Policing the Boundaries of Whiteness: The Tragedy of Being 'Out of Place' from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin

Author:Angela Onwuachi-Willig
Position:Chancellor's Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley
Pages:1113-1185
SUMMARY

This Article takes what many view as an extraordinary case about racial hatred from 1955, the Emmett Till murder and trial, and analyzes it against the Trayvon Martin killing and trial outcome in 2012 and 2013. Specifically, this Article exposes one important, but not yet explored similarity between the two cases: their shared role in policing the boundaries of whiteness as a means of preserving... (see full summary)

 
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Policing the Boundaries of Whiteness:
The Tragedy of Being “Out of Place” from
Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin
Angela Onwuachi-Willig*
ABSTRACT: This Article takes what many view as an extraordinary case
about racial hatred from 1955, the Emmett Till murder and trial, and
analyzes it against the Trayvon Martin killing and trial outcome in 2012
and 2013. Specifically, this Article exposes one important, but not yet
explored similarity between the two cases: their shared role in policing the
boundaries of whiteness as a means of preserving the material and the
psychological benefits of whiteness. This policing occurred in a variety of
forms, including: (1) maintaining white racial separation; (2) facilitating
cross-class, white racial solidarity; (3) articulating blackness, and specifically
black maleness, as a threat; and (4) regulating the presence and movement
of Blacks in what sociologist Elijah Anderson has defined as “the white
space.” This Article also delineates how the strategies, practices, and tactics
for protecting whiteness and its attendant advantages and benefits have
* Chancellor’s Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley; aonwuachi@law. berkeley.edu.
Thanks to Dean Melissa Murray, Dean Gail Agrawal, and Charles M. and Marion J. Kierscht for
their research support. My research assistants provided invaluable assistance. I also thank Kathy
Abrams, Akhil Reed Amar, Mario Barnes, Rabia Belt, Shanna Benjamin, Alafair Burke, Bennett
Capers, Devon Carbado, Karla Erickson, Bill Eskridge, Ron Eyerman, James Forman, Andrea
Freeman, Heather Gerken, Cynthia Godsoe, Bob Gordon, Aya Gruber, Matthew Jacobson, Ian
Haney López, Stacy Hawkins, Vinay Harpalani, Patrick Inglis, Kevin Johnson, Trina Jones, Al
Lacson, Robin Lenhardt, Tamara Lawson, Taeku Lee, Nancy Levit, Daniel Markovits, Natasha
Martin, Tracey Meares, Kimani Paul-Emelie, Judge Robert Pratt, Judith Resnik, Song Richardson,
Reva Siegel, Jessica Silbey, Catherine Smith, Peggie Smith, Leti Volpp, John Witt, and Gideon
Yaffe for their helpful comments and support on this Article. I give specific thanks to Elijah
Anderson, Ron Eyerman, and Crystal Feimster. My sincere thanks are also given to editors, Reece
Clark, Bri'An Davis, Ben Gillig, Clare Horan, Jon Woodruff, and all other editors who worked on
this Article. This effort has been especially meaningful as Bri'An, Clare, and Ben are my former
students. This project gained much from feedback at the Yale Legal Theory Workshop, the Iowa
Legal Studies Workshop, the University of Texas Workshop Series, the Lutie A. Lytle Black
Women Law Faculty Workshop, the University of Connecticut Workshop Series, the University of
Denver Sturm College of Law Speaker Series, Rutgers University-Cam den School of Law
Workshop Series, and the American Bar Foundation. It also gained much from comments after
lectures at Luther College, the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Savannah Law School,
and Valparaiso University School of Law, and Introduction to Sociology at Grinnell College.
Finally, I give special thanks to my husband, Jacob Willig-Onwuachi, and our children, Elijah,
Bethany, and Solomon for their constant love and support.
1114 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 102:1113
shifted from explicit actions in thwarting, punishing, and even violently
resisting challenges to black racial subordination and white authority to
ostensibly “race-neutral” actions that promote a type of thinking that legal
scholar Ian Haney López calls “commonsense racism,” and that sustai n a
form of rationalizing racial inequities and injustices that sociologist Eduardo
Bonilla-Silva refers to as “colorblind racism.” Ultimately, this Article
demonstrates how the same race-based forces and the same racist tropes that
undergirded the Till case in 1955 are still operating today, even as
meaningful changes have occurred in the practice of racism in the country.
I. INTRODUCTION ........................................................................... 1114
II. EMMETT TILL AND THE PROTECTION OF WHITENESS ................. 1122
A. UNDERSTANDING THE MATERIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL WAGES
OF WHITENESS ...................................................................... 1122
B. THE TERROR OF “RACE HATRED”: THE MURDER OF
EMMETT TILL ....................................................................... 1127
C. PRESERVING WHITENESS IN THE JIM CROW SOUTH: THE
MATERIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL VALUE OF WHITENESS TO
MILAM, BRYANT, AND THEIR CHAMPIONS .............................. 1135
III. TRAYVON MARTIN, THE PROTECTION OF WHITENESS AS
PROPERTY, AND SECURING “THE WHITE SPACE” ......................... 1151
A. POST-CIVIL RIGHTS RACISM AND THE PROTECTION OF
“THE WHITE SPACE ............................................................. 1151
B. BEING “OUT OF PLACE IN A DIFFERENT WORLD:
TRAYVON MARTIN AND A POST-RECESSION WHITELASH ......... 1157
C. A GATED MENTALITY: HOW COMMONSENSE RACISM, THE
SOCIAL MEANING OF WHITENESS, AND THE PROTECTION OF
“THE WHITE SPACE LED TO TRAYVON MARTINS DEATH ....... 1168
IV. CONCLUSION .............................................................................. 1185
I. INTRODUCTION
February 26, 2017 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Trayvon
Martin, the African American teenager whose life was tragically cut short
when George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain for a gated
community in Sanford, Florida called “The Retreat at Twin Lakes,” shot and
killed the 17-year-old as he was walking back from a candy and drink run to a
convenience store.1 After the shooting, Sanford police officers released
1. Madison Gray, Trayvon Martin, One Year Later: Where We Are Now, TIME (Feb. 26, 2013),
http://nation.time.com/2013/02/26/trayvon-martin-one-year-later-where-we-are-now.
2017] POLICING THE BOUNDARIES OF WHITENESS 1115
Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man of white American and Peruvian descent,
claiming they found no evidence to contradict Zimmerman’s assertion that
he acted in self-defense after Martin attacked him.2 Evidence later revealed
that Zimmerman, who saw Martin walking in the neighborhood as he was
driving to Target, called 911 to report Martin as a “suspicious person,” but
then disregarded the 911 operator’s directives to remain in his car and leave
Martin alone.3 Instead, Zimmerman chased, confronted, and ultimately shot
and killed Martin after a physical struggle.4 Evid ence al so show ed that Martin ,
who had no criminal record, was simply returning to the home of Brandy
Green, where he was a guest; Green, a resident of the Retreat at Twin Lakes,
was the girlfriend of Martin’s father, Tracey Martin.5 At the time of his death,
Martin had nothing on his person but his cellphone, an Arizona watermelon
soda, a bag of Skittles, $40.15 in cash, a cigarette lighter, and some
headphones.6
The death of Trayvon Martin inspired nationwide conversations about
racism, racial profiling, implicit bias, police brutality, and numerous
inequities in the criminal justice system.7 Martin’s death also sparked
2. CJR Staff, Reporting Trayvon, COLUM. JOURNALISM REV. (Apr. 2, 2012), http://www.cjr.org/
behind_the_news/reporting_trayvon.php; History of Racial Tension for Sanford and Blacks, GRIO (Mar.
23, 2012, 8:31 AM), http://thegrio.com/2012/03/23/history-of-racial-tension-for-fla-city-and-blacks.
3. Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts, CNN (Feb. 7, 2016, 4:25 PM), http://www.cnn.com/
2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts.
4. Id.
5. See LISA BLOOM, SUSPICION NATION: THE INSIDE STORY OF TH E TRAYVON MARTIN
INJUSTICE AND WHY WE CONTINUE TO REPEAT IT 39 (2014).
6. Teresa M. Bruce, Terrorism Du Jour: How the Trayvon Martin Case Exposes an Endemic
Regime of Fear That Keeps Black Males and Females of All Colors in a State of Subjugation, 21 UCLA
WOMENS L.J. 1, 6 (2014).
7. See, e.g., Valena Elizabeth Beety, What the Brain Saw: The Case of Trayvon Martin and the
Need for Eyewitness Identification Reform, 90 DENV. U. L. REV. 331, 331 (examining “the role of
memory and perception in the death of Trayvon Martin and in eyewitness identification in
criminal cases” and suggesting reforms to avoid witness misidentifications); Mark S. Brodin, The
Murder of Black Males in a World of Non-Accountability: The Surreal Trial of George Zimmerman for the
Killing of Trayvon Martin, 59 HOW. L.J. 765, 767 (2016) (examining the trial of George
Zimmerman and highlighting how the “prosecutors committed the most inexplicable strategic
and evidentiary blunders of a type that experienced prosecutors would very likely not commit in
a more earnest effort to convict the accused”); Bruce, supra note 6, at 2 (exploring “the depth of
suffering caused by unprovoked, racially or sexually motivated, aggression” and analogizing that
“sort of aggression to terrorism”); Cynthia Lee, (E)Racing Trayvon Martin, 12 OHIO ST. J. CRIM. L.
91, 95 (2014) (arguing that the best way to overcome the employment of stereotypes and bias in
the criminal justice system is to “call[] attention to race to encourage jurors to consciously combat
stereotypical thinking”); Cynthia Lee, Making Race Salient: Trayvon Martin and Implicit Bias in a Not
Yet Post-Racial Society, 91 N.C. L. REV. 1555, 1555, 1564 (2013) [hereinafter Making Race Salient]
(proposing “that prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys who are concerned about the
operation of implicit racial bias should attempt to make race salient in the criminal courtroom”
because “calling attention to the relevance of race in a given situation encourages individuals to
suppress what would otherwise be automatic, stereotypic congruent responses in favor of acting
in a more egalitarian manner”); Camille Gear Rich, Angela Harris and the Racial Politics of
Masculinity: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the Dilemmas of Desiring Whiteness, 102 CALIF. L.

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