Glen Ford: Trayvon verdict shows racism persists in U.S.

Socialist Action reporter Marty Goodman interviewed Glen Ford, Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report.

Socialist Action: The African American community is reeling from the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the racist vigilante. What does this say about present day life in the U.S.?

Glen Ford: I think one of the reasons the community is reeling is that it must confront the shock of a reality that has not changed in many fundamental aspects. People liked to think that it had changed. Black folks had been told by their leaders—this leadership class that emerged after the Black Power and Black freedom movement of the sixties—that the U.S. had undergone some kind of fundamental change. The entire establishment narrative, carried on by the media, was one of the U.S. constantly improving and getting rid of old baggage and remaking itself.

Now one confronts not just the savage and vicious murder of Trayvon Martin, and not just the jury’s verdict in that murder, but a corporate media reflecting a huge portion of white public opinion that approved of the verdict, that believed there was not a sufficient case against Zimmerman. But for Black folks, as I wrote, his guilt was as obvious as a mob lynching at high noon in Times Square, and so there is shock in the realization that things have not changed in the fundamental sense of race relations.

Part of the rage comes from the sense of impotence because Black folks have been brought up to believe that if we pull the right levers we can get redress of our grievances in this country; that there is no need any more to take to the streets to confront the contradictions of this society in ways that are not necessarily sanctioned by the establishment. But we see in this case that it is highly unlikely that any of the levers we can pull will result in Zimmerman being punished for this crime. There is the rage of impotence and the realization that one has lived an illusion, in a sense, for a very long time.

SA: Attorney General Eric Holder says he is looking into civil rights violations in the Zimmerman case. What are you expecting from the Obama administration?

GF: I’m expecting exactly nothing from the Obama administration, and there are several reasons. One is political. The Obama administration does not want to take on issues having even slight Black coloration. This is a racial issue, and he avoids them like the plague. So, just for standard political reasons, this would be a no go area for Barrack Obama.

The other is something much more fundamental. And that is: American law is largely based on a doctrine of reasonableness; that is, the state of mind of a person who is charged with a crime is all important. The state of mind of a person charged with a homicide is the difference between possible execution in death penalty states and walking away scot-free or going to a mental institution or being convicted of a lesser crime like manslaughter. It’s all in subjectively what the perpetrator was thinking when he did the act.

In this case, we’re talking about a malice that was racially based. It is very difficult to pursue a murder charge against Zimmerman unless one demonstrates that he had a racial malice toward the victim, Trayvon. If one accepts that Zimmerman’s stalking of and profiling of Trayvon was not racist and was not malicious, if one accepts that it was a reasonable thing to do, then all of the events that follow, all the events that flow from it can also be framed as reasonable and not criminal.

The fact of the matter is that not only the cops in this case, understandably being cops, believed that stalking and profiling young Black men is a quite reasonable thing to do, since that’s what they do every day. The prosecutors also believe that, and the judges believe it. And most white people in this country also believe that young Black men are inherently dangerous, that they need watching, that a reasonable person would take note of their presence, and that a person who was civic minded and protective of the community might follow them around, since to white guys they are a potential danger to that community.

In a community that accepts the inherent dangerousness of that class of people as a given, you’re not going to be able to establish racial malice. If you did, then the jurors themselves who belong to that community and feel that way themselves, would have to accept that they have racial malice. And that the police have racial malice and that the whole criminal justice system of the United States which has managed to put a million black people in jail at any given time, has racial malice built into it institutionally.

That’s another political reason that we can’t expect Barrack Obama or any other president to do much of anything about this kind of conviction. Because he’d have to take on not only Zimmerman’s individual behavior but the standard behavior of every single police department in the United States. Every single police department in the United States practices racial profiling. I don’t think it’s possible to expect any U.S. president, even if he was far to the left of Barack Obama, to take on that kind of challenge to the American racial order.

SA: The disconnect between white and Black on this issue has been dramatic, aided in no small measure by the corporate media. I guess you’ve heard the secret jurors who went on CNN. What can you say about that disconnect?

GF: I’m sure that, just as juror b37 felt that Zimmerman’s heart was in the right place, lots of white Americans think so—many more than will admit it. This is a thoroughly racist society. This is a country in which, according to a Harvard-Tufts University poll, a majority of white Americans now believe that they are the primary victims of racial discrimination in this society.

Imagine this: that a majority of Americans think that 11 or 12 percent of the population, which suffers officially twice the rate of unemployment as white people do, are somehow conspiring with unknown forces to cause such great discrimination to a majority of white people! Anybody who can believe that can believe anything, and it is no stretch for them to think that every 17-year-old Black person who comes into view is out to get them.

They think the whole Black race is out to get them, and that’s why there are a million Black folks in jail; that’s why one out of every eight prison inmates on earth is African-American. It’s because of the inherent racism in white America. And yet we have a president, Barack Obama, who in his Philadelphia speech was praised by Blacks and whites for being so enlightened, said that not only is racism not endemic in the United States today but that it has never been endemic. So Barack Obama is either as crazy as the majority of white people or a very good actor.

SA: Al Sharpton has called for a national day of action for Trayvon Martin for the 20th of July, and maybe more after that. He’s calling for a federal civil rights investigation and repeal of the “Stand Your Ground” laws. What can you say about Sharpton’s involvement?

GF: Al Sharpton is Obama’s pit bull. His job is to act like a pit bull and beat back any Black criticism of this president. That’s his function, so anything he does is designed to create political space for this president, not to endanger him politically. Calling for a federal investigation is a black hole. According to this administration, they’ve been investigating the Trayvon Martin killing almost from the very beginning. Apparently they don’t have anything to show for it because that would entail coming to grips with the institutional racism that exists not just in Sanford, Fla., but in every police department in America and throughout white society.

So we can expect not only Al Sharpton but half of that preacher-politician class to make proposals that look like action. His is called a “Day of Action.” It’s really to put off the day of reckoning.

SA: With the mass mobilizations, can you see an upturn in the Black liberation movement in response to the Trayvon Martin murder?

GF: I think that the Trayvon Martin situation and the impotent rage that followed the acquittal revealed to more and more Black folks that there is no alternative but to create a mass movement that directly challenges power and the racist application of power. There are no alternatives. People have tried to avoid that kind of response for two generations now; they’ve had a Black misleadership class that has done everything it could to discredit or at least characterize as passé the vast Black movements of the past, but there clearly is no choice here and I think that is becoming apparent to large numbers of people.

Certainly, we hear proposals for things like “cop watches,” that is, communities organizing to keep watch on the actual cops and the wannabe cops like George Zimmerman to keep them in check. Let’s put the cops under surveillance just as they put Black communities under 24/7 surveillance. I’d like to remind folks that the origin of the Black Panther Party was as a kind of community cop watch, dealing with the exact same problem back in 1966 that we confront today.

Glen Ford co-founded BlackCommentator.com (BC) in 2002, which became the most influential Black political site on the Net. In October 2006, Ford and the entire writing team left BC to launch BlackAgendaReport.com. The interview was conducted by Marty Goodman for Socialist Action on July 18.