Trayvon Martin, Intersectionality, and the Politics of Disgust
What are we to make of the death of Trayvon Martin, a young African American male? Trayvon Martin’s death symbolizes the constrained admission of young Black males into what W.E.B. Du Bois once called the basic freedoms associated with our American democracy – most basically, freedom of movement. Using Du Bois’ later works and a paradigm intersectionality analysis I contend that the unrequited quest for Blacks’ full democratic freedoms find a tragic exemplar in Trayvon Martin’s death. Our democracy’s politics of disgust, which constructs people with certain intersectional identities as less than human, stands in the way.
My attention from the first was focused on democracy and democratic development and upon the problem of admission of my people into the freedom of democracy.W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept1
They did send Michael Vick to jail for killing dogs. Nobody went to jail for killing Martin Lee Anderson. The only question I have: Is anybody going to be held accountable for killing Trayvon Martin?Benjamin Crump, attorney for the family of Trayvon Martin
Martin Lee Anderson, 14, died in 2006 in a juvenile boot camp in Bay County, Florida, after guards discounted his fainting episode and beat him in an attempt to restore his consciousness. An all-white jury exonerated all seven officers and one nurse who stood by for the duration of the 30 minute attack. Oakland, California resident Oscar Grant, 22, was shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle while handcuffed and laying prone on the ground on New Year’s Day, 2009. Mehserle served only 60 per cent of his two-year prison sentence and was released in 2011. It is now known that George Zimmerman, a multiracial neighborhood watch volunteer, has stipulated to shooting and killing 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
Martin’s mother, Sabrina Fulton, said she doesn’t want even one more mother to join this macabre club of mothers with murdered children. Then Anya Slaughter joined it. Three weeks after the shooting death of Martin in Sanford, Florida, 19 year-old Kendrec McDade was shot seven times by Pasadena police officers after an APB was issued regarding a robbery wherein Oscar Carillo falsely stated that he was robbed by two armed Black men.2
What are we to make of these deaths of unarmed young black men? The locales, suspects, and situational contexts all vary, despite the fact that the victims seem to share the same intersectional identity: young African American male. W.E.B. Du Bois cogently articulates the recurring challenge the Martin case raises: “admission of my people into the freedom of democracy.” Trayvon Martin’s death symbolizes the constrained admission of young Black males into the basic freedoms associated with our American democracy – most basically, freedom of movement. Using Du Bois’ later works and a paradigm intersectionality analysis I contend that the unrequited quest for Blacks’ full democratic freedoms find a tragic exemplar in Trayvon Martin’s death. Our democracy’s politics of disgust stands in the way of the Trayvons of our nation.
According to witnesses, Martin turned and questioned why Zimmerman was following him. It is clear from the 911 records and the later altercation that the social constructions of race, gender and age lived in the heads of both Zimmerman and Martin. 3 In both his phone conversation and his conversation with Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin seemed to embody a performance of young black masculinity that challenges the just-so story of gender, race, and their combination.
In looking backwards over his first seventy years4 and considering its meaning for the future, Du Bois suggests a connection between fear and “brusquerie” as a performance of his racialized manhood. Describing his own navigation of an earlier hostile context in our U.S. democracy, he stated: “Something of a certain inferiority complex was possibly present: I was desperately afraid of not being wanted; of intruding without invitation; of appearing to desire the company of those who had no desire for me … I … deliberately cultivated a certain brusquerie.”5 This possible continuity – between Du Bois, speaking of his life as a 19–20 year-old black male in the late nineteenth century – centers intersectional black masculinity as a site of complex agency and vulnerability.
This site features multiple realities, not a single historically continuous one. Though not the same age or class as Martin, President Obama’s comment drew a contemporary continuity between two very differently situated Black males: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Obama’s own engagement with age, race, and gender certainly possesses continuities that again suggest the contingencies of free movement afforded young Black males in our current democracy. Obama received Secret Service protection at the earliest point in any presidential campaign season based on a threat assessment featuring vast racial-gender threats. When it comes to questions of race, much has been speculated about President Obama’s freedom of rhetorical expression, particularly when expectations Americans have of a president clash with Black middle-class norms of distancing from “the angry Black man.” While many criticized Obama’s “excited utterance” in defense of Henry Louis Gates, they were just as critical of an “emotionless” Obama reaction to the BP oil spill. When we speak of freedom of movement, there are of course clear distinctions between bodies and rhetoric. Nevertheless there are continuities to be drawn as well.
Though no one but Martin himself could know with certainty, one could imagine that kind of mixed self-presentation, combining the fear his girlfriend says she heard in his voice over the phone and the bravado our society rewards in many young Black men. That the situational context was also shaped by perceived social constructions of young Black masculinity is similarly clear. George Zimmerman’s call to 911 suggests he had a ready prototype of “real suspicious guy[s]” who “look like [they’re] up to no good,” who “always get away,” into which Martin seemed to fit based solely on the observation of Martin walking around what was in fact his family’s own neighborhood. Zimmerman’s estimation? He didn’t belong there.
Thus far this analysis of Martin’s intersectional identity, placing it in conversation with Grant, Anderson, and McDade, illustrating continuities with Du Bois and Obama’s engagements of intersectional black masculinity, constitutes what we might call the just-so story of intersectionality theory. If we focus solely on the content of intersectionality theory – as a theory about certain marginalized identities – then an intersectional analysis of the Trayvon Martin situation could end right here. I argue that the power of intersectionality – for contemporary politics, political theory, and political science more broadly – lies instead in its logic.
The Logic of Intersectionality
Paradigm Intersectionality is an analytical framework for questions of social justice. Even as early as Kimberle Williams Crenshaw’s landmark article, “Mapping the Margins,” intersectional analysis is represented as “an approach”6 rather than simply an assertion of relevant identity content. It is critical to note that Crenshaw did not contend that intersectional identity as a social fact causes limitations and outcomes – that is, the trouble is not with the intersectional bodies or identities of women of color she placed at the center of the analysis. Rather it is the politics that surrounds such bodies, as Crenshaw notes explicitly: “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate women of color to a location that resists telling.”7 In this regard, intersectional analysis answered questions left unanswerable by prior analytical approaches to race or gender,8 suggesting that intersectionality can be thought of in paradigmatic terms by focusing on the logical shifts intersectionality theorists have made. What would a paradigm intersectionality approach to the Trayvon Martin case look like? It would shift our analysis in three important ways.
From the start of the inquiry paradigm intersectionality changes the first-order question we ask in seeking to comprehend the broader meaning of what happened to Trayvon Martin. A standard identity politics first-order question formulation would go something like this:
a. Was it Martin’s race that drove Zimmerman to claim a justifiable response (shooting and killing) to the presence of an unknown Black man?
In other words, does race matter? Popular challenges made by black and other women of color feminists to account for gender, class and sexuality as equally important have been met with early attempts that sought to incorporate the content of additional categories, but preserved the mutually exclusive logic of old identity politics, resulting in the following reformulation:
b. Was it Martin’s race or Martin’s gender or Martin’s (perceived) class or age that drove Zimmerman to his acts?
Though many women of color feminists would reject this reading of their claims, it remains popular, particularly among empirical scholars. A more acceptable reading of women of color feminist claims might put forth the following first-order question:
c. Was it Martin’s race, gender, age and perceived class together that drove Zimmerman to his acts?
This reading, while more palatable to women of color feminists, remains problematic because it preserves a combination of additive, binary and zero-sum logic present in much identity politics. The additive logic of formulation c) implies that it is solely the count of marginalized identity memberships that drives intersectional analysis, which often produces incredibly destructive Oppression Olympics-style races for the title of most oppressed.9 The binary logic left untouched here preserves our attention on a bright line divide between “oppressed” and “oppressor,” whereas the more complicated story of persons, groups and structures having differential locations is more accurately the case.10 Together the additive and binary logic reinforce a zero-sum approach to how we conceptualize questions of social justice that face our democracy – that your gain must mean my concomitant loss.
All three ways of thinking stymie processes of deliberation and cooperation. Thus neither reformulation b) or c), though arguably consistent with multicultural feminism, fully encompass what I take to be the power of intersectionality as an “approach” to understanding questions of social justice. Paradigm intersectionality attempts to incorporate two shifts in understanding how analytical categories, as social constructions with material effects, can interlock and shape phenomena.
First, paradigm intersectionality conceptualizes the inegalitarian traditions associated with such analytical categories as equally significant but neither identical nor mutually exclusive in their roles as threats to a fully inclusive democracy. Consider, for example, the diverse, historically contingent roles that the “biological argument” has played across these spectra. Some perpetuate marginality (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities are biologically predisposed to hypersexuality and fecundity; women have biologically-driven nurturing tendencies). Identity politics-driven movements for liberation have responded in various ways, including episodic efforts that seek to re-valorize such claims. On the other hand, biological arguments have served to do ostensibly liberatory work in different ways even within the same general analytical category. For instance, the biological (specifically the genetic) has served to undermine arguments characterizing non-heterosexual orientations as “choices” and contemporaneously operated in the opposite fashion to endow transgender folks with the power of self-presentation and transformation of their gender identity. While obviously equality across races, sexes, and sexualities are clearly as-yet unachieved ideals, paradigm intersectionality detaches from the idea that such struggles are identical or mutually exclusive – historically or conceptually.
The second shift that changes the first-order question is achieved by shifting attention away from a binary analysis of individuals, groups, and societies as either powerful or powerless, perpetrator or victim. Paradigm intersectionality seeks to jettison the additive-binary-zero-sum calculus, conceptualizing individuals, for example, as bundles of privilege and disadvantage based on their structural locations and relationships to opportunity, rather than as solely the sum of their disadvantages. The first-order question then becomes:
d. How do inegalitarian traditions interact and emerge in our understanding of the meaning of George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin?
Paradigm Intersectionality and the Trayvon Martin Case
Paradigm intersectionality features five distinct, intimately connected, dimensions, which seek to take a comprehensive look at complex questions of social justice like the significance of the Trayvon Martin murder case. Our revised first-order question’s subject, “inegalitarian tradition s ,” directs us to the first dimension of paradigm intersectionality: Categorical Multiplicity. Which traditions, or analytical categories, might we consider relevant to our understanding of the Trayvon Martin case? Rather than deciding the relevant axes a priori or getting stuck with an infinite list, three criteria guide category selection.11 First, what signs of injury, social stigma or lack of access are present? Clearly the marker of injury here is the death of an unarmed teenager. The 911 call placed by George Zimmerman suggests that minimally, we might consider race, gender and age, as Zimmerman identified Martin twice as a “Black male” and once as “in his late teens.”12
The second criterion provides further opportunities to confirm these three categories as relevant, and possibly add more. A young Black man, suspected by an armed neighborhood watch volunteer is dead. What is the substantive issue of social justice? At a minimum, Martin has been denied his fourth, fifth and fourteenth amendment rights according to the U.S. Constitution, as well as his Creator-endowed inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. The legislative history of the fourteenth amendment clearly reinforces the idea that Black men were the primary target population of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, again leading us to confirm race and gender as categories relevant to the substantive question of social justice at hand. Du Bois also points us to a broader question: how might the Trayvons of the world ever obtain admission into the freedom(s) of democracy?
The third criterion for the purposes of this analysis, the scope and target of critique, is more dynamic. While the original objects of critique, the police and district attorney of Sanford, Florida, have remained targets, the scope of the social justice concern, based both on prior recent cases with similarities in other states and on the international levels of media attention Trayvon Martin’s death has received, suggests that age is also relevant. All of the young men mentioned in the introduction were under the age of 25. In addition to 17 year-old Martin, Grant was 22, McDade was 19, and Anderson, 14.13 As well, President Obama’s approach to the case as someone who could be the father of such a son also points us to age as a category.
Categorical Multiplicity goes beyond the standards for inclusion to also set forth a standard for attention for each relevant category: concomitant attention to all three categories must occur as well, based on the shift away from the first order question. Gender and age cannot be “tacked on” to a racial analysis. We are looking for patterns, as these men stood at particular intersections with specific relationships to opportunity and, given our substantive issue of social justice, vulnerabilities to violence in particular. Along with Categorical Multiplicity, Categorical Intersections, the systematic commonalities among Martin, Grant, McDade, Anderson and legions just like them, is well-recognized as part of what young Black men endure as a restriction on their democratic freedom(s), including wealthy young Black men, as the photo of the NBA’s Miami Heat wearing hoodies illustrates. When tweeted by LeBron James, the photo included the caption: “#WeAreTrayvonMartin…#Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.”14
The third dimension of paradigm intersectionality, Diversity Within, also compares commonly situated sets of individuals, but in order to examine systematic variation among the four victims. Our previous analyses of Du Bois or Obama’s interpretation of racialized manhood would fit in this dimension. Moreover, was Trayvon Martin somehow systematically different from Zimmerman family friend Joe Oliver, also a Black male (albeit far older than Martin)? Is Martin somehow different from other 17 year-old males as regards their relationships to opportunity and their vulnerability to myriad forms of custodial violence?
When reports were released regarding Trayvon Martin’s school suspension record (he was in the midst of his fourth suspension when he was killed), the number of out-of-school suspensions for Black males was more than double that of white males in Florida, and three times that of white males in California, home of Oscar Grant and Kendrec McDade.15 Such disparities have repeatedly received national media attention in the past two years.16 To date little has been done to connect this aspect of the social justice question to a larger movement for change in light of Martin’s death.
If we were to end our intersectional analysis here, we might be left with an image of Martin as a powerless pawn of any set of systems he navigated daily and detached from the historical context in which his death occurred. If we first turn to the idea of Martin as a student in a public school, we can get a sense of the fourth dimension of paradigm intersectionality, Individual-Institutional Relationships. Envisioning Martin as an agent, navigating both the social constructions of the identities attributed to him and the institutions which seek to control him, the release of his disciplinary record reveals his embeddedness in a public education system with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that disparately impact young men of color, specifically Black males. Considering this dimension enables us to analyze the release of his suspension record in the context of the politics of disgust, as we’ll see below. As importantly, Trayvon walked unwittingly that rainy night into another institutional policy, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which in the five years since its enactment has produced a spike in justifiable homicide defenses, from an average of 34 in the 6 years prior to the law’s enactment to an average of 85 in the years 2005–2009.17
The final dimension of paradigm intersectionality is also critically important: Time Dynamics. In addition to our previously identified continuities we must, as Du Bois himself did over the course of his 95 years, consider the unique historical context, for reasons put best by Du Bois himself: “The first thing which brought me to my senses in all this racial discussion was the continuous change in the proofs and arguments advanced…no sooner had I settled into a scientific security here, than the basis of race distinction changed without explanation, without apology.”18 More recently, David Theo Goldberg’s analysis of Hurricane Katrina likewise suggests such a shift: “To say that racism in the United States was ‘born-again’ is not to say that it ever disappeared. It shifted its modalities and expression, its articulations and dispositions, its ways of being.”19 The approach to temporality here is thus two-fold: across past, present and future; and historically specific. I focus first on the latter.
The claim that we are somehow in a post-racial United States is battered but not broken in light of the persistent birther fringe unwilling to accept President Obama’s citizenship and the responses to Martin’s death, including gun-range targets20 designed to resemble Trayvon Martin (complete with Skittles sticking out of the hoodie pocket). Sold in packages of 10, the entire inventory sold out in 2 days of online sales.
While paradigm intersectionality doesn’t a priori assert that “gender is a constitutive element of [all] social relationships,”21 when included in the analysis based on the three aforementioned criteria, the analytical approach proceeds from the premise that “gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power (Ibid.).” The socialization of men into violence, and young men particularly in our contemporary era is clearly relevant to the death of Martin. When we consider the previous criterion concerning “mark of social stigma,” attention to multiple dimensions enables a more comprehensive idea of how sexism functions, complicating the binary of male as powerful and woman as powerless. There is something qualitatively different about the susceptibility to violence among young black men that involves powerful tropes of race, gender, and age together that overstate the threat they pose and enhance their chances to become victims of state or quasi-state sanctioned violence. Distinct from conventional racial analyses, the conclusion here isn’t young black men suffer more or most, but that this revelation connects them to broader concerns about violence, though the eventual policy remedy may be quite targeted.
Du Bois’ approach to temporality in Dusk of Dawn also proves instructive for thinking about Time Dynamics – both what makes the present historical moment relevant to our analysis and how it is part of a continuum that has shifted and changed across centuries enables us to think critically about the future as well. Moreover, this dynamic dimension allows us to attend not just to the subject of Trayvon Martin but to George Zimmerman, who is an important part of the analysis, not least because he lives to remain some part of this democracy. Zimmerman, 28, is now commonly described as Latino due to his mother’s Peruvian heritage. He is clearly a member of the Millennial generation, who have grown up in the most racially diverse United States to date. Indeed along with the election of the biracial Barack Obama, Millennials’ greater level of tolerance has served as the primary justification for characterizing this nation as either on its short way to or already arrived at a post-racial future.
Though many studies show that Millennials are indeed more tolerant than their Generation X or Baby Boomer counterparts, examining the life of George Zimmerman reveals a more complex reality for his generation. Zimmerman and his counterparts are reaping the questionable legacy of our own tortured relationships with inegalitarian traditions grounded in analytical categories like race, gender and age. More specifically, our reification of tolerance – as both an atomized, individual-level trait and as a popular conduit for resolution of long standing, multi-valent oppression – is key to how we can have the youngest, “most tolerant” among us, claim they are “not racist” or have Black friends or even be members of minority groups themselves and still commit such an egregious act. In other words, harboring racist beliefs is not solely the domain of self-identified whites, if indeed it ever was.
The case of George Zimmerman is as important to understand as Trayvon’s for he is no less intersectionally identified than Martin. As multiple instances of violence have made clear (the case of 19 year-old Native American Jake Englund, accused of shooting five African Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma this spring comes to mind), growing up as a member of a racially diverse generation does not deterministically shift the broader politics or interpersonal relations of the United States. Regardless of who they sat next to in school or played video games with next door, Millennials have grown up immersed in a multi-domain curriculum, learned from parents, teachers, political and media elites that teaches micro-level, minimalist tolerance as an extension of American individualism in response to any American dilemma of marginalization.
American individualism is certainly one of the historical continuities of analyzing this case, but as Du Bois suggests, the arguments have changed and in this current moment the rise of a technology-infused libertarianism leaves gaping silences in response to the systematic misinformation Millennials have received as early as toddlerhood.22 Web 2.0’s conflation of popularity with meritocracy, where the fact that one’s expertise is gauged more by the number of clicks on your links or followers on Twitter than substance, combines with the advancement of personal consumption to mean one needs never learn how to disagree, or listen deeply to another perspective because after all, that’s what ear buds are for.23 Zimmerman and Martin grew up in an era demanding little if any tangible critical analysis of the tyranny of tolerance and the American individualism narrative it comes wrapped in. For these reasons it will be no surprise that the Trayvon Martin case generates an enormous amount of heat for a moment, but very little light to last a lifetime. Zimmerman and Martin’s deadly confrontation highlight our own generational failure to overcome a core ill that lingers unresolved in 2012 in stark contrast to the tremendous progress we have made: the politics of disgust. Martin family attorney Crump’s comments at the start of this article say it all: we live in a world where we are willing to convict someone for killing dogs – are we willing to do so for killing a young Black man?
Trayvon Martin and the Politics of Disgust
The entombed find themselves not simply trying to make the outer world understand their essential and common humanity ...W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn24
Kk call me racist but when I found out Rue was black, her death wasn’t as sad.@JashperParas
Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture@sw4q (Alana Paul)
In a March 2012 New Yorker article regarding audience response to the film “The Hunger Games,” author Anna Holmes25 contends that we collectively associate whiteness with innocence, quoting a Hunger Games blogger, 28, involved in the widespread revelation of these tweets: “Remember that word innocent? This is why Trayvon Martin is dead.” While both “Adam” – the pseudonym for the Canadian blogger – and Holmes rightly critique our society’s implicit association of white childhood with innocence, I want to suggest that the response to the casting of a young Black girl as the fictional Rue and the all-too-real death of Trayvon Martin are evidence of the politics of disgust. Again Du Bois evocatively notes: the “entombed” must convince the world to acknowledge “their essential and common humanity.” It is the politics of disgust that stands in the way of obtaining that most basic democratic freedom of movement.
The politics of disgust is marked by several phenomena that work together to pervert deliberation regarding matters that require shared solutions. Like the Oppression Olympics, the politics of disgust is a chronically accessible cognitive filter, evident in elite media frames of politically charged events.26 The first, cues of the political emotion of disgust, seeks response to a situation that calls for interpretive judgment. Unfortunately such judgments are often influenced by profoundly instinctual skepticism of the humanity of the subject of such disgust – so much so that they become more akin to animals, whose deaths matter less. In this sense, the sale of Trayvon gun targets and the scrawl of “Long live Zimmerman” on a brick wall of the Ohio State University’s Black Cultural Center are part of a larger politics of disgust regarding young Black male lives. The Grio asserts that the discursive move toward dehumanization includes character assassination: “As with Martin, the predictable happened: [McDade] was slain again – in the court of public opinion. He’s been assailed by the non-stop litany of veiled and not-so-veiled hints, innuendos, digs and crass, snide, accusing comments, remarks, slander, and outright lies about his alleged bad background.”27 The paradigm intersectionality dimension of Time Dynamics allows us to situate what Hutchinson sees today in an historical continuum that includes conservative pundit William Bennett’s preposterous Eugenic assertion that “aborting all black babies would result in a sharp reduction in the U.S. crime rate.”28 The devaluation of Black lives is clear. Goldberg notes: “Bennett’s racial eugenicism advances itself only at the price of the expendability of Black lives.”29
It is this very expendability that Martin’s parents, attorneys and supporters have contested over the past few months. Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s parents, wanted what any parent of a murdered child might want. They did not claim Trayvon was a perfect child. They sought justice in their child’s death, contesting the broader disgust narrative facilitated by tweets that saw Rue’s death as “not as sad” once she was marked as Black. They sought to show that Trayvon’s life was not expendable. When congratulated by commentators on the special prosecutor’s decision to seek indictment of George Zimmerman, Martin family attorney Crump disputed the “victory” characterization, as did Reverend Al Sharpton, one of the Martin family’s staunch supporters. To characterize a second degree murder indictment as a “win” suggests that the purpose and meaning of the outrage was to win a contest or a game against the police department, rather than humanize and witness that Trayvon Martin was not a dog, he was a human being. No congratulations are in order following the indictment or even conviction (should it occur) because a boy will still be dead, parents still heartbroken, a set of zero-tolerance and stand-your-ground policies left untouched.
The perversion of democratic attention occurs when processes of deliberation inherent to most forms of democracy lack substantive attention to the claims of the marginalized.30 Following our paradigm intersectionality analysis we can discern that prior perversions of democratic attention appeared to be part of George Zimmerman’s calculus as he discussed Trayvon Martin with the 911 dispatcher. Zimmerman had called 911 46 times in six years, and most recently his 911 calls focused on what he deemed “suspicious characters,” most of them black. Prior to joining the neighborhood watch group, Zimmerman participated in a 14-week citizens’ police academy program offered by the Seminole County Sherriff’s department and pursued a two-year degree with an eye toward working in law enforcement. The March 26, 2012 Sanford City Commission meeting where Trayvon Martin’s death was discussed featured a litany of 20 Black Sanford residents who complained of inappropriate police stops and other perversions of attention from law enforcement, suggesting Zimmerman’s behavior was both part of his personal and a larger Sanford pattern among officers of suspicion based on race and gender and not on actual behavior.
Zimmerman’s police-like actions - suspicion without behavioral evidence – mirror perversions of democratic attention by government officials that is likewise consistent with police policies in other jurisdictions, including the stop and frisk policy of the New York Police Department, which detained over 4 million innocent New Yorkers between 2004 and 2011. Although annually anywhere between 82 and 90 per cent of those stopped were innocent, the demographics regarding age and race are disappointingly consistent with the Trayvon Martin case. Annually anywhere from 49 to 55 per cent were between the ages of 14 and 24, and a majority were black in every single year of the time period.31 Without making a specific causal link to Martin’s death, these two dimensions of the politics of disgust are represented.
The Trayvon Martin Tragedy: Contingent Conclusions
That’s the hell of it. Imagine spending your life looking for insults or for hiding places from them – shrinking (instinctively and despite desperate bolsterings of courage) from blows that are not always but ever; not each day but each week, each month, each year.Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil32
As Du Bois says, it is a threat that can’t ever be fully anticipated nor benignly ignored, for race (and, I would add, other analytical categories) continually render marginalized people’s movement through space “suspect” in a context where the rules are purportedly as “fair” as a lottery, with those in need having the highest probability of fighting to the death. Indeed, like the Hunger Games, we can’t all win; no more than one is left standing – a zero-sum, binary logic. The foregoing analyses can guide us in thinking more broadly about the theoretical import of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
First, there is an important trade-off involved in making the moves paradigm intersectionality demands. Changing the first order question moves us away from the Sisyphean battle to prove that race, gender, and age matter in politics. This is a trade-off of some import and not one to be taken lightly. Stated briefly, this is a trade-off worthy of consideration by critical race and political theorists alike, for exactly the reasons Du Bois details in Dusk of Dawn – if once the “science” is proven or disproven, once the case is “made,” the rhetorical tropes and arguments simply shift to another formulation, are we really asking the right question?
It is also important more broadly in order to ultimately reform and reconsider how power is constituted and reconstituted. What is the obligation to pursue inclusion where inclusion all too often means the likely risk of early death? In all candor the true question has never been “does race and/or gender matter,” but whether powerful individuals and institutions are willing to acknowledge that it has and does and will continue to do so unless they join in solidarity to change how it matters in the present and future. It is, finally, also important for scholars of race, gender and intersectionality to take seriously these questions of power in more nuanced ways precisely because I think intersectionality makes theoretical moves that can include the rehabilitative elements so intuitively attractive in certain forms of nationalism without many of the problems of narrowness and identity politics that have had tragic results in the past.
The stubborn resistance to eradication and malleability of the politics of disgust and the particular combination of race, gender and age-oriented relationships to this particular issue of substantive social justice clearly has resonances across centuries and, within this century, across victims. Whether Zimmerman shot Martin solely or partly because he was a young Black male is beside the point. The politics of disgust leverages the conundrum created by the complex interplay of analytical categories, creating a rancid brew for democratic deliberation regarding inequality, particularly where questionable interactions – those that are neither patently racist nor sexist – face the greatest skepticism.
Given this sobering reality – four dead young men, four sets of grieving parents, and the endurance of such issues, why do we continue to fight? For Du Bois, we refuse to “always yield” in order to hold onto an essential element of our humanity – our souls. 33 To do so is defiance itself. In so doing, hopefully we redeem the precious soul of our democracy as well.
Ange-Marie Hancock is Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. A globally recognized expert in intersectionality, she has published The Politics of Disgust and the Public Identity of the “Welfare Queen” (2004) and Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics (2011), in addition to articles in several journals. Ange-Marie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002 (1940), 28.
2. He recanted following McDade’s death and charges for false information have been dropped. However, because Carillo is undocumented, he is now within the ICE dragnet.
3. Social scientists of racial stigma have great hope that the Implicit Association Test (IAT) holds much promise in figuring out how to stop the transfer of racial bias from generation to generation. My point here is that the IAT has confirmed that the social constructions we have long considered are connected in intimate ways with our thoughts and outward behaviors. Though I endorse this line of research, Du Bois cautions us not to reify the cause of “Science” in solving racism: “I regarded it as axiomatic that the world wanted to learn the truth and if the truth was sought with even approximate accuracy and painstaking devotion, the world would gladly support the effort. This was, of course, but a young man’s idealism...” Dusk of Dawn, 67–68.
4. In this piece as elsewhere, I find much more contemporary theoretical value in Du Bois’ Dusk of Dawn and Darkwater, written significantly later in his political and intellectual development (age 70 and 52, respectively) than the more popular Souls of Black Folk (written at the age of 35). In a similar vein Eric Porter contends that the “early late period Du Bois,” (1940–1952) featured much clearer and more rigorous thinking than the last ten years of his life. Porter, Eric (2010) The Problem of the Future World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Race Concept at Mid Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 3.
5. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, 36–37.
6. Kimberle Williams Crenshaw.. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43:6 (1991), 1242–1299.
7. Crenshaw, 1242, emphasis mine.
8. See Crenshaw, 1245–1252.
9. By Oppression Olympics I mean a common cognitive filter produced by zero-sum, binary logic through which political phenomena are widely analyzed. See: Hancock, Ange-Marie. Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 and Elizabeth Martinez, “Beyond Black and White: The Racisms of Our Times.” Social Forces, 20:1–2 (1993), 22–35.
10. Patricia Hill Collins’ formulation of the “matrix of domination” gestures in this direction, but does not detach itself fully from the binary logic, as critiques of Black feminist thought have revealed its heteronormativity (see, e.g. Heath Fogg-Davis, “Theorizing Black Lesbians within Black Feminism: A Critique of Same-Race Street Harassment.” Politics and Gender 2:1(2006) 57–76) among other sites of privilege that many Black women inhabit even as they also inhabit sites of disadvantage.
11. Rita Dhamoon (“Considerations on Mainstreaming Intersectionality,” Political Research Quarterly 64:1 (2011) 230–243) walks through a set of normative standards for determining which categories matter in which contexts. See also Nira Yuval-Davis (“Intersectionality and Feminist Politics,” European Journal of Women’s Studies 13:3 (2006) 193–209), for a more applied approach to ascertaining the relevant categories.
12. The transcript also reveals the role of government agents, as the 911 operator clearly asked Zimmerman to racially identify Martin.
13. While we might not seek to claim that violence is purely a young man’s problem, neither might the common definition of ageism be complete. If this is indeed endemic to certain young men’s lives, then we might consider this another form of ageism, thereby expanding our definition of how age as an analytical category shapes relationships to opportunity and vulnerabilities to marginalization. See also: Cohen, Cathy J. Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
14. To see the photo and tweet, use this link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/23/lebron-heat-trayvontweet_n_1375831.html
15. Based on 2006–2007 data: BlackBoysReport.org, a product of the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
17. This element helps us attend to the changing scope of the matter as well: 23 other states have considered similar legislation.
18. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, 99. He later asserts, “Perhaps it is wrong to speak of [race] at all as “a concept” rather than as a group of contradictory forces, facts and tendencies.” Dusk of Dawn, 133
19. David Theo Goldberg. “Deva-stating Disasters: Race in the Shadow(s) of New Orleans,” Du Bois Review 3:1 (2006), 83–95.
20. To see the targets, use this link: http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/05/14/man-sells-out-of-trayvon-martin-gun-range-targets/
2121. Joan Scott. “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis.” The American Historical Review 91:5 (1986), 1053–1075.
22. Goldberg’s analysis on libertarian pluralism is instructive: “Only slightly less extreme, because not quite as explicit, the libertarian pluralist motto of “live and let live” licenses a surplus of possibility and opportunity for the affording few at the expense of the impoverished many. It might more accurately be replaced with the motto, ‘live free or die’…which can be interpreted as implying that those who cannot afford the freedom will be left to perish. There is, as commentators on euthanasia have long pointed out, a thin line between social killing and letting die. Between making live and letting die… are histories whitewashed and refashioned, activist interventions restricted, the racial status quo resurrected, revived, re-fixed in place.” Goldberg, “Deva-stating Disasters,” 85. Unfortunately, Goldberg’s analysis is tethered solely to race, limiting its ability to reveal the full ramifications of what “letting die” might mean for young Black men in particular, which is why we are engaging in a paradigm intersectionality analysis.
23. Neither evolution contributes per se to what Hannah Arendt famously called in a letter to Gershom Scholem, “selbstdenken,” or thinking (and in her mind, speaking) always and everywhere for herself alone.
24. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, 131.
25. Anna Holmes. “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in the Hunger Games.” http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/03/hunger-games-and-trayvon-martin.html. Last accessed May 21, 2012.
26. In the interests of space I focus on two of the four critical dimensions of the politics of disgust here.
2727. Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “Is Kendrec McDade another Trayvon Martin?” http://thegrio.com/2012/03/30/iskendrec-mcdade-another-trayvon-martin/ First published March 30, 2012; Last accessed May 27, 2012.
28. Goldberg, “Deva-Stating Disasters,” 85.
30. This is not to say that the marginalized are not the topic of discussion; rather, even when the marginalized are granted “voice,” such voices are devalued or disrespected, or distorted, as seen in Hutchinson’s comparison of Martin and McDade’s portrayals.
3131. Latinos averaged 31–34% each year, while whites were between 9 and 12% of the stops.
32. W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2003 (1920), 227.
33. Du Bois, Darkwater, 227–228.