Dedicated to the memory of the recently departed Joel Olson, an ally in the fight against white supremacy.
Once again, the US black community is up in (figurative) arms about systemic white supremacy raising up (literal) arms. Once again, white America is faced with what philosopher Charles Mills called the “preoccupation of nonwhite moral and political thought with issues of race, puzzling alike to a white liberalism predicated on colorless atomic individuals and a white Marxism predicated on colorless classes in struggle.” What indeed is the focus on race? Part of this puzzle’s solution – and part of stopping such killings in the future – lies in understanding Trayvon Martin as a man of his time.
American society explains away and apologizes for indefensible behavior by prominent historical figures by labeling them “men of their time.” Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, for example, are defined in American discourse by their political writings, military leadership and presidential policies. Their humanity becomes universal, while their inhumanity – African slavery and Indian removal most prominently – is fixed in the past, unrelated to the systems of the present. We call them “men of their time” because we understand society to have been sympathetic to or supportive of their actions. But slaves were always opposed to slavery. Indian tribes were always opposed to removal. Were they not also women and men of their time? Why doesn’t their opposition matter in white America’s narrative?
If Washington, Jefferson and Jackson can be exculpated by calling them “men of their time,” it is only because their victims are not considered men or women of any time. They are not considered men or women at all; they are subhuman. This dehumanization also becomes universal. The slave and settler society narrative did not end with the 13th Amendment, it continues to present them as dehumanized, non-individuals. African slaves are still not seen as “of their time.”
Our understanding of slave owners and Indian killers as “men of their time” is actually a misunderstanding perpetuated because their victims are barred from being “men of any time.” Systemic white supremacy distorts the way we see the world, including how we misunderstand the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Haynes, Jasmine Thar, and others. The misunderstanding becomes apparent if we listen to the narratives of those systematically dehumanized, those denied the chance to be men and women of their time. For example, the narrative of white supremacist policing and vigilantism has long been common in the black community, most prominently in low-income areas. White America, however, tends to hear this narrative, if hearing it at all, as episodic – a few bad apples rather than a systemic problem.
The 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles was hideous, but not terribly uncommon. Its capture on video, however, was expected to be a watershed moment. This was proof of the narrative of systemic police brutality! With video evidence, how could it be denied? But it was. King’s attackers weren’t, in the end, even punished as individual bad apples, much less as representatives of a systemic problem. King, too, was not a man of his time.
A Way Forward
Jefferson was indeed a man of his time, but more importantly, James and Sally Hemings were men and women of theirs. Until we can acquaint ourselves with this history, what Walter Benjamin called “the tradition of the oppressed,” we will continue to misunderstand the world that white supremacy has created. The crude racism of police profiling, the (supposedly anachronistic) neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan marches and the beatings and killings of people of color by the police and others astonish white America; each are misunderstood as an ugly blight on our (meaning white America’s) otherwise just system.
That now, in 21st century America, people are persecuted and killed due to white supremacy (a term more accurate and descriptive than “structural racism”) is only astonishing because our conception of history leaves out systemic white supremacy altogether. The conception of history that allows us to see King’s attackers as “bad apples,” Jefferson’s slave owning as fixed in the past and his political writings relevant to the present and Martin’s murder as a tragic incident instead of evidence of a white supremacist society, must be discarded. Those victimized by this system must be humanized as men and women of their time. The ongoing dehumanization of Nittakechi, Deborah Squash, Tsiyu Gansini, Oney Judge, and other enslaved Africans and removed Indians is part of the same system that labels a young black man wearing a hoodie as suspicious, threatening and subhuman.
The Million Hoodie march protests are trying to tell white America that, not only is there nothing wrong with being young, black and putting your hood up, but under each hood is a right human, a man or woman of their time. Are we, white America, listening? If we are, we’ll learn that Washington, Jefferson and Jackson’s African slavery and Indian removal policies are at least as important as their other political work, and that their lionization on currency is horrifying. We will learn that police brutality and racial profiling against communities of color are not episodic, but systemic. We will learn that Martin was a man of his time, and perhaps, by recognizing his humanity, our children and grandchildren won’t have to apologize for our actions, claiming our decency against the evidence while sheepishly defending us as “men of our time.”