I was in a deep nap on Saturday night just before they announced the verdict. I’d spent the day with my son, husband and grandfather-in-law getting things together for the birth of our daughter. By early evening, I was exhausted.
I found myself jolted awake by the sound of CNN announcing that a verdict in the George Zimmerman case had been reached. My husband told me that the jury was coming back. I instantly felt a dread and a fear that I have felt before. When watching the trial proceedings I’d always had a feeling that this was not going to turn out well but to be confronted with the moment of “truth” was agonizing.
I could only imagine how Trayvon’s parents felt.
As the world awaited the verdict one of my husband’s mentees called to let him know that two of his friends had been shot and killed. As my husband grieved with his student, I knew that grief would be an emotion we all felt for a while. By the time the words “not guilty” splashed across the screen I felt that same deep down heartfelt sickness that my community is so used to feeling. As noted by Jelani Cobb:
“The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.”
All I could do was grab my son out of his bed and hold him as tight as I could as I tried to squelch the sick feeling I’ve come to know all too well.
We’ve gone to the justice system time and again seeking outcomes that validate the notion that our lives are worth something too. And time after time we’ve been reminded that as stated by Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision, the Constitution and the broader American community view my people and I as:
“beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Black Value & White Fear
Y’all know I have a thing for the Mrs. Millie Syndrome. As I’ve described here,
The Mrs. Millie Syndrome is what happens when our White brothers & sisters take offense when Black people act “uppity”.
It’s what happens when White sensibilities (either on an individual or systematic basis) are affronted by Blackness. In addition to the scene I previously discussed in this post, there’s another scene in the film The Color Purple that shows the dangers of the Mrs. Millie Syndrome. This is when Mrs. Millie decides to be “gracious” and “allow” Ms. Sophia to finally see her kids for Christmas—after years of being kept away from them due to the last Ms. Millie Syndrome outbreak.
After she drops Ms. Sophia off to visit with family, Mrs. Millie tries to put her car in reverse so she can turn around and drive home. Only thing is, Mrs. Millie is a terrible driver and can’t make the car work. Some of Ms. Sophia’s male relatives see her car trouble, take pity on her and approach the car to help her put it in gear.
You know, the gentlemanly thing to do.
But the closer they get to the car the more scared Mrs. Millie becomes. In fact as Mrs. Millie looks over her dashboard she doesn’t see a group of Black men approaching her with their arms open wide to offer her the help she so obviously needs.
No. Instead she sees an army of raging, hormonal, sex-crazed, angry Black men who are coming to attack her. And she launches into a full out attack of the Mrs. Millie Syndrome. She begins screaming bloody murder calling for Ms. Sophia, God or someone to protect her. From that raging crowd of gentlemanly Black men who were trying to help her. Literally in fear for her life she flings herself from the car shrieking that “I’ve always been good to you people! Do you know who I am! I’m Mrs. Millie, I’m the mayors wife!”
You see, despite the fact that she had absolutely no reason to be, Mrs. Millie was afraid. She was afraid of the Black men who were trying to help her. When she saw them she didn’t see a group of people full of the Christmas spirit who were doing the neighborly thing. She saw a reason to be afraid. And her fear had a palpable impact on everyone involved.
Zimmerman’s Jury: Mrs. Millie Personified
Now a lot of folks made a big deal out of the fact that five of the six Zimmerman jurors were mothers. They seemed to forget that White mothers owned Black slaves, sold Black children away from their families, beat Black mothers and fathers who tried to protect their children and participated in lynch mobs. They seemed to skip over the fact that as White mothers, these jurors were likely programmed to view Black people in the same way that most others are.
When it comes to racism, being a non-Black mother or father has rarely been a trait that in and of itself could translate into being able to see Black people as human beings who deserved human dignity and respect.
Like Mrs. Millie, when many White people (mothers or not) look at Black people like Trayvon, they still see a valid reason to be afraid. Many grab their purses on elevators. Many cross the street to avoid Black “thugs” even when the “thugs” are 8-year-old Black boys playing tag. Many fear Black students even as they attempt to “teach” them on a daily basis in classrooms across the country. Many harbor a fear of Black patients as they provide them services in medical offices. Many who wear badges prefer to stop and frisk every Black body they see in order to preserve “social order.”
Most have no filter through which they can critique the myriad images of Black people engaged in some sort of negativity which splash across their television screens on a regular basis.
Like Mrs. Millie, their inability to see humanity when they see Black people has a concrete impact on the lives of the Black people they encounter.
But is That Fear Reasonable?
The Zimmerman case was about reasonable actions and predictable outcomes. The jury basically had to decide whether or not the way George Zimmerman acted was “reasonable” based on the circumstances at hand. Which really means, would they, the members of the jury, have also been similarly afraid of Trayvon the way that Zimmerman said he was.
Was it reasonable to fear Trayvon, who Zimmerman hunted down, in light of the situation?
Was it reasonable to find Trayvon suspicious?
Was it reasonable to think that he needed to be followed?
Was it reasonable to think the police should be called on this Black boy who was coming home from the store bearing violently dangerous snacks for his family?
If they had a gun, was it reasonable to think that they should use it to protect themselves from Trayvon’s rabid, dangerous Blackness?
Evidently, from the jury’s perspective, yes. Yes it was perfectly reasonable and Zimmerman’s actions were justified.
The prosecution was forbidden by the judge from using the words “racial profiling.” But that didn’t stop the Zimmerman defense team from tapping into the inner Mrs. Millie of each of those jurors. It didn’t stop them from using images of Trayvon designed to fit Mrs. Millie’s biggest nightmare—being attacked by a big dangerous Black thug.
It didn’t matter that Trayvon was completely innocent of thuggery or of traumatizing the neighborhood. What mattered was that Trayvon inspired that age-old White fear of Blackness in the heart of those jurors. What mattered was that those jurors connected more with that fear than they did with the fact this kid was doing nothing wrong. What mattered was that those women thought it was perfectly reasonable for a Black child to be gunned down in order to protect their sense of safety from possible Black violence.
One of my favorite law professors, Derrick Bell (may he rest in peace) often espoused the belief that Blacks can only have their rights secured so long as those rights further the systemic interests of White people. History (and the present) has shown us time and time again that if the system can discern a benefit to itself while protecting Black rights—it will do so. However, when protecting Black rights—like our right to life—conflicts with the system’s own sense of security, then Black rights will be sacrificed on the altar of White supremacy.
So long as this is true, we are foolish to ever believe that we can truly find justice within this system. Because White fear of Black people isn’t going anywhere. So long as that is the case, our lives and the sanctity of our communities will always be sacrificed to preserve the status quo. We will always be victimized by Ms. Millie’s who irrationally use laws like stand your ground to sacrifice Black lives for their own preservation.
Let me know what you think in the comments. And if you’re looking for more thoughts from an Afro State of Mind, check out my book now available on Amazon.com in paper back or e-book.