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Trayvon Martin:

In memory of Joel Olson

In the wake of the 1992 acquittal of the policemen charged with beating Rodney King and the social uprising that escalated into riots once the verdict was announced, shocking revelations about the use of a code word, N.H.I., emerged. A report on the LA Police Department’s practices detailed that “public officials of the judicial system of Los Angeles routinely used the acronym N.H.I. to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young, jobless, black males living in the inner city ghetto. N.H.I. means ‘no humans involved.’”1 What was the scale of this anti-black system of classification and perception? How does the dehumanization of another, enshrined in the language of racialized discourse and the political philosophy of white supremacy, become quotidian and banal in verbal utterances, juridical codes, and lived experiential actions?

Twenty years later, we find ourselves asking the same heart-wrenching questions about race, racial animus, justice, equality, democracy, and freedom in America. There are, however, some differences. Whereas the beating of Rodney King involved agents of the police force vis-à-vis a black male body, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida a citizen assumed the police power to shoot and kill against another citizen. The King beating and riots were urban, the Martin case suburban. King was an adult, Martin a minor. The four officers tried for battering King were white; Martin’s avowed shooter, George Zimmerman, multiracial. King lived to tell his version of alleged police misconduct; Martin died, unable to contest allegations of innocence by the one who pulled the lethal trigger.

Details are continuing to unfold, the line between facts and norms never blurrier. Nonetheless, we must confront the logic underlying recent events insofar as it includes, yet ultimately transcends, the particularities of Trayvon Martin. To echo C.L.R. James’s prognostications from the mid-twentieth century, the stakes of the world we live in today are twofold: first, the struggle for happiness persists amidst interracial distrust, crisis, neuroses, and catastrophe; and second, the future of American civilization is on trial.2 A core component of the democratic experiment undergirding American civilization is citizenship and the desire for inclusion, and the fluctuations within the polity between models of democracy—Madisonian, populist, deliberative, minimalist, communicative, fugitive, and hybrid—reflect the asymmetrical roles of power, privilege, and division among the polity’s population.3

The exemplary, rather than exceptional, states embodied in Rodney King and Trayvon Martin augur dialectical relations surrounding race that are all too habitual to inhabitants of the United States and to those with knowledge of American social and political history, whether acknowledged, silenced, or disavowed. Moreover, that these recur daily throughout American cities, suburbs, and towns paints a picture of a republic more Calhounian than Madisonian, a republic that affords states rights greater powers, a body politic in which Stand Your Ground Laws can become part and parcel of the rule of law, altering the juridical authority of persons endowed with self-protection and surveillance powers bordering on those granted to the police.

Martin’s wearing of a hoodie was not the problem, as Geraldo Rivera myopically proclaimed in a controversial Fox News interview. It was the being wearing the hoodie—the N.H.I., the disrespected4 —that was problematic. This epistemological and existential rationalization is symptomatic of what W.E.B. Du Bois called existence as a member of a racial group deemed a problem people and what Frantz Fanon diagnosed as the anti-black racial gaze thrust upon the black male body, wherein the agent harboring the Look is suffuse with bad faith, prejudices, and preconceived notions of the good, the bad, the human, and the subhuman.5

The Trayvon Martin event has specific relevance for scholars working at the intersections of race and political theory. Scholars and activists writing on the significance of race to philosophy, political theory, and the science of politics habitually find themselves on the fringes of their departments, programs, journals, book publisher lists, and social movement organizations.6 Discourses on race and racism are public and private, open and submerged, straddling claims of post-raciality and colorblindness as well as those of the permanence of racism and reification of the idea of race. The years of President Barack Obama’s administration are no exception, reflecting a paradoxical spike in both hopeful and nihilistic views of American race relations. This symposium thus contributes not only to interpretations of the Martin event but also to the theoretical literature on race and contemporary politics.

This symposium features eight essays on the Trayvon Martin event. I classify the shooting of seventeen-year-old Martin and the subsequent activities and discourses related to the shooting as an event rather than a tragedy because it marks a moment in American political life where past and future are mutually determining: it occurred, incited multiple ongoing discussions, and resulted from prior thoughts, actions, and discussions. If Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari are correct to say that “[p]hilosophy’s sole aim is to become worthy of the event”7 —an event whose lines of flight and processes of becoming are multifaceted and often irreducible to a singular root cause—, then a central task of political theory is deciphering the actualization of the event, either retrospectively or in real time as in the examples of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Martin case.

Timeliness and the temporal surfacing of information can be difficult to navigate for observers of an event whose outcome is indeterminate. The constant flow of updates and the non-verifiable in data make judgment difficult. Nevertheless, the very openness of the situation means that the conversations through which it unfolds both affirm past formulations and augment dispositions towards future outlooks, consciousnesses, and worldviews. For the theorist, awareness of temporality can illuminate backward-looking intuitions when time and corresponding vocabularies of expression are not so much out of joint as they are in need of comprehension.8 This Martin event forum reiterates, instead of invents, the complexities of race, racism, and racial politics in the American geopolitical landscape.

The following essays are in three clusters. The first cluster of contributions by Anna Marie Smith, Anne Norton, and Michael Hanchard explore issues of publicity, racial violence, jurisprudence, and the rationalizations of acts conducted by private citizens and agents of state under the rule of law. Smith’s lead article is a tour-de-force inquiry into the concepts of “public reason” and “reasonableness.” It evaluates the extent to which the use of deadly force is and should be a metric sanctioned by state level Stand Your Grounds Laws. Smith examines the 911 dispatch call between the Sanford police and George Zimmerman, philosophical positions on the merits of deadly force as a means of self-defense, racial contract theory, the idea of amour-propre, comparative statutory laws in New York and Florida, and the relationships among public reason, privatized security protection, vigilante violence, and state responsibility for self-defense actions taken by individual citizens in the United States and Guatemala. She contends that Florida statutory laws facilitate a dangerous turn in its civil society, enabling, instead of preventing, private citizens’ ability to enact deadly force. The victims of this turn are people such as Martin who, like other black youth across the nation, are disadvantaged within society’s basic structure because of hegemonic conceptions of reason that, while public and rationally derived, appear far from reasonable.

Norton’s essay explores the concept of “fearful privilege.” Black male fears of racial terror and narratives of white women fearing rape by black men have genealogical roots in lynching. To become fearless would require agents filled with fear to be able to feel comfortable in public spaces, day and night. That is not a current reality for all, especially young black men. Trayvon Martin would have been right to fear for himself everyday even when entering his relative’s middle-class neighborhood. At the same time, George Zimmerman, as a private citizen and gun owner, was fearful of possible criminal activity in his gated community. The privileged can fear, but they have more access to resources and social capital than the less privileged. Norton frames Martin and Zimmerman as conduits to understand whether fearless interactions are possible and at what expense in a democracy where public commons are fading whilst fear remains.

Hanchard urges us to think of federally sanctioned collaborations between states and citizens both inside the US and globally, wherein agents mutually agree to the suppression and slaughter of targeted populations without adverse repercussions. For Hanchard, Martin’s death was a slaughter. Invoking his concept of “walking states of exception,” Hanchard isolates Martin as an example of persons who, even in ambulatory conditions, live under racist gazes that make them potentially expendable. Such an expendability of persons should push us to reflect on how we imagine terror, violence, and the idea of habeas corpus today.

In the second cluster of essays, Stephen H. Marshall and Ange-Marie Hancock delve into existential questions of race. Marshall draws upon Saidiya Hartman, James Baldwin, and Achille Mbembe to investigate the precariousness of blackness, racialization of bare life, and what he terms the “political life of fungibility.” By fungibility, Marshall means the pain, cleavages, and suffering of bodies as a result of contestation with other agents possessing power. Marshall places debates within Black Studies in conversation with those in political theory, bridging the gap by accentuating two camps of thinking on black existence and the responses of those camps to fungibility: Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists. The former conceive of anti-blackness as an unavoidable ontology as intrinsic to the modern world as the air we breathe. Afro-optimists, in contrast, view the experience of blackness as fugitive, a site for creativity, and a reservoir for political change. The crisis of black politics and the bare life of the numerous unnamed Trayvon Martins are recognition of the political antagonism intrinsic to fungibility. Marshall argues that comprehending the stakes of the camps has bearing on the future of multiracial democracy.

Assessing how we might reimagine discourse on Martin, Hancock’s article situates the deaths of Trayvon Martin and other young black males in relation to her current work in critical race theory, intersectionality, and the politics of disgust. Hancock describes the logic of intersectionality—a term made prominent by feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw—and why models of thought on race that either inscribe a misguided Oppression Olympics rubric or ignore overlapping vectors of sex, gender, race, class, and sexual orientation are insufficient. She proposes “paradigm intersectionality” as an alternative and enumerates the rubric’s key pillars. The disgust generated by Martin’s shooting is a perversion of democratic attention. By returning to the overlooked existential writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, Hancock argues that we can formulate strategies to erode the politics of disgust and explicate more sufficiently why the deaths of unarmed young black men matter.

The third cluster of essays by Mark Reinhardt, Christopher Lebron, and George Ciccariello-Maher examine the politics of recognition, relationship between the quantitative and qualitative in rendering judgments, and what is required philosophically and social-structurally for transformation in American race relations to occur. Reinhardt aims to uncover, at the phenomenological and epistemological levels, “what white people know” and what whites talk about when discussing race and Trayvon. He examines the heated exchange between Piers Morgan and Touré on CNN to consider whether the Martin event’s significance is accessible a priori to everyone or if lived experiences and time spent within a polity impact political knowledge. Reinhardt also probes polling data and the institutional structures of racial profiling to discern how white public opinion acknowledges or suppresses racial knowledge. His inquiry into acknowledgement and disavowal, mediated by George Shulman’s thought, occurs in tandem with his limning of the political mobilization paradox. Against nihilism, Reinhardt suggests that change in the human condition will come so long as we all, whites included, fight for it.

Lebron’s essay locates the Trayvon Martin event within the wider context of tensions between race and democracy in America. For Lebron, “agony” is the concept most accurately encapsulating the roadblocks to achieving racial democracy. Lebron considers two instances of agony, one from James Baldwin’s debate with William Buckley at Cambridge University in the mid-1960s and the other from the late modern rapper Saigon’s articulation of a fractured racial democracy. In this endeavor, he invites us to rethink the sources of texts available to theoretical analysis, evaluating the lyrical thought of a hip-hop artist alongside the oratory of a public intellectual. This welcome move helps demonstrate the role of black bodies in the popular imagination and what Lebron notes— following Michelle Alexander, Vesla Weaver, and Michel Foucault—are systemic shocks of a New Jim Crow era marked by the mass incarceration, the disciplining and punishing of black bodies, and the rolling back of integral Civil Rights legislation. Confronting the present agony of racial democracy is the only way to comprehend the meaning of Martin’s death for Americans and non-Americans as well as citizens and non-citizens alike.

Ciccariello-Maher returns to the idea of standing one’s ground that opened the symposium. Unlike Smith, who focused on law, Ciccariello-Maher turns to philosophy, exploring Frantz Fanon’s critical reinterpretation of G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectic of Lordship and Bondage. By analyzing Fanon’s notion of “comparaison” with respect to Zimmerman, Martin, decolonizing dialectics, and Fanon’s questioning of circularity in Hegel’s thinking, Ciccariello-Maher proposes that the problem surrounding the Trayvon Martin event is neither guns, nor hoodies, nor Stand Your Ground Laws. The problem is the philosophy of white supremacy and the dialectical mechanisms needed to fight this logic of unfreedom in our political present. The sub-ontological flaw of Hegel’s system, which Fanon discloses, is the existence of persons unable to have a ground on which to stand due to racism and structural injustice. An understanding of this phenomenon is the basis for catharsis, overcoming inertia, the eradication of white supremacy, and racial progress.

All of the articles included in the symposium are a reminder that race talk is arduous and frequently emotional when agents lack a language in which to analyze power and express rage. Race talk is still demanding once public, counterpublic, and sub-public lexicons emerge. So what is to be done and where do we go from here? The “we”, “us”, and “our” to which I refer are not a unitary block, a will of all, or a general will. They are a heterogeneous collectivity of persons, myself included, who value racial reconciliation and manifold approaches to offsetting the adverse effects of disavowing racial knowledge. From Rodney King to Trayvon Martin, from the birth of the racial republic to its late modern bio-political landscape, difficult dialogues and actions are necessary for progress— however evanescent, however staggered, and however long—to materialize.

Neil Roberts  

Neil Roberts is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Faculty Affiliate in Political Science at Williams College. His work has appeared in The Cambridge Dictionary of Political Thought, Caribbean Studies, The C.L.R. James Journal, Encyclopedia of Political Theory, New Political Science, Patterns of Prejudice, Perspectives on Politics, Philosophia Africana, Philosophy in Review/Comptes Rendus Philosophiques, Political Theory, Sartre Studies International, Shibboleths, and Souls. He is co-editor of Creolizing Rousseau and the CAS Working Papers in Africana Studies, and his book Freedom as Marronage is under contract with The University of Chicago Press. Neil can be reached at Neil.Roberts@williams.edu


I wish to thank Karima Barrow, Jo Anne Colson, Jodi Dean, James Martel, Davide Panagia, and an anonymous reviewer for insightful feedback and encouragement in preparing this symposium.


1.  Sylvia Wynter, “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Voices of the African Diaspora 8 (2), 1992: 13. For additional interpretations of the Rodney King case and LA riots, see the essays in Robert Gooding-Williams, eds., Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising (New York: Routledge, 1993).

2.  C.L.R. James, American Civilization (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001).

3.  Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956); Judith Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

4.  Wynter 1992, 16; Charles W. Mills, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); Axel Honneth, Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (London: Polity, 2007).

5.  W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 34, 45; Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 89–119.

6.  For works exploring the intersections of race and contemporary political theory, see Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982); Lewis R. Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1995); Kwame Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann, Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Joel Olson, The Abolition of White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); George Shulman, American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Juliet Hooker, Race and the Politics of Solidarity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Falguni Sheth, Toward a Political Philosophy of Race (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009); Thomas McCarthy, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Cristina Beltrán, The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Lawrie Balfour, Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W.E.B. Du Bois (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Angela Y. Davis, The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012).

7.  Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 160. See also Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

8.  Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (New York: Harper and Row, 1910); J.G.A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (New York: Antheum, 1971); Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin 1993); Sheldon S. Wolin, “What Time Is It?” Theory & Event 1(1), 1997: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v001/1.1wolin.html, accessed 7-25-12; Michael Hanchard, “Afro-Modernity: Temporality, Politics, and the African Diaspora,” Public Culture 11(1), 1999: 245–268.