The Boundaries of Whiteness: From Till to Trayvon

The New Press
25 min readJan 18, 2021
Emmett Till

By Angela Onwuachi-Willig, 2018

The following is an excerpt from Race, Rights, and Redemption: The Derrick Bell Lectures on the Law and Critical Race Theory, edited by Janet Dewart Bell and Vincent M. Southerland, originally published in hardcover as Carving Out a Humanity. This collection gathers some of our country’s brightest progressive legal stars in a volume of essays that illuminates the facets of the law that have continued to perpetuate racial inequality and to confound our nation at the start of a new millennium, celebrating the legacy of Derrick Bell, a legal scholar, educator, activist, and pioneer of Critical Race Theory.

Today, far too many people argue that racism is a thing of the past. As proof of racism’s disappearance, these individuals point to formal equality in the form of laws that prohibit explicit discrimination on the basis of race and that allow for the prosecution of individuals who engage in clearly racially motivated, violent attacks. Additionally, they note that most Americans today would condemn the use of racial slurs, and most would profess a belief in racial equality.

However, as Derrick Bell so wisely taught us, the fact that racism operates in different ways today than it did in the past — the fact that racism is more subtle than it was in the past or the fact that much racial discrimination, in some respects, is more likely to stem from non-conscious, rather than conscious, bias — does not mean racism is not present. It does not mean that racism is not a current and pressing problem in our society today. Indeed, I argue that the same race-based forces and the same racist tropes that worked in the past — a past that we do not and cannot deny was steeped in the ugliest forms of race hatred — are still operating in contemporary society. I do so by taking what many view as an extraordinary case about racial hatred from the 1950s, the Emmett Till murder and trial, and comparing it to the Trayvon Martin killing and trial in 2012 and 2013. In so doing, I show how the stereotypes that undergirded the Till case remain quite ordinary today.

At the same time, I highlight a very subtle difference in the operation of these forces and tropes by showing how the Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin cases reveal a movement from the Jim Crow era of protecting whiteness as property in and of itself to a post–civil rights era of protecting what sociologist Elijah Anderson has called “the white space.” In all, I argue that the Till and Trayvon killings and trials centered on the policing of the boundaries of whiteness.

The same race-based forces and the same racist tropes that worked in the past — a past that we do not and cannot deny was steeped in the ugliest forms of race hatred — are still operating in contemporary society.

Thereafter, I take a step back to very briefly examine another commonality between the Till and Trayvon cases: the cultural trauma, meaning group-based trauma, experienced by African Americans due to the acquittals in these two trials and, more so, what I have identified as the pattern of actions that repeatedly brings us to this form of cultural trauma for African Americans. I ask and answer: “What is the cycle, if any, that creates and re-creates the group-based trauma that African Americans experience not only after police and quasi-police killings of nonthreatening or unarmed African Americans, but the trauma that arises after official legal responses that have consistently communicated to society that Black lives do not matter? I refer to this pattern or routine as “the new status quo.” Before I delve into my argument, however, I want to provide a refresher on the evil that found its way to Till in 1955. At approximately 2:30 a.m. on August 28, 1955, two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, invaded the house of Preacher Moses Wright, an elderly Black man who was hosting Emmett Till, his fourteen-year-old nephew from Chicago, Illinois, at his home in Leflore County, Mississippi. After hearing through the rumor mill that Till had allegedly whistled at Roy Bryant’s wife, Milam and Bryant abducted the young Till with plans to teach him a good lesson. In fact, their “lesson” would be Till’s last, because Milam and Bryant would beat, maim, and torture the young boy so badly that his father’s ring, which Till wore during his trip to Mississippi, was the only clearly identifiable item on his person. In her autobiography Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, described what she saw when she had to identify her only son’s body. She wrote:

When I got to his chin, I saw his tongue resting there. It was huge. I never imagined that a human tongue could be that big. Maybe it was the effect of the water, since he had been in the river for several days, or maybe the heat. But as I gazed at the tongue, I couldn’t help but think that it had been choked out his mouth. I forced myself to move on, to keep going one small section at a time, as if taking this gruesome task in small doses could somehow make it less excruciating. . . . [S]tep by step, as methodically as his killers had mutilated my baby, I was putting him back together again, but only to identify the body. From the chin I moved up to his right cheek. There was an eyeball hanging down, resting on that cheek. It looked like it was still attached by the optic nerve, but it was just suspended there. I don’t know how I could keep it together enough to do this, but I do recall looking closely enough to see the color of the eye. It was that light hazel brown everyone always thought was so pretty. Right away, I looked to the other eye. But it wasn’t there. It seemed like someone had taken a nut picker and plucked that one out. . . . Emmett always had the most beautiful teeth. Even as a little baby, his teeth were very unusual. . . . So I looked at his teeth, because I knew I could recognize them. Dear God, there were only two now, but they were definitely his. I looked at the bridge of his nose. . . . It had been chopped, maybe with a meat cleaver. It looked as if someone had tenderized his nose.

State officials in Mississippi tried to convince Till’s mother to conduct his burial services in Mississippi. She refused, insisting that the state send her son’s body to Chicago. Mississippi state officials complied with her demands, but ordered Till-Mobley not to open the casket that Till’s body was sealed in. Hundreds of miles away in Chicago, Till-Mobley, whose family’s roots were in Mississippi, but who lived in Chicago and gave birth to and raised her son in Chicago, defied their orders and opened up the casket. Horrified by what had been done to her son, Till-Mobley decided that she wanted the world to see what “race hatred” truly looked like. She held a four-day, open-casket memorial service in Chicago. More than 100,000 people chose to attend the service, with another 2,500 people attending the actual funeral. She also allowed the Black press both to photograph her son’s mutilated face and body and to publish the pictures in the pages of their magazines and newspapers. Images of the disfigured young man ran in Jet magazine, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Crisis.

Brown v. Board of Education not only engendered anti-racist solidarity among Blacks, it also produced racist cross-class solidarity among whites because of the property value of whiteness.

With such press, Till’s murder garnered a significant amount of attention and outrage from both Blacks and whites in the North. This outrage began to grow just about the same time as the unthinkable occurred: the September 5, 1955, indictment of Milam and Bryant, two white men, for the murder of Till, a Black boy, by an all-white male jury in Mississippi, mostly consisting of planters.

Although Milam and Bryant admitted to kidnapping the young boy from his uncle’s home, on September 23, 1955, an all-white and all-male jury in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, acquitted the two white men of the murder charge for Till’s death. Their decision took only sixty-seven minutes.

One underappreciated dimension of the murder of Emmett Till is that it occurred against the backdrop of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. What the Till murder shows us is that Brown not only engendered anti-racist solidarity among Blacks, it also produced racist cross-class solidarity among whites because of the property value of whiteness.

Emmett Till arrived in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 to visit family members only a year after the Supreme Court had issued its decision in Brown and, more importantly, in the middle of a southern revolt and backlash against the decision and the change it signified. Many whites were still reeling from the Brown decision, and to many white Mississippians, the northern Till, just by his presence, represented a threat to the social order. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were among those whites who were desperately fighting to maintain their way of life in Mississippi. As whites who were subsisting at a level just above white sharecroppers, Milam and Bryant had come to place a high value not only on the material benefits that their whiteness granted them over African Americans, but also on what W.E.B. Du Bois and legal scholars such as Cheryl Harris have defined as the psychological wage of whiteness — the compensation they received in the form of knowing that they would not fall to the bottom of the social hierarchy so long as all Blacks remained there.

The best evidence of how the protection of whiteness and its attendant status and privileges served as part of the motivation for Till’s murder came directly from Milam’s mouth. After Milam and Bryant were acquitted, Milam bragged about murdering Till to journalist William Bradford Huie, who later published an article with the confession in Look magazine. Milam began his confession to Huie by expressing his desire to keep Blacks in their place such that they would not exercise their right to vote. He proclaimed in part:

I like n******— in their place — I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers gonna stay in their place. N****** ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government.

It is significant, but not surprising, that Milam referenced his troubles with the idea of political participation by Blacks in his confession. After all, concerns about Blacks voting in the area had been growing ever since the Brown decisions. Although Blacks made up the vast majority of residents in both Leflore and Tallahatchie Counties, whites had been able to maintain control over both counties by preventing Blacks from registering to vote, including by killing those who dared to register to vote. In fact, no Blacks were eligible to serve on the jury in the murder trial against Milam and Bryant because service on a jury depended upon eligibility to vote, and no Blacks were registered to vote in Tallahatchie County at all. In his confession, Milam revealed not only his concern with Blacks voting in elections, but also his knowledge that Blacks, given that they were numerically the majority in Mississippi and specifically in his county, could control politics if they had the opportunity to actually vote.

They purportedly planned only to scare Till until they realized that Till would not accept the idea of their being superior to him simply because they were white.

The strongest evidence of Milam and Bryant’s desire to protect the wages of whiteness came near the end of Milam’s confession, where Milam repeatedly referred to Till’s being a northerner and where Milam complained over and over that Till simply refused to capitulate to the understood racial hierarchy of Mississippi society. Milam ended his confession, declaring that he had no choice but to murder Till in order to make an example of him for northern Blacks and any others who might even question the way of life in Mississippi. Milam said:

What else could I do? . . . Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger [Till] throw that poison at me [Till’s alleged talking back], and I just made up my mind. “Chicago boy,” I said, “I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”

In fact, prior to that point in his story, Milam claimed that his and Bryant’s original plan was simply to scare Till by taking him “to Rosedale, the Big River bends around under a bluff” that had a hundred-foot drop. In his article, journalist William Bradford Huie noted, “Big Milam’s idea was to stand him up there on that bluff, ‘whip’ him with the .45, and then shine the light on down there toward that water and make him think [they were] gonna knock him in.” According to Huie, Milam announced, “‘Brother, if that won’t scare the Chicago ____, hell won’t.’” In other words, they purportedly planned only to scare Till until they realized that Till would not accept the idea of their being superior to him simply because they were white.

Even before that, Milam had subtly noted one way in which Till had already broken the unwritten rules of the South, a transgression that ended up depriving Milam and Bryant of one of the few signs of respect based on whiteness that they, as part of the white working poor, received in their daily lives: being addressed as “Sir” or “Mr.” by Blacks. Raised in the North as opposed to the South, Till was not accustomed to racialized means of communication between whites and Blacks in Mississippi, such as referring to all whites, including white children, as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Sir, or Ma’am. As a result, when Milam and Bryant woke Till and his relatives up from their sleep at 2:30 a.m. on August 28, 1955, and shouted orders at them, a groggy Till, unlike his uncle, did not respond with the customary “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.” Huie’s retelling made it clear that Milam felt insulted by Till’s failure to abide by these rules. Huie wrote:

Big Milam shined the light in Bobo’s [Till’s] face, said: “You the nigger who did the talking?” “Yeah,” [Till] replied. Milam: “Don’t say, ‘Yeah’ to me: I’ll blow your head off. Get your clothes on.”

Making plain his measure of the psychological wage that whiteness offered him as well as his disdain for anyone who might even think to suggest that any Black was as good as a white man, Milam proclaimed, “We were never able to scare him [Till]. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.” If Milam’s comment about his inability to rid Till of his “poisonous” thoughts were not enough, Milam’s confession indicates that it was Till’s alleged belief that he was equal to Milam that ultimately made Milam pull the trigger. Huie’s tale explained:

Big Milam ordered [Till] to pick up the fan. He staggered under its weight . . . carried it to the river bank. They stood silently . . . just hating one another. Milam: “Take off your clothes.” Slowly, Bobo pulled off his shoes, his socks. He stood up, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts. He stood there naked. It was Sunday morning, a little before 7. Milam: “You still as good as I am?” Bobo: “Yeah.” . . . That big .45 jumped in Big Milam’s hand. The youth turned to catch that big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped.

Intelligence collected during the FBI’s investigation of the Till murder decades later corroborates this notion that Milam was most disturbed by Till’s belief that he was equal to him. Years later, Milam would tell an undercover FBI interviewer that “[d]uring the beating Till was never respectful to the men and did not say ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir,’” and that “things got out of hand,” and Till stated something to the effect of “he was as good as they are” before Milam shot him. In sum, Milam’s own words serve as the best proof of how his desire to protect the status and privileges — the property — of his whiteness motivated him to kill Till. Like many other white Mississippians, Milam simply was not ready and willing to give up even the arguably meager compensation that whiteness provided him.

Much more was at stake than the protection of whiteness and its attendant privileges for these two men — Milam and Bryant. For white Mississippians as a whole, whiteness and the social significance that it would have for their own place in the post-Brown world was in danger. Against the backdrop of change that the Brown decisions threatened to create, Till, or rather the criticism and attacks that came from northerners upon his death, ultimately came to represent a threat to white Mississippians’ segregated way of life. To protect segregation and the benefits it yielded them, many white Mississippians, despite their initial reaction to distance themselves from Milam and Bryant, came around to protecting the two known murderers with the resources of a vigorous defense by all five attorneys in town and, ultimately, with their complicity in a “not guilty” verdict.

Once defending Milam and Bryant was no longer tantamount to defending the state’s system of segregation, no white Mississippians cared about the fate the two men would suffer.

Further proof that white Mississippians were motivated more by their desire to preserve the property value of whiteness than any desire to protect Milam and Bryant as individuals was the manner in which white Mississippians deserted Milam and Bryant when they were no longer at risk of any further charges. Once white Mississippians were no longer worried that a conviction of Milam and Bryant could function as an indictment against their racially segregated way of life, they left the two men to suffer on their own. As Huie would report just one year later in another Look magazine article, entitled “What’s Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?,” both Milam and Bryant suffered severe personal consequences after their trial, though neither would ever suffer the ultimate consequence of the death penalty or incarceration. According to Huie, a year after the publication of Milam and Bryant’s confessions in Look magazine in 1956, both men had “suffered disillusionment, ingratitude, resentment, [and] misfortune.” First, boycotts by Blacks resulted in the actual closing of all three stores that the Milam and Bryant families had operated for years — stores that had very much been “dependent on Negro trade.” Upon his store’s closing, Bryant “had trouble getting a job” and ultimately went to welding school, an act that Milam claimed would be of no help to Bryant and his family because “by the time you’ve learned it, you’ve ruined your eyes.” Additionally, Milam, who, prior to the murder, had employed Blacks to operate his mechanical cotton-picking machines, could not find any Blacks who were willing to work for him after the Till murder and confession, so he was compelled to hire white men, whom he had to pay higher wages. In the end, Huie summed up the thoughts of Milam, who still, a year later, held no remorse for murdering the young Till, as follows:

So Milam is confused. He understands why the Negroes have turned on him, but he feels that the whites still approve what he did. Why, then, should they be less co-operative than when they were patting him on the back, contributing money to him and calling him a “fine, red-blooded American.” Milam himself proclaimed, “I had a lot of friends a year ago. . . . Everything’s gone against me — even the dry weather, which has hurt my cotton. I’m living in a share-crop with no water in it. My wife and kids are having it hard.”

In essence, once defending Milam and Bryant was no longer tantamount to defending the state’s system of segregation, no white Mississippians cared about the fate the two men would suffer.

Like Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, who had just turned seventeen years old in February 2012, found himself visiting family in a strange new town that same month. Following a ten-day suspension from his high school for having a baggie with marijuana residue on it in his school bag, Martin was brought by his father, Tracy Martin, to Sanford, Florida, four hours away from his mother Sybrina Fulton’s home in Miami. The reason for bringing Martin to Sanford was to prevent him from using his time away from school during his suspension unproductively by simply hanging out with friends in Miami. On the night of the fatal shooting, Martin was a guest at the home of his father’s girlfriend, Brandy Green, a Black woman who was renting a townhome in a neighborhood called the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida.

At approximately 7:15 p.m. on February 26, 2012, Martin was returning, after a run to the local 7-Eleven for candy and soda, to Green’s home in the gated community. Likely due to the rain that night, Martin pulled the hood of his black sweatshirt over his head as he spoke to his friend Rachel Jeantel on the phone. At the same time, George Zimmerman captain of the gated subdivision’s neighborhood watch program, was driving to Target in his SUV. Upon spotting Martin in the rain, Zimmerman made a 911 call to report Martin as a suspicious person.

Despite being instructed by the 911 operator to remain in his vehicle, Zimmerman, who was carrying a gun, failed to follow the operator’s directives, continued to follow Martin, and ultimately confronted the teenager. The next thing that Jeantel heard was Martin ask: “Why are you following me?” Then she heard a voice say, “What are you doing around here?” Following that, Jeantel heard what she believed was another person pushing Martin, Martin’s phone crashing to the ground, “wet grass sounds,” and then Martin saying, “Get off! Get off!” For a short while longer, Jeantel heard arguing in the background, and then the phone line went dead.

Only Martin and Zimmerman know what transpired after that point, but one undisputed fact is that Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, who was an unarmed guest of a resident in that same gated community. 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.

Much like Till when he came to visit his relatives in Mississippi in 1955, Martin arrived at Sanford without any real knowledge of the racially tense environment that he was entering. What Martin did not know is that he was walking in a neighborhood where residents, much like white Mississippians in 1955, were fighting to preserve the whiteness of their neighborhood, or rather the meaning accorded to white spaces that their neighborhood had previously claimed. Additionally, Martin had no idea that he would encounter a person like George Zimmerman, who, like Milam and Bryant, may have been working to preserve his precarious status within the neighborhood’s racial and class-based hierarchy because of his status as part-Latino and as a renter in a community that was hostile to renters.

As numerous studies have revealed over the years, whites are the most racially segregated group in the United States, and that reality is not by pure mistake or coincidence. On average, whites live in neighborhoods that are 74 percent white. This pattern for whites is distinct from that of racial and ethnic minority groups such as Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, with Blacks being the most segregated of all racial and ethnic minority groups. Unlike whites, “Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians . . . are willing to live in a neighborhood in which they are a numerical minority.” However, for a variety of reasons, including discrimination and whites’ preference to live among other whites, Blacks live, on average, in neighborhoods that are 51 percent Black; Latinos live, on average, in neighborhoods that are 48 percent Latino; and Asians live, on average, in neighborhoods that are 20 percent Asian, with the segregation of Asians increasing rather than decreasing over time.

More importantly, researchers have found that whites are the most segregated racial group in the country because they prefer to have only a few minority neighbors. For example, as the research of sociologists Maria Krysan and Camille Zubrinsky Charles has shown, prejudice is the strongest predictor of resistance to racial integration among whites, while fear of discrimination is the strongest predictor of Blacks’ avoidance of white neighborhoods. In fact, the work of scholars Richard Wright, Mark Ellis, and Steve Holloway reveals that “diversity is a ‘turnoff’ within White-dominated spaces for same-race White households.” Moreover, another study by two professors in Seattle revealed that racial diversity was one of the strongest factors in terms of negatively predicting the degree to which whites viewed neighbor relations as harmonious. As Andrew Hacker explains in his book Two Nations: Black, White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, many whites view living in neighborhoods with meaningful racial minority populations as being less than or inferior in terms of social standing.

What Martin did not know is that he was walking in a neighborhood where residents, much like white Mississippians in 1955, were fighting to preserve the whiteness of their neighborhood, or rather the meaning accorded to white spaces that their neighborhood had previously claimed.

At the time that Zimmerman killed Martin, the Retreat at Twin Lakes was undergoing a transformation. The downturn in the economy resulted in a change in the ratio of owners to renters like Zimmerman, with more and more foreclosures. Along with the foreclosures came a drop in the value of the townhouses in the neighborhood, with the homes that once cost buyers $250,000 falling to prices below $100,000. Additionally, a larger number of the townhomes in the gated subdivision went empty. The neighborhood also became more racially diverse.

By 2011, residents of the neighborhood began to report an increasing number of burglaries to the police. At that point, the tenor and pattern of 911 calls by Zimmerman, who had previously made many calls but without a racial pattern, began to change. All of a sudden, the suspicious individuals who became the subject of Zimmerman’s calls had one thing in common: they were all Black males. Zimmerman even called once to report the presence of a seven- to nine-year-old Black male. Overall, the neighborhood watch residents began their efforts to preserve the whiteness of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, or at least the perception of the neighborhood as a white space. As Olivia Bertalan, a neighbor of George Zimmerman’s, would later explain, “People were freaked out. It wasn’t just George calling the police. . . . [W]e were calling police at least once a week.” She continued:

There was definitely a sense of fear in the neighborhood after all of this [the burglaries] started happening, and it just kept on happening. It wasn’t just a one-time thing. It was every week. . . . Our next-door neighbor actually said if someone came into his yard he would shoot him. If someone came into his house he would shoot him. Everyone felt afraid and scared.

But the fact that only two of the neighborhood’s forty-four burglaries, attempted break-ins, and suspected break-ins were confirmed to have involved Black males supports the notion that the protection of whiteness — here, the protection of white spaces — and stereotypes of Blacks were heavily guiding the actions of neighborhood watch participants like Zimmerman. It was not simply that Zimmerman and other neighborhood watch participants linked Blackness with criminality, but that they viewed Blacks who were in the spaces that they viewed as white as criminals, as outsiders who were up to no good. Indeed, long after it was shown that Martin, who had no criminal record, was simply walking back to the townhome where he was visiting his father’s girlfriend that night, Frank Taaffe, a white resident of the neighborhood, insisted during a television interview that Martin was out of place in the neighborhood and should not have come near Taaffe’s home while Taaffe was away from his townhome. Taaffe’s interview proceeded as follows:

INTERVIEWER: Frank, what made him look suspicious — what made him look suspicious in your mind, just because he was walking through your yard?

TAAFFE: Because he was out of place. George knew he didn’t live there. He was out of place. He was out of place.

INTERVIEWER: He had a right to be there, Frank.

TAAFFE: He’s out of place. He’s on private property. That’s my property.

Although as many as eight burglaries within a year’s time may reasonably concern many residents, in this instance, the concern seemed to be racialized in a way that was not corroborated by actual data, but rather by standard implicit biases. As Professor Song Richardson has explained, studies show that just “thinking about crime can trigger nonconscious thoughts about Blacks, which in turn activates negative Black stereotypes. . . . [And] disturbingly, not only does seeing a Black individual bring negative racial stereotypes to mind nonconsciously, but simply thinking about crime triggers implicit thoughts about Blacks in police officers and civilians alike.”

Yes, we must acknowledge the advances that we have made in society since 1955. At the same time, we have to ask ourselves how far we have truly come when past injustices simply seem to emerge in new forms.

Additional evidence of the role that the protection of whiteness played in Zimmerman’s viewing Martin as suspicious, following him, and then killing the young boy lay in the perceptions and experiences of residents of color at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, who either did not perceive the same problems as Zimmerman and other neighborhood watch participants, or who became the targets of the policing by Zimmerman and other neighborhood watch participants. People like then-twenty-five-year-old Ibrahim Rashada, a Black man, had to alter their daily rituals because they no longer felt free to roam about in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community once Zimmerman and the other neighborhood watch residents began their policing with a focus on Black males. For example, instead of taking walks in his own neighborhood, Rashada took his regular walks downtown. As Rashada explained, “I fit the stereotype he [Zimmerman] emailed around. . . . ‘A Black guy did this. A Black guy did that.’ So I thought, ‘Let me sit in the house. I don’t want anyone chasing me.’”

In the end, much can be learned from comparing and analyzing the death and trials of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. Yes, we must acknowledge the advances that we have made in society since 1955. At the same time, we have to ask ourselves how far we have truly come when past injustices simply seem to emerge in new forms. The killing of Trayvon Martin and other police and quasi-police killings that have occurred in recent years are, in many ways, adapted forms of racism that previously resulted in tragedies like the lynching of Emmett Till. As Derrick Bell explained in his article “Racial Realism,” understanding these patterns and adaptations of racism and repeated discrimination is necessary if we are ever to devise strategies for eliminating their effects in society. Bell directly contemplated the effects of repeated discrimination, explaining how we must acknowledge these realities as well as the limits of law if we ever want truly to change society. He wrote:

Unhappily, most Black spokespersons and civil rights organizations remain committed to the ideology of racial equality. Acceptance of the Racial Realism concept would enable them to understand and respond to recurring aspects of our subordinate status. It would free them to think and plan within a context of reality rather than idealism. The reality is that Blacks still suffer a disproportionately higher rate of poverty, joblessness, and insufficient health care than other ethnic populations in the United States. The ideal is that law, through racial equality, can lift them out of this trap. I suggest we abandon this ideal and move on to a fresh, realistic approach. Casting off the burden of equality ideology will lift the sights, providing a bird’s-eye view of situations that are distorted by race. From this broadened perspective on events and problems, we can better appreciate and cope with racial subordination.

Taking these wise words from Professor Bell into account, I have begun to delve into a larger project that considers how police and quasi-police killings of unarmed African Americans and, more importantly, the legal out comes in such cases, can deepen our understanding of what sociologists have defined as “cultural trauma” and the patterns of conduct that bring us to these group-based traumas. Sociologist Jeffrey Alexander of Yale University defines cultural trauma as group trauma that “occurs when members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.” As a group, African Americans have experienced cultural trauma not only in relation to killings like those of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, but also in relation to the acquittals that were handed down at the end of those trials.

One of the ways in which such killings, followed by repeated acquittals or non-indictments, have traumatized African Americans is that they have left so many of us with an expectation of injustice in our justice system. Consider the response of the family of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old African American boy who was shot and killed while playing with a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio, after Timothy Loehmann — the police officer who shot the twelve-year-old child within two seconds of the officer’s arrival on the scene — was not indicted for taking his life.

Sasha Ginzberg, one of the attorneys for the Rice family, responded to the non-indictment by proclaiming: “Tamir’s family is saddened and disappointed by this outcome but not surprised.” Others, such as Reverend Jawanza Colvin, an African American pastor at a Cleveland church who had pushed for Loehmann’s arrest, expressed similar sentiments: “The fact that we are not surprised [by the grand jury’s decision] is in and of itself an indictment of the culture of the criminal justice system.”

As a group, African Americans have experienced cultural trauma not only in relation to killings like those of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, but also in relation to the acquittals that were handed down at the end of those trials.

Such responses by the Rice family and other African Americans could be read solely as a pessimistic outlook on the justice system in the United States. I feel they should instead be understood as measured responses to a sociological pattern of events and decisions that have developed in cases involving police and quasi-police killings of unarmed African Americans — a pattern that begins with a tragic killing or horrific beating of a nonthreatening or unarmed African American, that is frequently followed by an acquittal or non-indictment of the officer(s) or quasi-officer(s) who killed the unarmed victim, and that ends in cultural trauma and a sense of hopelessness and disappointment in the American legal system by African Americans.

Understanding these patterns of racism as they have evolved and are evolving over time is critical if we are to devise ways for combatting such structural and attitudinal problems in our society. As Professor Bell explained in his article “Racism Is Here to Stay,” in spite of short-term advances in the Civil Rights Movement, Black people, all people, must acknowledge how “racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” Only then can we be “free to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph.” As Professor Bell explained, it is this “acknowledgement of racism’s permanence, [which] far from an invitation to ultimate despair, [will] serve as [the] opportunity for new insight, more effective planning,” and perhaps renewed victory.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig is dean of and professor of law at Boston University School of Law. Previously, she served as Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, where she taught employment discrimination, evidence, family law, Critical Race Theory, and torts. Dean Onwuachi-Willig is the recipient of awards including the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Clyde Ferguson Award, the AALS Derrick Bell Award, the Gertrude Rush Award from the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys and the Iowa Chapter of the National Bar Association, and Law and Society’s John Hope Franklin, Jr., Prize. She obtained her BA from Grinnell College and her JD from University of Michigan School of Law. She is the author of According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family.

This excerpt originally appeared in the book Carving Out a Humanity: Race, Rights, and Redemption. Copyright ©2020 by Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, New York University School of Law



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