During the United States’ industrial era, the innovation of the coal-burning locomotive revolutionized transportation. The resulting widespread construction of railroads split towns across the U.S., and it became common to discern a community’s value based on its location along the tracks. The trains often blew black soot onto the downwind side of the tracks, while the opposite side remained unmarked. A symbolic dividing line developed from the stain of blackness left behind. It demarcated existing class separations by making them more visible. In turn, to be from the “wrong side of the tracks” became a permanent figure of speech in American language.
There is an unspoken understanding that those who inhabit the “wrong” side of the tracks should never cross onto the “right” side without invitation. Historical and contemporary processes of segregation have entrenched these perceptions by delineating who has access to certain spaces. People of color, and particularly Black men, are all too familiar with baring the stain of criminalization when they step into neighborhoods considered off limits to them.
Black people’s access to “white” spaces has been limited throughout American history. The consequences are often dire for those who cross the proverbial railroad tracks. The murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year by George Zimmerman is historically linked to countless other racially motivated consequences (i.e. assaults). Despite the deracialization of Zimmerman’s trial by the court and media, there is a clear relationship between Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s racism.
To illustrate, one cannot help but relate Martin’s murder in Florida to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. As racist folks see it, Martin and Till were “trespassers” who stepped out of place where they did not belong and subsequently caused their own deaths. Racism sanctioned the aggressors’ right to pursue, accuse and assault them because they were perceived to be threats.
However, both Martin and Till would have lived if not for racist vigilantism. Their murders and the acquittals of their victimizers are evidence that white supremacy supports the rights of its protectors.
Race muddies understandings of who possesses rights. Stand your ground laws in particular appear to be colorblind in their application. In reality, people of color, by virtue of their racialization, are not afforded the same right(s) to stand their ground as whites. To justify the right to this privilege and its abuse, white bodies often claim they are the victims.
In Zimmerman’s case, Martin’s language on the phone, stating that Zimmerman was a “cracker” to his friend Rachel Jeantel, attempts to racialize Zimmerman and show that Martin acted based on his own supposed racism. Such fallacious arguments serve as a red herring to distract us from the reality that those who possess racial power and privilege determine who is racialized.
Anti-Black racism is often cast as isolated and specific and not as a reflection of greater processes. Yet, there is a crucial difference between instances of racial prejudice versus systemic and institutionalized racism. Put simply, discourse that focuses on feelings and mentality undermines the system that created these feelings and mentalities.
This system perpetuates stereotypes around Black criminality and in turn, produces and reproduces the mentality that Black people are dangerous. Zimmerman and others like him then buy into this message and carry it out in ways that lead to violence. Therefore, it is imperative that we continually critically examine the roots of this system in order to decipher the fruit it produces.
Due to systemic racism, Martin was eternally in a position where he had no power to be racist. Had the situation been reversed and Martin questioned Zimmerman, the state would likely have found Martin guilty for stalking, provocation and at least manslaughter.
Institutionalized racism informs us that race was constructed in America with notions of property and ownership in mind. This became the basis for determining who possesses the right(s) to act and simply exist without question or justification.
In Cheryl I. Harris’s article, “Whiteness as Property,” she explains that the concept of race and its relationship to property comes out of America’s colonial beginnings. Settlers relocated to the West and solidified their dominion by setting ground rules on what it means to be legitimate and fully human.
Valuing their power and privilege, European settler colonialists ensured that their dominant status would always remain established under the law. For this reason, property rights in the United States have always functioned to maintain economic and racial hierarchies.
Under the law, the “possession” of Blackness once meant a person was 3/5ths of a human being and ineligible for full citizenship and the rights therein. Thus, the law entrenched whiteness as a superior racial status to which others would aspire. To be white (and particularly a white man) meant that a person had the full range of rights, many of which were denied to Black people.
The storybook version of European expansion into the Western Hemisphere alleges that colonists came with freedom and their dreams in tote. Having fought against oppressive regimes in Europe, settlers aimed to begin life anew in the vast lands of the West. Consequently, the genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans were part of the expansion.
In her article, “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy,” Andrea Smith provides what she calls the “three primary logics of white supremacy” to understand how structural racism formed the pillars of American society:
We may wish to rearticulate our understanding of white supremacy by not assuming that it is enacted in a single fashion; rather, white supremacy is constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics. I would argue that the three primary logics of white supremacy in the US context include: (1) slaveability/anti-Black racism, which anchors capitalism; (2) genocide, which anchors colonialism; and (3) orientalism, which anchors war.
Europeans transformed Indigenous people and Africans into nonwhite bodies based on biological concepts and used moral and legal arguments to subordinate and exploit them. Whiteness defined a person’s legal status as free or non-free. As a result, bodies that possessed whiteness would receive the benefits and privileges of being white.
Today, whiteness as property operates in similar and yet, more covert methods. To continually affirm white privilege and whiteness as property, the law reorders existing structures of power to retrench racial subordination. Indigenous people are othered to the point of geographic quarantine for claiming Native identity. The state attempts to legally define them as white in order to eliminate them and completely seize their lands. Black people are exploited for their labor via mass incarceration, reifying their subordinate status as a permanent underclass.
Stop-and-frisk programs, the school-to-prison pipeline, the repeal of the Voting Rights Act and attacks on affirmative action all provide evidence that the system is working to police, exploit, regulate and bar nonwhites from asserting their own rights to place and space. In effect, we are up against what Michelle Alexander refers to as the “Zimmerman Mindset,” which works on the ground and permeates all factions of life in the United States:
The [Zimmerman mindset] that views Black men and boys as a perpetual problem to be dealt with has infected our criminal justice system, infected our schools, has infected our politics in ways that have had disastrous consequences, birthing a prison system unprecedented in world history, and stripping millions of people of basic civil and human rights once they have been branded criminals and felons.
Even in the womb, bodies like Martin are already against the law, which enables the Zimmermans of the world (agents of white supremacy) to profile, police, abuse and exploit them. As Robin D.G. Kelley argues, justice will always elude nonwhite bodies.
While legal reform aims to decolonize and amend the system’s inherent racism, the system will seek to reconfigure itself in new and heavy-handed ways. It will even administer the law, as we have seen in the Zimmerman Trial, to execute its racism.
A system designed to proliferate white privilege will never protect a young Black man who walks into a neighborhood inhabited by individuals with Zimmerman mindsets. As long as Blackness signifies diminished ownership to space or an infringement upon white spaces, like soot from the locomotive train, the law will defend white supremacy to bar people from spaces deemed too clean for Black bodies.
*Tania L. Balan-Gaubert is a Haitian American native of Chicago. She received her master’s degree in African American Studies from Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tanialaure and her writing at her article archive: thetenthdepartment.wordpress.com