January/ February 2013
Emmett and Trayvon
How racial prejudice in America has changed in the last sixty years.
By Elijah Anderson
A tale of two teens: After their tragic and premature deaths, both Emmett Till, 14 (left), and Trayvon Martin, 17 (right), became symbols of the unique challenges that have faced young black men in America.
Separated by a thousand miles, two state borders, and nearly six decades, two young African American boys met tragic fates that seem remarkably similar today: both walked into a small market to buy some candy; both ended up dead.
The first boy is Emmett Till, who was fourteen years old in the summer of 1955 when he walked into a local grocery store in Money, Mississippi, to buy gum. He was later roused from bed, beaten brutally, and possibly shot by a group of white men who later dumped his body in a nearby river. They claimed he had stepped out of his place by flirting with a young white woman, the wife of the store’s owner. The second boy is Trayvon Martin, who was seventeen years old late last winter when he walked into a 7-Eleven near a gated community in Sanford, Florida, to buy Skittles and an iced tea. He was later shot to death at close range by a mixed-race man, who claimed Martin had behaved suspiciously and seemed out of place. The deaths of both boys galvanized the nation, drew sympathy and disbelief across racial lines, and, through the popular media, prompted a reexamination of race relations.
In the aftermath of Martin’s death last February, a handful of reporters and columnists, and many members of the general public, made the obvious comparison: Trayvon Martin, it seemed, was the Emmett Till of our times. And while that comparison has some merit—the boys’ deaths are similar both in some of their details and in their tragic outcome—these killings must also be understood as the result of very different strains of racial tension in America. The racism that led to Till’s death was embedded in a virulent ideology of white racial superiority born out of slavery and the Jim Crow codes, particularly in the Deep South. That sort of racism hinges on the idea that blacks are an inherently inferior race, a morally null group that deserves both the subjugation and poverty it gets.
The racial prejudice that led to Trayvon Martin’s death is different. While it, too, was born of America’s painful legacy of slavery and segregation, and informed by those old concepts of racial order—that blacks have their “place” in society—it in addition reflects the urban iconography of today’s racial inequality, namely the black ghetto, a uniquely urban American creation. Strikingly, this segregation of the black community coexists with an ongoing racial incorporation process that has produced the largest black middle class in history, and that reflects the extraordinary social progress this country has made since the 1960s. The civil rights movement paved the way for blacks and other people of color to access public and professional opportunities and spaces that would have been unimaginable in Till’s time.
While the sort of racism that led to Till’s death still exists in society today, Americans in general have a much more nuanced, more textured attitude toward race than anything we’ve seen before, and usually that attitude does not manifest in overtly hateful, exclusionary, or violent acts. Instead, it manifests in pervasive mindsets and stereotypes that all black people start from the inner-city ghetto and are therefore stigmatized by their association with its putative amorality, danger, crime, and poverty. Hence, in public a black person is burdened with a negative presumption that he must disprove before he can establish mutually trusting relationships with others.
Most consequentially, black skin, and its association with the ghetto, translates into a deficit of credibility as black skin is conflated with lower-class status. This deficit impacts poor blacks of the ghetto one way and middle-class black people another. While middle-class blacks may be able to successfully disabuse others of their negative presumptions, lower-class blacks may not. For instance, all blacks, particularly “ghetto-looking” young men, are at risk of enduring yet another “stop and frisk” from the police as well as suspicion from potential employers, shopkeepers, and strangers on the street. Members of the black middle class and black professionals can usually pass inspection and withstand such scrutiny; many poorer blacks cannot. And many blacks who have never stepped foot in a ghetto must repeatedly prove themselves as non-ghetto, often operating in a provisional status, in the workplace or, say, a fancy restaurant, until they can convince others—either by speaking “white” English or by demonstrating intelligence, poise, or manners—that they are to be trusted, that they are not “one of those” blacks from the ghetto, and that they deserve respect. In other words, a middle-class black man who is, for instance, waiting in line for an ATM at night will in many cases be treated with a level of suspicion that a middle-class white man simply does not experience.
But this pervasive cultural association—black skin equals the ghetto—does not come out of the blue. After all, as a result of historical, political, and economic factors, blacks have been confined in the ghetto. Today, with persistent housing discrimination and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, America’s ghettos face structural poverty. In addition, crime and homicide rates within those communities are high, young black men are typically the ones killing one another, and ghetto culture, made iconic by artists like Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, and the Notorious B.I.G., is inextricably intertwined with blackness.
As a result, in America’s collective imagination the ghetto is a dangerous, scary part of the city. It’s where rap comes from, where drugs are sold, where hoodlums rule, and where The Wire might have been filmed. Above all, to many white Americans the ghetto is where “the black people live,” and thus, as the misguided logic follows, all black people live in the ghetto. It’s that pervasive, if accidental, fallacy that’s at the root of the wider society’s perceptions of black people today. While it may be true that everyone who lives in a certain ghetto is black, it is patently untrue that everyone who is black lives in a ghetto. Regardless, black people of all classes, including those born and raised far from the inner cities and those who’ve never been in a ghetto, are by virtue of skin color alone stigmatized by the place.
I call this idea the “iconic ghetto,” and it has become a powerful source of stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination in our society, negatively defining the black person in public. In some ways, the iconic ghetto reflects the old version of racism that led to Till’s death. In Till’s day, a black person’s “place” was in the field, in the maid’s quarters, or in the back of the bus. If a black man was found “out of his place,” he could be punished, jailed, or lynched. In Martin’s day—in our day—a black person’s “place” is in the ghetto.
If he is found “out of his place,” like in a fancy hotel lobby, on a golf course, or, say, in an upscale community, he can be treated with suspicion, avoided, pulled over, frisked, arrested—or worse.
is the William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University. His latest book is “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.”