Late one evening in mid-February 1999, I stood at a train station in Oakland, California, waiting for a Bay Area Rapid Transit ride to the Oakland airport. I was returning home to Los Angeles after giving a lecture at San Francisco State University. Nearby was a group of very loud young black men, teenagers all, smoking different things and feeling generally boisterous. They were heady and heedless, their laughter was shattering, their movements changed from swagger to dancing to menacing infringement on the perimeter where I stood, the only other black person in sight. I sensed that they were making a sneaky but steady drive toward me, and that if I remained at that spot for the next minute, I would be attacked.
I did not know what to do, and could move no further on that platform than three meters, and such a move, I felt, was likely to be perceived as aggressive or fearful, neither an acceptable emotion in the circumstance. As I stood staring at the ground and contemplating if I would be attacked and how I could defend myself, knowing that I couldn’t, I noticed a police car suddenly pull into the station from a back alley. Several things happened at once. The rising bar of my anxiety came down, relief washing over me indescribably, the gregarious, crashing laughter of the youngsters deflated just as suddenly, and although the white policeman did not come out of his car or make any move, I now felt totally safe. I watched the hitherto sneaky-but-steady move in my direction reconfiguring itself as so many disorderly retreats.
The train came. The ride to the airport afforded me time for self-analysis.
It was likely that the black men had not noticed, much less desired to attack me. Even if any one of them had noticed me, what proof was there of a connection between such an observation and his, not to talk of their, own reality at the moment?
But I needed no proof, having subconsciously accepted as truth the falsehood that a black man on the move in a public place was a clear and present danger, a loaded gun looking for where to go off. It didn’t matter that, objectively speaking, I was more dark-skinned than any of those men, and that if a row had broken out just before the cop’s arrival, I could be arrested along with them. Shame mingled with frustration as I thought about that false encounter, moreso because the whole thing had occurred in the imaginary but fecund world of blackness as a negative social sign, a code for menace to safe society.
George Zimmerman, the former Florida neighborhood-watch volunteer recently acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of the black teenager Trayvon Martin might be a good man, without ill-will toward blacks. But in February 2012 he was, like me that distant February in Oakland, an unselfconscious consumer of mediated ideas about black criminality. He had a gun, he had a semi-official duty to protect his neighborhood, and a black boy with a hood looked like a threat. If I’d a gun that evening, I would probably prime it for self-defense. I didn’t need to be aware of what self-defense laws existed or didn’t in California. I faced black menace and would act according to my instincts, shaped in the imaginary but fecund and so quite real world which sees young black men as walking dangers.
Without questions, Zimmerman aggravated things by ignoring the instruction from the police dispatcher not to follow Trayvon. Had he heeded that counsel, he would (or might) not have ended up murdering the black teenager, and the world would be spared the agony the matter has engendered in the past year and a half. But he was emboldened to ignore the instruction because, on balance, the imaginary threat of blackness was more powerful than the commonsensical rule of walking away from a potential confrontation. As a law expert recently said, the trial unfolded as if the defense was the prosecution.
No less a figure than President Barack Obama has put his finger on what motivated Zimmerman. Without calling the verdict into question, Obama says clearly that black men in America live in constant fear of being followed, the presumed criminal lurking in white neighborhoods. He speaks of himself as Trayvon thirty-five years ago. Actually, he states the facts in the guise of a metaphor. The facts say that every day, the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world is himself being followed, and would be taken down if the racists had their way. The president as “an Arab,” “a socialist,” “not born in the US” is daily prosecuted in the court of Racial McCarthyism.
Akin Adesokan, a published novelist and professor of comparative literature at the University of Indiana, writes a monthly column for Premium Times.