Trayvon Martin and the Myth of the ‘Criminalblackman’

22 facts that opened my white students’ eyes to the lie of colorblindness and the reality of racial bias in the American criminal justice system.

WE ARE TRAYVON: Thousands of protesters demanded justice for Trayvon Martin during the Million Hoodie March on March 21 in New York's Union Square. (Photo: Christopher Sadowski/Newscom)

The Trayvon Martin tragedy is perhaps the most-talked-about news story of this past week, yet a casual scan of Facebook pages and other social media suggests the outrage over Martin’s death does not extend that far beyond the African American community. That’s unfortunate, because this is a story that should upset all Americans, regardless of race, especially those of us in the Christian community.

Trayvon, an African American teenager, was walking down a Central Florida sidewalk when he was targeted by an overzealous neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. Some sort of confrontation ensued and Trayvon, who was unarmed, was slain by Zimmerman, who claims he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense. The shooting has raised enough suspicions about the incident being racially motivated that the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have opened investigations.

Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told CNN, “I think that’s an issue that Mr. Zimmerman himself considers as someone suspicious — a black kid with a hoodie on, jeans, tennis shoes. Thousands of people wear that outfit every day, so what was so suspicious about Trayvon that Zimmerman felt as though he had to confront him?”

The charge brought to mind a recent college class I taught in which I was interrupted in the middle of my lecture by a student who challenged a fact I had just presented about the frequency of highway drug arrests. “I don’t believe it,” he stated. “I was in a car that was stopped once by the cops and we weren’t arrested even though they found marijuana.”

“Where were you, how many of you were in the car,” I asked, “and what races?”

The answer was that he and the four male teens were in a rural area of Ohio not far from their homes, and they were all white.

“So do you think your race and location had anything to do with not being arrested?” I asked. He didn’t.

I knew then I needed a set of facts to convey the reality that he and the other all-white class of students in my college course weren’t able to see — precisely because they were white and had never been viewed suspiciously in their hometowns because of the color of their skin. Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, provided those facts.

22 Facts That Challenge Perceptions

As we worked through Michelle Alexander’s book over the course of the next couple of weeks, my students began to rethink their assumptions about how post-racial we as a society really are, even in an era of civil rights and a black president. This happened as they began to understand the reality of what Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, coins the “criminalblackman.” In condensed form, here are the 22 statistics from her book that — cumulatively grasped — served as the scalpel for removing the colorblind scales from my white students’ eyes:

 To return to 1970 incarceration rates today, we would need to release 4 of every 5 inmates. (p. 218)

Federal law requires that states permanently exclude anyone with a drug-related felony from receiving federally funded public assistance. (p. 153)

Inmates work in prison for less than minimum wage, often for $3.00 an hour but as low as 25 cents an hour, even though child alimony and other payments continue to accrue. (p. 152)

In the last 25 years, multiple fees have been added for those awaiting trial. These include jail book-in fees, jail per diems to cover “room and board” while awaiting trial, public defender application fees, and bail investigation fees. (p. 150)

Post-conviction fees include public defender recoupment fees, work-release program fees, parole fees, probation fees. Example: Ohio courts can order probationers to pay a $50 monthly supervision fees as a condition of probation. (p. 150)

Four of five drug arrests are for possession, not sales, of drugs. (p. 59)

More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. (p. 59)

There were 3,000 SWAT deployments a year in the early 1980s, but 30,000 by 2001. Driven by federal grants based on arrests, special tactic teams often act in military fashion as they “blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.” (p. 74)

Forfeiture laws (which allow local police departments to keep a substantial portion of seized assets and cash) are frequently used to allow those with assets to buy their freedom, resulting in most major kingpins getting short sentences or no sentences while small-time dealers or users incur long sentences. (p. 78)

Tens of thousands of poor go to jail each year without ever having talked to a lawyer. In Wisconsin, 11,000 indigent people go to court without legal representation since anyone who earns more than $3,000 a year is considered capable of hiring a lawyer. (p. 83)

Prosecutors routinely “load up” defendants with extra and questionable charges to force them to plead guilty rather than risk longer prison sentences resulting from the trumped up charges. (p. 86)

Some federal judges have quit in protest over minimum sentencing laws, including one conservative judge who quit after being forced by minimum sentencing requirements to impose a five-year sentence on a mother in Washington, D.C., convicted of “possession” of crack found by police in a box her son had hidden in her attic. (p. 91)

Most people convicted of a felony are not sentenced to prison. In 2008, 2.3 million people were in prisons and jails, but another 5.1 million were under probation or on parole. (p. 92)

Even those convicted of a felony for a small amount of drugs are barred from public housing by law and made ineligible for feed stamps.  (p. 92)

By 2000, about as many people were returned to prison for parole violations as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. One can be returned to prison for any number of parole violations, including being found in the presence of another convicted felon. (p. 93)

“Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” (p. 97)

White young people have three times the number of drug-related emergency room visits as do black youth. (p. 97)

In 2006, 1 of every 14 African Americans was behind bars, compared to 1 of every 106 European Americans. (p. 98)

A study of Maryland highway stops found that only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore were black, but black people comprised 70 percent of those stopped and searched for drugs. This was the case even though the study found that whites who were stopped were more likely to be found actually carrying contraband in their vehicles than people of color. (p. 131)

States typically have mandatory sentencing for drunk driving (a statistically “white” crime with 78 percent of arrests being white males) of two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense, but the “black” crime of possessing even tiny amounts of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. (p. 201)

White ex-offenders may actually have an easier time gaining employment than African Americans without a criminal record. “To be a black man is to be thought of as a criminal, and to be a black criminal is to be despicable — a social pariah. To be a white criminal is not easy, by any means, but as a white criminal you are not a racial outcast, though you may face many forms of social and economic exclusion. Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.” (p. 193)

The one statistic, however, that finally broke through the rural white Midwestern defenses was this one: “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color” (p. 7).

Continued on page 2.

About the author, Kevin D. Miller

Kevin D. Miller is an associate professor of communication at a Christian college in the Midwest and a former editor at Christianity Today magazine. Portions of this article originally appeared in the Princeton Theological Review.
  1. Just curious Kevin, how are you viewed by your colleagues, neighbors, friends, enemies for revealing this disparity?

    • That’s easy. As a truth teller. Jesus also was a truth teller.

  2. Great, eye-opening article. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Link: Trayvon Martin and the Myth of the ‘Criminalblackman’ | Urban Faith « We Are Fine If You Are Fine

  4. Bravo Professor! You’ve given sight to the blind. Now that you have their eyes wide open, point them in the direction of another subject that is even more in the blind-spot of white American sight; that subject is “white privilege”. Many of my upper middle class white ( and may I add, southern) co-workers don’t believe such an animal exists.

  5. I am grateful that you are exposing racism in our society and the body of Christ. The biggest challenge seems to be “convenient ignorance,” choosing to ignore the existance of obvious facts unless it inconveniences one’s comfort. Keep making people uncomfortable please.

  6. Pingback: Trayvon Martin and the Myth of the “Criminalblackman” « Toddlers and Scholars

  7. Thanks for the comments about this article and the issue I raise with it. I just wanted to draw people’s attention to an excellent report about the popular imagination of whiteness and blackness as it is showing up in tweets about the film portrayal of two characters in the film version of the Hunger Games.

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/03/hunger-games-and-trayvon-martin.html

    Here’s an excerpt:
    Adam says that the pivotal moment in the evolution of Hunger Games Tweets came on or around March 23rd, after he posted a tweet by someone named Alana Paul, a petite brunette who went by the handle @sw4q. Alana’s tweet was not the most offensive or nakedly racist of the bunch (that award could go to Cliff Kigar, who dropped the N-bomb, or to @GagasAlexander, who complained of “some ugly little girl with nappy…hair.”) but perhaps the most telling. “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture,” she wrote. She cc’ed a friend on the tweet, @EganMcCoy.
    “That tweet was very telling, in terms of a mentality that is probably very widespread,” says Adam, speaking softly from his office high above Toronto’s downtown financial district. He doesn’t sound angry, but he also isn’t amused. The phrases “some black girl” and “little blonde innocent girl” are ringing in my head as he talks, as are thoughts about how the heroes in our imaginations are white until proven otherwise, a variation on the principle of innocent until proven guilty that, for so many minorities, is routinely upended.
    Adam tells me that, on the post featuring a screenshot of Alana’s tweet, he added, “Remember that word innocent? This is why Trayvon Martin is dead.” As he says it, I am thinking the same thing: of our culture’s association of whiteness with innocence, of a child described without an accompanying adjective, of a child rendered insignificant and therefore invisible because of his or her particular shade of skin. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” explains the protagonist in another famous work of fiction, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” . . .

  8. In Whose Image: Trayvon Martin and the War on Black Male Identity
    http://kineticslive.com/2012/03/in-whose-image-trayvon-martin-and-the-war-on-black-identity/

  9. My question after reading the book was why the African American characters were so stereotypical. Thresh, especially, was described as fearfully powerful, and came across as simple-minded. Rue was the ‘innocent little girl’ the Black child that is still young enough to love and not judge. Has anyone questioned the author’s underlying assumptions? Was the country so segregated that African Americans only lived in one region?

  10. Blacks are the biggest racists there are. No matter what happens or who was wrong they claim racism. Bottom line, Trayvon attacked zimmerman and zimmerman defended himself. Anybody of any race has the right to defend themselves when attacked. Now the most racist people in the world will demand zimmermans head and riot if they don’t get it and an innocent man will go to jail. Just like with rodney king. The police had every right to do what they did. The man was on PCP and attacked them even after being shot with stun guns repeatedly.