I’m relieved that the alleged racial slur from the mouth of George Zimmerman was false. Let me be clear: I’m glad, because if Zimmerman had uttered the slur we could continue to blind ourselves to the pervasive hold, however invisible, race has on our imaginations. We could have chalked Zimmerman up to a racist bigot who was different than the majority of the population and continued to hope in a colorblind system. Like most people, I don’t utter racial slurs, so I’ve spent most of my life blind to racial logics and operations for discerning the identity and character of others. But because Zimmerman never called Trayvon Martin a coon, we thought we could dismiss race as relevant to this tragedy. Indeed, most of us (non-black persons) are quite alike Zimmerman insofar as we justify the man in his suspicions or deceive ourselves by thinking that being suspicious of someone like Trayvon in this case has nothing to do with race. The connection is made, and now we’re all either justified or implicated.
Racial slurs are not the heart of racism, but simply the outworking of a racial logic birthed in the colonial moment. They are one type of expression that flows “out of a person’s mouth, [but] come from the heart” (Matt 15:18). At the heart of the matter is how humans created a new system to articulate the identity of others. These humans were the Europeans during the colonial event. Prior to colonialism, one identified other people and themselves in relation to space, the immediate land and all it contained that served as someone’s home. With the discovery of the new world, however, bodies and lands were severed from one another as Europeans sought to understand themselves and the indigenes inhabiting the new world. They developed a racial hermeneutic in which whiteness (the European self) signified the ideal identity and blackness represented the anti-ideal. The colonizers thereby discerned a person’s/people’s identity by their body. Though these operations entirely fail to reflect true identity, they are nevertheless fully real forces exercising real power over bodies and imaginations.
Of course, the subjection of bodies to this calculus manifested itself in the colonial moment quite visibly and violently, so much so that that abolition of slavery and deconstruction of state sanctioned segregation has led most (at least, white) Americans to believe race is no longer a systemic problem. But the racial logic that began visible, reasonable, and natural has now become invisible, at least to the system and those of us who haven’t been forced to be conscious of our bodies in the ways victims of the operation have. Cloaked thus, the reign of racial logic has become all the more dangerous. It is the demonic force that becomes more powerful when people ignore or don’t believe in its existence. We can no longer detect our racial calculus and operation of discerning the identity of others except through blips of slurs. But when we discern another’s identity by bodily aesthetics on this scale, which includes the ideational perception of attire that transforms garments into prosthetics of the body, we employ the racial logic.
The matter has become more complicated in this age of statistics and data. There are twice as many black people in prison than there are white and Hispanic people. Statistically, black people tend to be criminals far more than other racial categories. Given the data, it seems perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of bodies that do not appear to belong in the space where they travel. But this simply reinscribes the racial logic through a sleight of hand. Any black person that someone else suspects to be dangerous is liable to the “statistically” motivated interrogation. To justify this operation only perpetuates the right and power of one type of body (that embodies the ideal statistically) to judge and identify the body that the statistics condemn. Statistics didn’t replace the racial logic; they simply justified it and masked the operation at once. What enlightened Europeans knew objectively of black bodies is now reasonable enough to be suspicious of black bodies because data supports the racial reality.
But if statistics pragmatically support the reality of criminality around black bodies, then isn’t this simply an unfortunate reality necessary to maintain the safety and order of society? We might say it’s merely coincidence that black bodies commit more crimes than non-black bodies. But we must cease interrogating the other’s body and now reflexively interrogate ourselves. What sort of relationship does the racial calculus and its operation create between the self and the “suspicious” other? What does it mean to identify a particular appearance as suspicious, dangerous, and criminal? To articulate another’s identity according to a racial calculus is to place oneself in the position of judge. The judge determines what is right, normal, and acceptable. The judge also has the right to require another person to give an account of him or herself. Within the racial operation, certain bodies that most closely align with the ideal (prosthetics and all) have the right and exercise their right to demand an account from another body that appears suspect, dangerous, or criminal. This is not a reciprocal relationship. This system of identity allows the judge to never really address the other, but rather assert, “Oh, now I know who you are.” This operation requires the “perpetrator” to give an account of oneself according to the judgment of normalcy. The racial calculus inhibits authentic address between persons. In short, the judge possesses power to which the "suspect" must become subject. Zimmerman articulated Trayvon’s identity as suspicious, dangerous, and criminal and then, through pursuit, required Trayvon to give an account of himself.
But if we don’t judge all black people to be suspicious, dangerous, or criminal, how could it be that we view blackness itself as suspicious, dangerous, and criminal? Blackness is not simply a skin color any more than white skin strictly biologically manifests the reality of whiteness. The ideas of whiteness and blackness work themselves into bodies, not vice versa. Particular appearances signify the reality of blackness, so that a judge imagines certain appearances, races, as symbolic of criminality, suspiciousness, and danger. In Trayvon’s case, his hoodie and sweatpants served as prosthetics of his black skin. This distinction is important. When we (embodying whiteness) know a black friend personally, there is no need to articulate his or her identity. Also, if a black person dresses and lives a life that appears "normal" and familiar in our estimation (suburb house, wife and kids, steady career, and “proper” attire), those artifacts serve as prosthetics of our whiteness so that we needn’t discern the character and identity of some unknown person. But Zimmerman didn’t know or recognize Trayvon, and Trayvon was wearing prosthetics that confirmed his blackness in Zimmerman’s eyes. So Zimmerman was immediately suspicious of and felt threatened by Trayvon’s body.
Much of what I’ve said thus far has questioned from our position instead of Zimmerman’s. I do this because Zimmerman’s position is our position when we believe his suspicions are reasonable. Zimmerman’s position is that of the judge who identifies the other through the racial operation of discerning identity (he asked, “What are you doing around here,” rather than asking, “Who are you?” The former evaluates with suspicion the answer according to a predetermined calculus, while the latter awaits the answer of the other for discernment), and reserves his/her right to require the other to be accountable to him/herself. Zimmerman saw Trayvon, judged his appearance (hoodie, sweatpants, and seemingly black [confirmed at closer sight], which symbolize “up to no good” and/or “on drugs”) and immediately linked it with those “fucking punk” “asshole” burglars who have been stealing in the neighborhood. Trayvon deviated from the norm that Zimmerman represented and upheld. Zimmerman didn’t need to use a racial slur to betray the prevalence of the racial hermeneutic. He didn’t have to use hateful words to criminalize, demean, and judge another person’s body through racial superiority (normalcy). He demonstrated as much through his paranoia at the sight of Trayvon and interrogating the teenager through pursuit. The court didn’t need to acquit a man (teenage) slaughterer (or even murderer) who used slurs or showed himself to be a racist bigot as we imagine to reveal that the system condones and is complicit in racial logics through its colorblindness. Zimmerman simply had to supply Trayvon’s identity and judge him as he did to confirm to victims of the racial identifying operation that race was at play. The court and jury simply had to say there was insufficient evidence of murder or manslaughter and deem Zimmerman’s actions reasonable to show black persons that the system cannot adequately address racism in its color-impaired state. The system still favors the norm of whiteness, because it’s too busy searching for racial slurs.
Note: "A Letter To White Americans" is not meant as an attack, but simply a qualification of audience given the language of "we" throughout the post.
For further reading on the nature of race or the role of race in America and the Zimmerman case, see:
Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race.
J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account.
Anthea Butler, "The Zimmerman Acquittal: America's Racist God," Religion Dispatches.
Willie Jennings, "What Does It Mean To Call "God" A White Racist," Religion Dispatches.
J. Kameron Carter, "Christian Atheism: The Only Response Worth Its Salt To The Zimmerman Verdict," Religion Dispatches.