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My first week of college, I had a heated debate about abortion with two new friends. Both were white, and one, Nancy, was extremely pro-life. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for having such an “adult” conversation; we disagreed, but everyone was being respectful. Then my other pro-choice friend asked Nancy what she would do with a pregnancy if she was raped. I will never forget what Nancy said: “I think it would be cute to have a little black baby.”
When we expressed outrage at her racism, Nancy shrugged. It never occurred to her a rapist would be anyone other than a black man. (Department of Justice statistics show that 80 to 90 percent of women who are raped are attacked by someone of their own race, unless they are Native women.) When this young woman imagined a criminal in her mind, he wasn’t a faceless bogeyman.
I hadn’t thought of this exchange in years, not until I was reading the responses to George Zimmerman’s acquittal—particularly those about the role of white womanhood. When I first heard that the jurors were women, I naïvely hoped they would see this teenage boy shot dead in the street and think of their children. But they weren’t just any women; most were white women. Women who, like me, have been taught to fear men of color. And who—as a feminist named Valerie pointed out on Twitter—probably would see Zimmerman as their son sooner than they would Trayvon Martin.
Brittney Cooper at Salon expressed the same sentiment: “I am convinced that at a strictly human level, this case came down to whether those white women could actually see Trayvon Martin as somebody’s child, or whether they saw him according to the dictates of black male criminality.”
And indeed, Anderson Cooper’s interview with juror B37 sheds light on who was considered deserving of empathy and humanization. Hint: It wasn’t Trayvon Martin. As Igor Volsky of Think Progress pointed out, “B37” used Zimmerman’s first name in the interview frequently and twice used the phrase “George said” even though Zimmerman didn’t testify. She also indicated that she wasn’t moved by Rachel Jeantel’s testimony because of her “communication skills” and that “she was using phrases I had never heard before.”
Perhaps most tellingly, though, “B37” told Cooper that Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place, but just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhoods and wanting to catch these people so badly that he went above and beyond what he really should have done.” (The phrase “above and beyond” is interesting, given it’s generally understood as a positive.) To her, Zimmerman was a protector. Sure, maybe he went a bit overboard, but “Trayvon got mad and attacked him,” and Zimmerman “had a right to defend himself.”
This juror’s comments cannot be divorced from our culture’s long-standing criminalizing of young black men, and white women’s related fears. As Mychal Denzel Smith pointed out here at The Nation and on MSNBC’s Up With Steve Kornacki, defense attorneys stoked this fear deliberately and broadly.
To my disgust, Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon as was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, one of Zimmerman’s former neighbors, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-American boys while she and her children feared for their lives. It was terrifying indeed, and it had absolutely no connection to the case at hand. But O’Mara presented the jury with the “perfect victim,” which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals. Zimmerman had offered to help her the night her home was robbed. Implicit in the defense’s closing argument: He was also protecting her the night he killed Trayvon Martin.
They carefully made Martin—the victim—into that not-so-faceless bogeyman. Now, I don’t know what was in the jurors’ hearts, but the story the defense told and that juror B37 parroted is not a new one. It’s a story that ends with fear trumping empathy and humanity. (A fear that even now is being grossly defended as justified.)
Yes, white women—all of us—are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.
I’d like to think if I was on that jury I would look at pictures of Trayvon Martin and see him for the child he was. I hope I would.
Jessica Valenti is the author of Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness, and The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. She also is editor of the award-winning anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.