The African media and AU have paid scant attention to the tragic murder of Travyon Martin in the US. Africans should care about the case because Trayvon could have been any one of the Black African males living in or visiting the US
An armed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, was recently acquitted of the murder of an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. The Zimmerman-Martin case has been followed closely by millions around the world, including people in Africa. The case captured global attention because it combines an intriguing narrative of murder, economic disparities, stereotyping, gun culture, injustice, law and race in United State of America (USA). It has continued to spark protests, essays, editorials and conversations centered on African-Americans in the American justice system. The African media has not paid adequate attention to the case. Although this case took place in the USA, at the heart of the case is a murdered young descendant of the African continent.
In February of 2012, an unarmed African-American teenager, Martin went to the store. On his way home he was followed by Zimmerman, an armed overzealous White Hispanic volunteer neighborhood watch person.
Through records from the 911 calls and witness accounts, we can begin to piece together some of the events of the night. Zimmerman followed Martin because he felt that the boy appeared ‘suspicious’ but was told not to pursue him. According to the 911 records, Zimmerman explained to the dispatcher that:
‘This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman told the dispatcher. “It’s raining, and he's just walking around looking about." The man tried to explain where he was. "Now he's coming towards me. He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male...Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is...These assholes, they always get away.’ – MotherJones.com
A fight occurred between Zimmerman and Martin which resulted in Zimmerman shooting Martin. He claimed he shot Martin in self-defense. A year later, a jury consisting of five White women and one Black Hispanic woman voted unanimously that Zimmerman acted in self-defense and that he was justified in using deadly force against Martin.
AFRICA’S RESPONSE TO THE CASE:
African reaction to the Martin case in the media and press has been largely sparse. This is surprising in light of the case’s connection to the continent. So far, there have been some commentaries on social media and a handful of articles weighing in on the case. Generally, little attention has been paid to the case.
Little has been written about the death of Martin and its direct connection to the continent. Africans have expressed little solidarity with the African-American community in this case: the African Union has not issued any statements criticizing the treatment of African descendants in the US justice system. Few African newspaper editors have dedicated space for this case and there have been no protests in front of any of the 30-plus American embassies in Africa. However, the fate of the descendants of involuntary African migrants is connected to Africa in fundamental ways. These connections and their significance need to be highlighted.
THE POLITICS OF LOCATION AND LENSES
The Trayvon Martin case was tragic for all Americans and also tragic for Africans. When such incidents occur, it is important that Africans voices are heard and connected to the African-American community. Africans should care about the Trayvon Martin case because the fate of African-Americans is the story of African descendants. Both communities have common roots and can learn from each other’s experiences. African immigrants in America in particular should pay greater attention to the case—they share common experiences. Trayvon, after all, could have been any one of the Black African males living in or visiting the US.
There are clear reasons why African-Americans have been vested in this case: they were seeking justice. It may be less apparent for some why Africans should care. Even though the plight of African-Americans is often seen as a domestic issue, issues concerning the involuntary migrants that make up the African Diaspora should concern Africans on and off the continent. The lens used to view African-Americans is the same lens used to view all African people.
When Zimmerman saw Martin, he was looking at him through a socially constructed lens of color and ‘race’. Africans and their descendants typically have darker skin tones which have been used as a social determinant of status. In places where Africa and Europe interacted, lasting racial hierarchies developed that placed darker skinned people at the bottom. Color became the foundation for all interactions with people, Black or White. In Africa, this often takes the form of Black Africans awarding White ‘Bwanas’ with privileges not awarded to the majority of their citizens. At times, it manifests through treating members of a darker neighboring ethnic group with suspicion. These dynamics are also the case in America and what guided Zimmerman when deciding on how to treat Martin - with suspicion or trust.
White males are seen as individuals that possess emotion and intelligence. Historically, their aggression has often been presented and seen as justified because they are deemed to be protecting order, property or self. Black males on the other hand are often presented and seen as a danger to property, order, and other individuals—the exact opposite. As such, their aggression—real or perceived—is seen as threatening. They become an archetype that is reduced to color and all its associations—stripped of emotion, intelligence, and individuality. As a result, aggression against Black males is often rationalized as necessary to keep order, protect property, and preserve life.
When Zimmerman was confronted with a Black male, the lens he drew on first was based on color. This same logic and lens was used in other cases. Last year when John Spooner, a White male, shot a 13 year old African-American male, he said it was because he believed the boy burglarized his house two days earlier. In another case, 17 year old Jordan Davis was shot by Michael Dunn in a car parking lot because he thought he saw a gun. Dunn later appealed to racial stereotypes in court by making reference to hearing loud ‘thug’ music and threats. Although Zimmerman was acquitted, Spooner was charged and Dunn is still waiting trial, the system enabled all of them.
When a society is structured to view a group with suspicion, and the legal question centers only on whether there reasonable ‘suspicion’ and ‘fear,’ for Black males the answer is inevitably yes. State institutions therefore support these sentiments and uphold this lens through the passage of laws such as ‘stand-your-ground.’ Such laws are based on suspicion, threat and the assumption of the guilt of certain races—they allow injustice. Black males from the continent throughout the Americas are viewed and judged through a lens that automatically links them to fear and suspicion: the threatening Black male can be African, American or Caribbean.
COMMON ROOTS, COMMON ROUTES
Black males on the continent and in the Diaspora have historically been treated similarly. In the pre-colonial era, African males were subject to kidnappings and enslavement. This was followed by the colonial period where they were subject to beatings, maiming, and extrajudicial crimes at the hands of the colonial institutions, colonial administrators and vigilantes within the colonial system. The colonial governments were often administered by men that struggled to keep colonies intact and resorted to corporal punishment with little to no penalty for their actions. Their actions were seen as necessary for keeping order and the status quo; the colonial system would not function without them. Whether abroad or in Africa, Africans were linked by color to the continent and received the same treatment. They were simply Africans in America and only became Americans after a protracted civil-rights struggle.
Africans were enslaved in Africa, taken to the Americas, emancipated and then forced to live under American segregation until the 1960s. During these periods, they were subject to extrajudicial crimes at the hands of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, lynch mobs and the police. Here too they were met with suspicion by those trying to keep the status quo. Institutions upheld this negative view and did not favor them. As such, Black males both in Africa and in the US were never really ever safe from extrajudicial crimes. This treatment of African males began on the continent and continued across the seas under differing political systems with similar goals–to keep the property of the economic majority and larger society safe from them. Whether in a colony, settler territory or ‘democracy’, the Black African male has always been met with suspicion.
Race still matters. Whether a country claims to be post-colonial, post-apartheid, post-Jim Crow or post-racial, race is still very much a factor for Africans and their descendants. Inequalities in the social, economic and judicial settings still occur due to ‘race.’ The extrajudicial killing of Black males continues in post-apartheid South Africa in dynamic ways. At times, it is in gated communities in cases similar the Zimmerman case. Other times, it is through, European or American institutions who employ Black males to carry out work resulting in Black on Black male crimes. The Marikana mine shootings by Black Africans are one such example that shows that the perpetrators don’t have to be White. It’s really about the value society places on the Black Body in countries such as South Africa under the guise of protecting ‘private’ property and business interests. In Botswana, it has manifested in the institutionalization of the killing of Black men through controversial laws calling for shoot-to-kill policies for suspected poachers. The poachers risk death for doing the ‘on the ground’ work in a global industry involving foreign business interests. It raises questions about whether it is okay to defend tourism and environmental policies that result in the loss of human lives.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AFRICAN DIASPORA IN AMERICA?
Voluntary African immigrants to the USA typically do not see the country’s race relations with the same lens as Americans. Many emigrated from countries where they faced little race-based discrimination because they were part of the economic or ethnic majority—they enter the country unburdened by its history of racial tension and its effects on individuals. Often they express surprise at seeing Americans view the world though their racial filter.
Africans tend to have different relationships with White America than African-Americans due to their ‘exoticness’. They are often faced with less suspicion and mistrust once it is discovered that they are Africans, and generally tend to get along with the majority population in the work place or in schools. In some cases, Africans are told that they are ‘different’ from African-Americans for one reason or another. This sometimes drives a wedge between the two communities. As a result, some Africans try to disassociate themselves with things that are stereotypically African-American so that they are not met with the same suspicion. They encourage their kids not to dress a certain way, speak a certain way, listen to certain songs, or behave a certain way in hope that they or their kids can be safe—so that they are not the next Trayvon Martin. However, the source of discrimination stems from their skin tone – a factor they cannot escape.
Africans experience prejudices in the USA. Despite taking efforts to not be met with suspicion, they know that skin color is the primary source of much of their discrimination. They are profiled just as much as African-Americans and subject to the same level of discrimination in public institutions. For all intents and purposes, they are in the same boat as African-Americans because of their color. Albeit being held with less suspicion, they are all initially treated with some form of ‘suspicion’ and similar fate. Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was shot 41 times by the police at his home, because he reached for his wallet. The White officers thought he was reaching for a gun. In most situations, when profiling based on color, there is little time for geographical distinctions. Trayvon could have been any of the Black male Caribbean or African Diasporas living in America.
As people that have experienced injustice, Africans should be able to easily empathize with any community facing injustice. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, ‘We are bound by an inescapable garment of mutuality, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’ If one person’s rights are violated, then anyone’s could be violated. This is why Americans of all races, background and persuasions are standing with the African-American community and speaking against the injustice that occurred through the Trayvon Martin case. Africans publically standing in solidarity with African-Americans ensures that everyone's basic human rights are protected and respected.
The African community should be more proactive about standing in solidarity with African-Americans and any other minority group at risk of injustice. Our media and press should weigh in--whether they agree with the verdict or not. We cannot expect the African-American community to stand alone when it is faced with potential injustice. Africans in America and in the Diaspora should not miss out on an opportunity to be heard and included in dialogue that is related to the protection of human rights.
*Sitinga Kachipande is a scholar in Pan African Studies and blogger. She is currently a Research and Communication intern at TransAfrica.
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