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.

HOODED TARGET: "This guy looks like he's up to no good or on drugs or something," George Zimmerman told a 911 dispatcher as he followed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman had already pegged him as a "criminal black man."

These facts, taken together, convinced the students of the reality of the “criminalblackman” stereotype that Alexander describes, as well as the dubious nature of a criminal justice system that mass produces black felons at a higher rate than our higher education system graduates young black men.

The Absurdity of ‘White Crime’

One other item from Alexander’s book helped make the issue of black male stereotypes real to my students. Alexander recommends trying this social experiment:

Say the following to nearly anyone and watch the reaction: “We really need to do something about the problem of white crime” (p. 193).

We decided to take her advice literally, and the students put the phrase to at least four different individuals from different walks of life, compiling a set of notes of the responses. The number one reaction to the statement was pure bafflement. This confirmed Alexander’s point that “the term white crime is nonsensical in the era of mass incarceration … In the era of mass incarceration, what it means to be a criminal in our collective consciousness has become conflated with what it means to be black, so the term white criminal is confounding, while the term black criminal is nearly redundant.”

One student happened upon further evidence of how this stereotype of black criminality and white innocence has inscribed itself into our collective consciences. When she made the “white crime” statement to a person sitting at a computer, the woman also showed the typical signs of confusion but then quickly googled the phrase “white crime.” She found plenty of hits for “black-on-white crime” and “white-collar crime.” But nothing on white crime itself. In class we replicated the experiment with the same results, but when we typed in “black crime,” the Google results were pages of sensible usages and references to black people and crime.

The old racism of the Jim Crow generation (largely my students’ grandparents) had been made illegal and publicly taboo. But the dawning realization among my students that it hadn’t disappeared but had instead permutated and morphed into a form that was under their nose, but that their eyes could not bring into focus, helped them realize that even they, the supposedly first post-racial generation of Americans, had themselves been subtly infected by racism.

Once blind, now they could see how the social construct of the criminalblackman was connected to the mass incarceration of people of color in their own day.

Inheriting Bigoted Stereotypes

Near the end of the course, one particularly quiet female student in the class recorded a childhood memory in her reflection paper:

As a young white woman, I was raised to take caution when any stranger approached me: male or female, white or colored. However, my parents and particularly my dad made an extra point to stress the importance of staying away from strangers who were black men. I remember being particularly young, possibly about seven or eight years old, and having my dad kneel down close to me in a shopping mall and point out a black man that had just walked past. He got close to my face and said, “That man is a jigaboo, and you don’t ever talk to people that look like him. They’re jigaboos and they just want to cause problems.” This and other snippets said by my dad will be remembered forever. I know that he meant well and just wanted to protect me, but it originated from having a racist attitude towards black men.

She went on to write that it was because of this memory that she now wanted to research the theory of white fear and look into the white person’s assumptions of black violence. These experiences and others like them, she said, keep the theories of violent or dangerous black men alive in the minds and hearts of many white people.

Like this young woman, the vast majority of my students were raised in evangelical Christian homes and care deeply about their faith and even about social justice. But their faith has failed to draw a connection between the social injustices of institutional racism and their biblical moorings.

At one point — early in the course before I had Alexander’s book in my hands — I asked the students if they thought it unjust that although there are six times as many whites who use and sell drugs as blacks, almost half of state prisoners sentenced for drugs are black. Appealing to their Biblicist convictions, I had piled on Isaiah 61:1, the same passage of Scripture Jesus later recited as he inaugurated his public ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”

Wasn’t this prophetic statement relevant to the disproportionate incarceration of black people for drug offenses, especially for Christians? They didn’t think so, was the consensus, since “those people” shouldn’t have been doing drugs in the first place. Their pat answer was to imprison every offender, regardless of race. That was their version of social justice, but one that for all its surface fairness was in the final analysis deeply skewed toward a myopic view of society.

The conflation of criminality with blackness — the “criminalblackman” — is, as Alexander points out, the result of an asymmetrical use of colorblindness. This means the color of the individual black male is seen and made visible by white society at key moments that serve to preserve white privilege, such as when marking all young African American males as “potential criminals,” but not doing the same for their white suburban counterparts who “experiment” with drugs or are caught driving drunk. For whites, it’s just “the recklessness of youth.” At these white moments, color abruptly evaporates.

Making It Personal

One reason Alexander’s quote on white youth drug offenses so effectively opened the eyes of my students was because it hit home personally and racially: the statistics “suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color” (p. 7). Until they saw themselves in the equation, no Scripture passage or social science statistic could penetrate the moral sensibilities of those students.

Their brand of Christian faith and its underlying status quo theology was itself color-coded to intercept and neutralize any numerical fact or biblical precept one might put to them. I could quote Isaiah and pair that with an incarceration statistic, but until my students could begin to realize that how they read Isaiah in light of that statistic was already conditioned by their whiteness, the prophetic Word and the statistic could not be brought to bear on each other. Their conflation of criminality and blackness — and their inverse equation of innocence and whiteness — were of one logical piece already implicit in their white Christian theology.

Reading Alexander’s deeply ethical framing of the new Jim Crow of our era, and the white colorblindness that makes it possible, primes the pump for a richer re-reading of standard-fare evangelical theology and doctrine. In Race: A Theological Account, J. Kameron Carter describes the conjoined birth of whiteness and European theology, from which mainstream American evangelical theology gets its footing. He makes the case that the “modern invention of race or the story of its naturalization is a problem that is pseudotheological or religious in character.” He argues that

behind the modern problem of race is the problem of how Christianity and Western civilization came to be thoroughly identified with each other. … Remade into cultural and political property and converted into an ideological instrument to aid and abet colonial conquest, Christianity became a vehicle for the religious articulation of whiteness, though increasingly masked to the point of near invisibility.

A generation earlier, in the heat of the civil rights debates, theologian James Cone stated it more bluntly: “American theology is racist.” Lacking basic human compassion, it is impervious to the sufferings of oppressed peoples. “How else,” Cone asked in 1970, “can we explain the theological silence during the period of white lynchings of black humanity in this nation?”

The equivalent question facing us now is this: Why the unholy silence today about the racialized inequities in our criminal justice system?

And, more to the point this week, why the general indifference among white evangelicals regarding the death of Trayvon Martin?

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.