way by our national challenges. Even for those who have remained insulated from our collective difficulties, there are personal tragedies and loss.
Yes, everyone has problems. And, yes, government has a role in making citizens individually and collectively more resilient. Moreover, democratic governments have a duty to ensure that citizens bear the weight of these burdens more equally.
Read Melissa Harris-Perry’s entire blog entry at the Nation.