Old News, New Ways, and Balanced Methods

mattdefaultMatthew Henry Smith ’16

Woah. How are we already here? How are we already in late July? These days we expect news, and interpretations of news, at a moment’s notice. With the Zimmerman trial nearly to the point of becoming old news, and issues like drones headed for our mental archives, I am curious as to how we function with our current news system. I am curious if we should be satisfied with an advocacy system that seems to terminate in legal action.

Speaking of old news, it has taken me this much time and contemplation to come up with a bloggable response to the DOMA ruling. Initially, my attitude was, “Great. Now let’s move right along.” I had been driven absolutely up the wall by “queer liberationists” who had opposed marriage equality. I was desperate to jump right into the next great legal battle for social justice, pick my fights over the Trayvon Martin case, and push for legislation to protect those who are transgendered.

But then I paused, and before I wrote anything, I thought for weeks. I spoke with friends, people far smarter than me, and began to think of everything differently. This is what I have come up with.

I am thinking that while it’s fabulous that the law has been changed, I am concerned that we are making the same mistake we made with battling racial inequality as we now battle queer inequality. Legally speaking (in regards to race) we slayed a hydra thinking it was a dragon. Decades later, myriad heads have grown back in place of the first, and we are contending with the overruling of the voting rights act, affirmative action under fire and many, many other race related issues.

How do our responses to queer oppression and hate crimes indicate our actual location on the road to equality? It’s a question that requires research, scholarly articles, bibliographies and dissertations. But as a queer person, let me offer you some of my perspective. Queer people have suffered in imperceptible ways because of an ideological divide in how to make a difference in our own lives. Ignorance lurks even in aspects of our social culture that are seemingly accepting; television’s concept of the concept of “the gay best friend” is detrimental to the construction of an ideologically liberated society.

Our response has been inconsistent. Society has targeted the symptoms of queer oppression with media messages that say, “If you are gay, it’s ok.” That’s a welcome message, but it is a message that treats a symptom of queer oppression rather than the source of queer oppression. The fact that this statement is necessary indicates that there is a source issue. We should instead be addressing the majority (heterosexual/cisgender) population, which suffers from the mental illnesses of heterosexism and homophobia, and our media message should read, “It isnot ok to be ignorant to the multiplicity and plurality of gender and sexual identities.”

I’m queer and I still lower my voice when I say words like “gay” or “lesbian” in public for fear of disturbing the tranquil equilibrium of those around me who may have some socially defensible “traditional” views. It’s a symptom of a heterosexist society.

And, frankly, we are still a society who will generally lower our voices in the same way when we use specific words like “black” or “Asian” as adjectives in public conversation. Heck, even private conversation.

Now Friars, what should you take away from this post?

Essentially, if we don’t make clear changes in our social structure then there is no reason so assume that heterosexist laws won’t be introduced at the federal level in the future. We are putting another awkward extension on the back of an old house instead of building a new home big enough for all of us.

So, we need to demand better media representation for our complicated world, and we need to have the bravery to speak frankly.

Remember that it is easy to let the quest for justice to become a limitless cycle of critical complaint. We must bear in mind diligence, a virtue that pushes an activist further than legal action: to a level of devotion that does not allow for any jaded philosophies or behaviors.

Do not accept legal or legislative action as the apex of social justice. Righteous indignation is a powerful feeling. It’s what fuels picket lines, boycotts, and occupations. If we don’t channel our righteous indignation, and master it, it can be detrimental to our ends.

Try not to forget about old news. Don’t stop talking about drones because of DOMA. Don’t stop talking about Zimmerman because of the Royal Baby. And please: stop talking about the royal baby.

The Gordian Knot of the human struggle for equality can be totally solved by neither violent uprisings by the uniquely courageous, nor laws signed by the uniquely powerful. Rather by a concerted effort by everyone in their own way. The solution is equal parts conversation, demonstration and legislation, and entirely educational.

In conclusion, if we let a newly enacted law be the final word on a social justice issue, it certainly will not be.


Not Guilty: And That’s The Problem!

mhagandefaultMichael Hagan ’15

Despite being outraged by the fact that George Zimmerman was not held accountable by a court of law for the 2/26/12 death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, I do not call the verdict into question. It disturbs me that a teenager was profiled, stalked, and murdered by an armed and self-deputized civilian watchman. It further disturbs me that Florida law forbids none of the choices George Zimmerman made before ultimately killing Martin. It would be outrageous and appalling if a Florida jury had acted on racial prejudice and danced its way around the law in order to acquit Zimmerman. But that sin would belong to the jury and the jury alone. Instead, the sin belongs to the entire body politic. It belongs to the people of Florida and of the United States generally. It belongs to you and me. Our laws permitted Zimmerman’s every choice the night Trayvon Martin died, up to and including the decision to pull the trigger.

The law permits and a prevailing gun culture encourages civilians like Zimmerman to arm themselves with lethal weapons in complete neglect of the risk and burden of responsibility involved in such a choice. No law prohibited Zimmerman from defying the instructions of the police dispatcher by pursuing Trayvon Martin on foot. Why should there be no legal culpability for those who precipitate tragedy, even unintentionally, by taking law enforcement into their own hands? Finally, Florida law codifies the very prejudice that led Zimmerman to profile and stalk Martin as reasonable grounds by which to justify homicide. Zimmerman feared for his life when he fell into a physical altercation with the teenager he was stalking. Of course he did! He assumed that Trayvon Martin, guilty of no more than walking while black, was a serious threat to the neighborhood based on the onceover conducted from behind a windshield. In the eyes of laws like stand your ground, that is sufficient grounds by which to use lethal force in a confrontation. These are all laws (or lack thereof) written of, by, and for the people. Why do the people adopt laws that endanger the lives and liberty of the marginalized, prejudged, and all who are not members of a privileged majority? The body politic must take responsibility for the systematic injustices it has built into law.

Systematic injustice has never been an easy epidemic to eradicate, but the American people have toppled far greater walls than Florida statute. We’ve abolished injustices written into constitutional law designed to be near impossible to amend. We’ve enforced national standards in civil rights against the bitter opposition of officials and voters in many jurisdictions. If this were 1963, busloads of young people would be flocking to Florida and states with similar self-defense laws to mobilize campaigns for repeal. In 2013, the tendency is to merely express outrage online with little real thought or personal investment. But whether we like it or not, we are invested; we are accountable for the consequences of our laws. The ball was never really in the jury’s court when it came to justice for Trayvon Martin. It was and remains in ours.

Systematic Injustice and the Myth of Post-Racial America

defaultDavid Pinsonneault & Sophie Carroll

We’ve heard the story countless times.  Shortly after 7:00 pm on February 26th, 2012, Trayvon Martin was walking through the Twin Lakes gated community when he was spotted by George Zimmerman.  There had been crimes reported in the area and Zimmerman, a member of the Neighborhood Watch, placed a phone call to the local dispatch informing them of a “real suspicious guy” who was “up to no good.”  As Zimmerman began tailing Martin, dispatch provided him with some very clear instructions:

Dispatch: Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Dispatch: Okay, we don’t need you to do that.

Zimmerman did not listen.  Instead, he pursued Trayvon Martin, ultimately shooting and killing the innocent, unarmed teenager at point-blank range.  His acquittal has sparked outrage across the country–and given a face to dynamics at work in both the legal system and society.

Stand Your Ground

The jury’s ruling is rooted in a law known as “Stand Your Ground.”  Because of this law, the jury found Zimmerman guilty of neither murder nor manslaughter, meaning that they considered his lethal, point-blank shooting of Trayvon Martin to be excusable and/or justified.

“Stand your Ground” originates from the 1895 case Beard v. U.S., in which the Supreme Court ruled that a man is entitled to defend himself against an individual who he believes is intending upon or in the process of taking his life or doing him bodily harm.  As you might imagine, the law is primarily applied to situations of home invasion.

In stark contrast to such a situation, George Zimmerman deliberately, and against the express orders of a police dispatch,  followed Trayvon Martin.  George Zimmerman was armed, while Trayvon Martin was not–and while Zimmerman is permitted to carry a gun in Florida, he was not permitted to be an armed member of the Neighborhood Watch.  So we must ask if the “Stand Your Ground” law can truly be applied to this case, even if Trayvon Martin had been armed or if he had been a criminal.  Zimmerman’s decision to act of his own accord, against the explicit instructions of the police dispatch, and follow Trayvon Martin makes the legal status of Zimmerman’s actions murky at best.  This is because Zimmerman sought out an altercation with Trayvon Martin, thus clouding his claim of self-defense.  Zimmerman’s actions qualify as armed vigilantism, which is strictly prohibited by law. Again, we must ask if the law truly excuses Trayvon’s shooting.

If Trayvon’s shooting is not excusable, is it then justified?  Once again, we turn to the law.   During the trial, the fact that Trayvon Martin ran was used as one reason that Zimmerman’s actions were justified.  But given the circumstances that he was being deliberately followed by an unknown and possibly threatening person, it is Trayvon’s actions that seem justified.  It was also recounted in the trial that Martin punched Zimmerman, and this “fact” (since we cannot have Martin’s testimony) was used to justify Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon.  But if the “Stand Your Ground” law is not intended to condone racial targeting, then in principle it applies to Trayvon Martin as well–meaning that, if Martin had felt threatened by a strange, armed man following him (and it’s really not a great stretch to imagine that he did) then Martin had the legal right, under the “Stand Your Ground” law, to defend himself.  This law, therefore, ought to justify Martin’s actions, not Zimmerman’s.

Instead, the jury’s ruling tells us that if Zimmerman was afraid of Martin, he was excused from disobeying direct orders and he was justified to follow him.  He was justified to confront Martin until he felt threatened enough to shoot him.  His fear of this unarmed teenager gave him the right to put a bullet in him. Likewise, the ruling tells us that, in direct contradiction to Florida law, Trayvon Martin did not have the right to defend himself even though he had far greater reason to fear than George Zimmerman. This is what the jury’s ruling means and this is why we should be critical of it.  In essence, the court has ruled that Trayvon Martin justified both his own execution and Zimmerman’s fear and suspicion…by standing his ground?  By walking down the street in a hooded sweatshirt?  Why does it seem as if Trayvon Martin was on trial for his own death.


Many cite George Zimmerman’s identity as Hispanic as proof that race played neither into Zimmerman’s actions nor the jury’s verdict.  After all, Hispanics are also marginalized in the society in which we live.  But what about Trayvon Martin’s identity? From the moment that George Zimmerman saw the young black man, Zimmerman profiled Martin as a suspicious person, probably “on drugs”–someone who did not belong, not in Zimmerman’s neighborhood, a gated community, a predominantly white place.  George Zimmerman and the jurors probably both did believe that Zimmerman’s life was in danger.  But why was Zimmerman so afraid of Trayvon Martin?  Why did the jurists identify so strongly with this fear so as to rule that Zimmerman’s shooting of an unarmed, innocent minor was excusable and/or justified?

The answer is race. Slavery built this country, and other forms of racialized exploitation and commodification continue to benefit it.  In order to maintain these benefits, the United States is built in a racial hierarchy, a sort of “trickle-down” freedom in which white people stand at the top, controlling most of the resources.  The benefits of being white in this country span from the obvious (higher incomes) to the more subtle (for example, a 2004 American Economic Review study found that employers are more likely to hire people with ‘white-sounding’ names than ‘black-sounding’ names).  A key role of the racial hierarchy is portraying minority races in a comparatively negative light, resulting in effects spanning a continuum from ‘harmless’ stereotypes (for example, a recent Harvard anthropology study found that white people are more likely to believe that black people feel less pain) to racialized violence.

I honestly believe that if it had been a white teenager walking home from a convenience store in Trayvon’s place that night, Zimmerman would not have followed him. Even minorities are not impervious to the pressure the racial hierarchy exerts to identify the “other” and put blame on them.  A culture that paints young black men as violent thugs and encourages racial profiling made Zimmerman believe that Trayvon Martin was armed, dangerous, and criminal.  And even though it was Zimmerman’s belief, and not Martin’s actions, that killed Trayvon Martin, a jury of white women sympathized with Zimmerman’s fear of the potentially armed and dangerous black man, rather than with Martin’s family seeking justice for their dead son.

The System Works 

Injustice threatens everyone’s peace.  Zimmerman’s acquittal does not set a dangerous precedent; it upholds the dangerous precedent.  The Martin case is simply a higher-profile version of events that unfold among us all the time.  Another case gaining attention in Florida is the shooting of seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis; he was murdered by a white man who first saw a car full of black kids and told his spouse he hated thug music.  The man exchanged words with the car and then felt threatened enough that he fired his gun at the car.  The list goes on. Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal are not exceptions to prove some ‘rule’ that we live in a post-racial society. The system did not fail in this instance; rather, it functioned the way it always has, in a society in which race is still very much an issue.  Even President Obama, upon speaking on how much race placed a role in this case, is scorned for “politicizing” it–but as a white man I am unlikely to be accused of ‘playing the race card’ for writing this article.  Because I am white and President Obama is not, I am freer than the President where race is concerned.

The conversation about race is happening.  If white people want to be a part of it, they must begin listening; to be neutral on this issue is to continue benefiting from it. I can walk down the street in a hoodie and not feel threatened; if something happened to me, my family would receive justice. These are basic rights.  We must hold the system accountable for denying these rights to countless people, including Trayvon Martin.

Take Action: 

If you stand with Trayvon Martin, and believe his right to life was violated, sign this petition to urge the U.S. Justice Department to file a civil case against George Zimmerman.

What Now? Channeling Outrage Into Activism

NickDefaultNick Wallace ’14

If you’ve never been to a Wallace family gathering, you are truly missing out. I myself am one of four kids, and have dozens of cousins ranging from the ages of 2-24. Our home phone ringtone is legitimately a circus tune; you know, the one that goes, “doo-doo-doobee-doobee-doo-doo-doooooo-ooo.” My dog aggressively greets the leg of any person who walks through the front door. And with so many outgoing Wallace’s in one place, the two most forbidden dinner conversation topics (politics and religion) are guaranteed to emerge.

Somehow, although not surprising, I always find myself gravitating to the center of these conversations. Perhaps it is because, both religiously and ideologically, I differ greatly from the rest of my family. My fellow Wallace’s just cannot wrap their heads around the fact that the little white kid from an affluent family who was raised Catholic now cries for income redistribution, supports affirmative action, and considers himself a skeptical agnostic. My family members give me some weird looks after I express my personal political opinions, in which my mother always paraphrases, “Nicky just wants everybody to be treated equally.”

Apparently that is too much to ask for. Nevertheless, too many people today make the mistake of thinking that all is well in the United States in terms of race relations. Too many people believe that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the subsequent passing of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, made everything “okay” between blacks and whites. They argue that slavery no longer exists, that people are no longer getting lynched, and that blacks are getting educated at higher numbers than ever before, which has led to prominent figures like Oprah and Bill Cosby becoming successful. And for Pete’s sake, a black man was even elected President of the United States! Surely this means that racism has been ridden from this country.

Let’s make something clear: Even if we accept the premise that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ushered in true “equality” between blacks and whites in America, (clearly, if you have been keeping up with current events, this is not true… more about this later) not much could have changed in the last 50 years. Think about it: the enslavement of Africans formed a black cloud of hatred and oppression over this land for over 500 years. We have had “equality” for less than 50. Can we really expect all of the feelings of racism and prejudice that built up over half a millennium to be alleviated in just a few decades?

The truth is that there is no equality. There are simply whites and others. Now I do not mean to suggest that race relations have not gotten better over time; clearly they have. But there is still much work to do. The following facts come from Michael Dawson’s work Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics, and undoubtedly show how the systematic biases of the American political system continue to make blacks subordinate.

-In 2007, median black income was only 59 % of whites.

-Black poverty rates run twice that of whites.

-Median net worth of blacks is $5,446, while for whites it is $87,056 (a ratio greater than 15:1)

-In March of 2009, the black unemployment rate was over one and a half times greater than the white unemployment rate

-64% of African Americans remain confined to segregated neighborhoods. Residing in segregated neighborhoods adversely affects wealth generation and job opportunities.

-Blacks make up 13 % of the population, but held 50% of the high-cost mortgages that were so burdensome during the financial crisis.

-In 2008, one-third of blacks seeking conventional loans were denied, as opposed to just 15% of white applicants.

-In 2007, 1 out of 100 Americans was incarcerated. That same year, one out of every nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were in jail or prison.

-Blacks have a 600% greater chance than whites of dying from homicide and an 800% greater risk of mortality due to chronic respiratory disease.

-Blacks make up 50% of all those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and are at a much greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease than whites.

-In 2007, 40% of black adults did not have health insurance, as opposed to just 13 % of whites.

To top it all off, blacks are disproportionately represented in the United States Congress. Of the 100 Senators only two are African American, and neither was actually elected. (Both Mo Cowan of Massachusetts and Tim Scott of South Carolina were appointed to fill vacated seats) The Supreme Court just issued two rulings, which could have major ramifications for African Americans. Last month, the Supreme Court narrowed affirmative action in college admissions, and deemed a certain provision of the Voting Rights Act invalid. The two decisions, whether they are right or wrong, will negatively affect black communities.

Last, but certainly not least, came the not-guilty verdict of the George Zimmerman trial last night. I will not claim to be an expert on the trial. I did not keep up with it as much as I should have. From my understanding, based on the evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense to that specific jury in a local Florida court, it is not surprising that Zimmerman was acquitted. The prosecution failed to prove their case. It seems less like a defense win, and more like a prosecution loss.

But while Zimmerman may not be guilty, he is not innocent. The fact remains that he killed a seventeen-year-old boy who was unarmed. People can argue all they want about the details. Who attacked whom, the amount of time it took for Trayvon Martin to return home, and how George Zimmerman broke his nose are all irrelevant. While I may personally believe that George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin, none of us will ever know for sure.

What I do know, however, is that a lot of white shame was felt today. The public flocked to their social media outlets to let out their disgust with the ruling. People of all different ages, races and backgrounds peacefully rallied against the decision. Whether George Zimmerman intended to kill Trayvon Martin or not, he still killed him. And thanks to the “Stand Your Ground Law,” which is the real root of the problem here, a killer was set free, and an entire race of people is left thinking, “What Now?” Even in the “Age of Obama,” the entire Trayvon Martin incident leaves blacks feeling like this young boy’s life is just disposable in the eyes of the state and white majority. It makes anybody with a black brother, husband, boyfriend, son or friend think that it could have been him instead of Trayvon Martin that was killed.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the sense of otherness that this trial has created. It reinforces the notion that being black and walking in a white neighborhood is bad. So bad, in fact, that you could get killed for doing so. Being a minority in this country, whether it is because of race, color, or sexual orientation is synonymous with being an “other.” Trayvon Martin was killed because he was “an other.” Consequently, all of the “others” in the country should feel worried. My guess is that if the roles were reversed and a black man killed a white man out of “self-defense,” the nation would have received a very different verdict.

So where do we go from here? I, like many others, am discouraged by the continued discrimination and racism that exits in a country that proclaims itself to be founded by the principle that “all men are created equal.” But my discouragement simply lights my fire for activism. Do not be a bystander to what is happening around you. Stand up for what is right. Stand up for equality!