Trayvon Martin and the Myth of Black Inferiority

FILE -This combo made from file photos shows Trayvon Martin, left, and George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman, 28, the neighborho
FILE -This combo made from file photos shows Trayvon Martin, left, and George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman, 28, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The central Florida suburb of Sanford is getting back to normal a year after Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. (AP Photo, File)

My mother hates hoodies. "They make you look thuggish," she says. "Like a hoodlum."

This is a woman born and raised in the South who has picked cotton, participated in marches and sit-ins, served as youth council secretary for the local NAACP chapter in her Mississippi hometown, and was slated to make the same trip to Philadelphia, Miss., that resulted in the brutal mutilation and murder of her classmate James Chaney and two other civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.

She has lived the struggle for equality in this country, but she's proof that profiling isn't solely a consequence of racism -- it's also a consequence of socially indoctrinated negative perceptions.

Just minutes before Trayvon Martin was slain in the Twin Lakes neighborhood of Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2012, he was perceived as a threat because he was an African-American male wearing a hoodie. This perception was the logical consequence of living in a society fraught with racism and the result of negative minority imagery that is rooted deep in the American psyche.

From 19th century minstrel shows and the untrustworthy savages African-Americans were depicted as in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, to the damning conclusions of psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark's doll experiments and widespread imagery of mug shots, inmates and defendants, America has been subjected to an inferiority campaign, that, according to author and former advertising executive Tom Burrell, has brainwashed African-Americans into thinking that we are, in fact, a lesser race.

The American government had to sell this myth of black inferiority in order to justify slavery in a democracy, according to Burrell, author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, and it took a century after the end of slavery for that myth to be offset by positive images of strong African-American leaders and optimism in the face of the violence and brutality that defined, in part, the civil rights movement.

But on the path from that movement through the 1980s, optimism faded when drugs, gangs and gun violence decimated some urban communities. African-American faces were placed at the center of the "Just Say No" campaign and Blood vs. Crip gang wars, and we fed into this belief and perpetuated it through real-world crime and entertainment industry fodder. Mass media created projections of black and white that were deliberately attached to negative connotations, so that when we saw certain images, our minds formed conclusions -- ladders of inference -- and ignored the unknown or other criteria.

This type of imagery, factual and fictional, has been placed before us for so long that some minorities have accepted it as who and what we are, and for other races, an example of what to expect. People of color are not immune to their own racial profiling because profiling is a consequence of living in a racist society. We are brainwashed. Some races are conditioned to adopt a fatalistic mentality, while others are conditioned to fear.

It wasn't fair for George Zimmerman to see a "black male" in a hoodie and "his hand in his waistband" -- as stated in the transcript of his non-emergency call to the Sanford police department -- and see Martin as a threat, but the root of this perception is similar to what has influenced my mother and residents of African-American communities far less tony than Twin Lakes, who see black, hooded youth with their hands in their waistbands and expect the worst.

Sadly, the outcome in both instances, a dead African-American male, is often the same.

Martin did not deserve to die. By most accounts, he was a good kid who was tragically cut down while walking back to his father's fiancée's house one rainy Sunday evening. But as his death comes back into the national consciousness, we should be mindful of the devastating potential of centuries of brainwashing, especially when combined with gun violence and Stand Your Ground laws, legislation that institutionalizes racial profiling because it encourages (and protects) those who act on negative, socially indoctrinated perceptions, arming them with a "shoot first" mentality.

In the outrage that followed Martin's death, we saw how issues surrounding murder and racism remain a powder keg in America. But while many individuals are standing up for justice, there are institutions that are systematically organized to uphold racism, and businesses and individuals who profit from and contribute to the pervasive nature of negative minority imagery, an unfortunate reality that is so prevalent, it is difficult to escape.

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