The Burden of Proof: Black Children and the Rejection of Innocence

Hangs out with rappers, wears hoodies, sags his pants. Is he scary to you?

What about him?

Dear readers, let me tell you a story.

Its a random Friday night on the campus of the Big State University I attended. Hundreds of students converged on the auditorium of the student union to attend a comedy show. This kind of thing happened pretty regularly. Always sponsored by some student group or another. A few local comedians and then one big name act. It was always well attended because our surroundings had little to offer if you weren’t involved in the Greek system and it was a surefire way to get to see all your friends. There was almost always a party in the student union after these events so it was a easily achieved night out.

On this particular night, we were about twenty minutes into the show when an altercation broke out, outside the auditorium, in a different part of the building. As I found out later, it was a few girls who got into each other’s faces, over something stupid like a guy. I say found out later because no one inside even knew it was happening. All we knew was that, for no reason at all, campus police stopped the show, rushed the auditorium, and forced everyone out of the building. After several minutes of confusion we’re all standing around in front of the student union, wondering what to do. People are separated from their friends (this was in the dark ages – everyone didn’t have cell phones yet), its dark, and people are trying to find out whats going on and wondering if the party (remember, it was going to be in the same building we had just been ejected out of) was going to happen. Campus police got on their bull horns and told everyone to disperse. People sorta wandered away from the doors but…we didn’t HAVE to go anywhere. We were students. On campus. Milling around. This wasn’t passive resistance, it was just…college students. Milling around.

Unfortunately, campus police didn’t see it that way. Within minutes the air was thick with pepper spray. All you could hear was choking and crying. People were stumbling around because they couldn’t see or breathe. I remember one girl falling to the ground while her friends desperately searched her purse and, not finding what they needed, screaming and asking if anyone had a inhaler their friend could use.

This is all totally outrageous, right? Makes no sense? An abuse of police power?

Do you change your mind about that if I tell you all the students and performers were black?

Over the last few days/weeks (depending on when you found about it) the murder of Trayvon Martin has brought all sorts of issues into the spotlight. But the one that sticks out to me is the fervent need of some to prove that racism has nothing to do with the case…while searching just as fervently for a way to prove that Trayvon “deserved” it…which is…racist.

Just as the folks on twitter and tumblr gleefully took to their Google searches to find pictures of Geraldo in a hoodie, certain media outlets are tripping over themselves to find other ways to blame Trayvon’s murder on him. Theories abound on why he was out on a school night (he was shot on a weekend), whether he was a troublemaker (he was suspended from school at the time of his murder), why he was walking slowly in the dark (it has since been learned he was talking to a girl on the phone, a phone call he probably wouldn’t want to make in front of his family), and, most disturbingly, what he did to George Zimmerman that forced Zimmerman to defend himself. In this case, like so many others, the onus is on Trayvon Martin and his supporters to prove why he didn’t deserve to get shot.

Think about that for a moment. George Zimmerman shot a unarmed child that he stalked, and, for some, it seems impossible to believe that Trayvon was anything more than a scared child, defending himself against a stranger with a gun.

Whatever dirt people dig up on Trayvon (he was a teenage boy –  they’ll find some trivial teenage thing as “proof”) will still do little to sway me and so many others. George Zimmerman did not know that Trayvon Martin had a suspension from school. George Zimmerman did not know that Trayvon Martin played football. George Zimmerman did not know that Trayvon Martin probably sagged his pants on occasion. George Zimmerman did not know that Trayvon Martin once saved his father from a burning home. George Zimmerman did not know Trayvon Martin went on ski trips with his family. George Zimmerman did not know that Trayvon Martin was Trayvon Martin.

All George Zimmerman knew was the there was a black kid walking around and to George Zimmerman, and countless others like him, that made him “suspicious”. And being “suspicious” is apparently a offense punishable by death. It doesn’t matter if Trayvon Martin was a straight A student, tutored younger children after school, fed meals to the homeless on weekends, and ALWAYS recycled his glass bottles, he would still be dead. All that mattered in this scenario was that he was born black, and by virtue of that, he was handed a death sentence.

I don’t understand a world where committing some as yet to be determined rebellious act, justifies killing a child. I don’t understand a world where discovering that Trayvon Martin had a drink at a house party or turned in his homework late justifies being shot in cold blood. I don’t understand a world where Trayvon Martin’s mother is robbed of the chance to grieve her child, and instead has to watch his name be dragged through the mud, while the name of his murderer is wiped clear. I don’t understand a world where a black child is presumed guilty and has to prove his innocence from six feet under.

I’ve been drunk before. Smoked marijuana once (yes, seriously). Got suspended from school for one day in the 5th grade. Kept a jug of rum under my bed in college before I was 21. Flipped the bird into a camera. Ditched class and got detention. And probably a ton of other teenage things that I can’t remember. I also won a scholarship to one of the top secondary schools in the country. I played two instruments and sang in multiple school vocal groups. I wished we wore uniforms in HS because I was too busy with school work to worry about clothes. I went to see Titanic with my best friend 11 times.  If you asked my mom right now, she’d tell you I was an angel as a child. But…if I had gotten shot by a white man when I was 17 or 20, the media would portray me as a deviant alcoholic slut. If I got raped or beaten tonight, someone would dig up a picture of me wearing a two piece on vacation in Hawaii, or a friend grabbing my boob at a party as proof that I was not pure and angelic, and therefore partially to blame for my assault.

Black people are not allowed innocence. We’re not allowed to “just be kids”. These baseless and long held notions of the deviance of black children (and other minorities) is why a group of students standing in front of a building on the college campus we were all paying to attend can be pepper sprayed, while at white frat houses down the road underage drinking, property damage, and noise violations are let off with a warning and a chuckle. On that very same college campus I was present at a frat party where a couch was set on fire on the front lawn. A couch that had been thrown through a window weeks earlier. I was present at both these occasions (and the only black person around) and while the police showed up for the fire, they merely watched as it was put out with a hose, and told everyone to go home…which didn’t happen because they just drove off.

Kids will be kids, you know?

Last night while reading twitter, I came across a few people discussing the fact that some members of the “Hunger Games” fandom were upset about the casting of a black girl to play a character in the book. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read the Hunger Games books, nor have I seen the movie.  But curiosity piqued, I followed the links to the tumblr page Hunger Games Tweets, which is where I found the tweets posted above. The main point of contention seems to be, the character Rue is supposed to be innocent and pure and you’re supposed to be sad when she dies: an experience that the viewer is now deprived of because the actress portraying her is black.

If you can even attempt to justify to me what there is about this girl that would make you less sad that she was killed then…well then you just might be a racist piece of crap. There is something inherently wrong with you if you need a little girl to be white in order for you to feel bad about her dying. If you feel like you wasted tears crying over a black character, then you just might be  are a racist piece of crap. The only difference is that in your head you pictured white skin, and that white skin immediately made your version of the character more worthy of love, and more worthy of your grief.

I am in no way equating the death of a fictional character with the very real death of a child, but the reactions to the two are indicative of big problems in our society and worth picking apart. These kinds of reactions, the tendency to blame the victim, leads to a society where only a precious few are protected by the laws that are supposed to protect us all. When our lives are valued less than others, how is that different than the days when blacks were viewed as 3/5ths of a person? Its not that long ago in our history where blacks were forced to drink at different water fountains, where lynchings were a good excuse to bring out the family for an afternoon of fun and the beaten bodies of black people hanging from trees served as entertainment. Emmitt Till was brutally murdered, his body mutilated, for speaking to a white woman while black. A few decades later  Trayvon Martin is murdered for walking while black. Where is the progress? When does it stop being about blacks bending and molding themselves to become  “acceptable” to whites? When do we stop and realize that no matter how we dress, or talk, how educated we are or not, we are essentially powerless in the face of the ignorance based fear/anger/resentment white America cloaks itself in?

Racism is a touchy subject in our society. But if you’re white,  please excuse me if I don’t care that examining your biases and prejudices makes you “sad”. Excuse me if I don’t feel bad that confronting your privilege makes your head hurt. Don’t expect me to understand that telling your father or friend or partner that they are being racist makes you uncomfortable.  If you have to shed a few tears while coming to terms with the fact that you and people who look like you receive preferential treatment in this country, consider yourself lucky that those tears are the only price you’ll have to pay. The price of prejudice is this country is much higher for minorities.

And apparently, its a price payable on death.

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10 thoughts on “The Burden of Proof: Black Children and the Rejection of Innocence

  1. Thank you for an eye-opening article that makes you think about why when you perceive something to be true, it’s hard to convince yourself otherwise, and that unfortunately, race is one of those things to which this applies.

  2. Here fucking here.

    If I mention privilege to just about any white person, they trip over themselves to shut me up so fast it’s not even funny. Not because they don’t see, but because they WON’T see it.

    • GIRL. you know I feel you on that. People get so caught up in “BUT OMG ITS NOT ME” that they derail any conversation and any understanding that could eventually come from it.

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