Scared White Men: What Anxious Masculinity Has To Do With The Death Of Trayvon Martin

Hugo Schwyzer weighs in on the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin and points to white men’s long history of fearing black men as the root cause.

I thought about starting this essay with a stock phrase, saying that the now-infamous February 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin has “reopened an old wound.” But in reading about the death of Martin—a black Florida teenager armed with nothing more threatening than a bag of Skittles, gunned down by a white man who was the self-styled captain of a neighborhood watch committee—I’ve realized that you can’t “reopen” a wound that has never been allowed to close. Though the case strikes many chords about the troubled history of racial violence in America, one in particular stands out: white men’s enduring anxiety about black males. If we want to comprehend why so many black boys and men continue to die at white male hands, we need to understand the desperately fragile state of white masculinity.

Three weeks after Martin’s death under highly suspicious circumstances, the man who shot him has not been charged with a crime. George Zimmerman, the gunman, had a habit of racially profiling visitors to the gated community in Sanford for which he served as a self-appointed guardian. As the Miami Herald reported recently, the Sanford police department has a troubling recent history of its own, consistently downplaying cases of white-on-black violence. Of course, that pattern is hardly limited to one Florida town or even to the south alone; a Google search using names like James Craig Anderson, Amadou Diallo, or Emmett Till will provide a handful of variations on an old theme. There are countless others.

Since African slaves were first brought to what is now the United States, white men have gone to extraordinary lengths to rob black men of their dignity and their humanity. As Michael Kimmel discusses in his magisterial history of masculinity, Manhood in America, 19th century whites were profoundly fearful of black male sexuality and power. Slavery explicitly denied to black males the traditional hallmarks of masculine power. Manhood, as Kimmel points out, is defined by what it isn’t; the he-man is traditionally the one with the fewest feminine characteristics. In a society where only white men could own property (including their own wives and children), black males took on the legal status of women. And thus black men could be “boys” but never “men,” “uncles” but never “fathers.” 

With the end of slavery, black men (but not black women) received the same property, voting, and marital rights that white men had exclusively enjoyed. Whites worried openly and often about emancipated male former slaves rising up in bloody, retaliation for their long history of emasculation. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan were founded on the assumption that white women and children needed protection from newly liberated and predatory black men eager to avenge the sexual outrages committed by whites against their own female loved ones during the slave era.

As it turned out, the danger posed was entirely a figment of a guilty white imagination. White women weren’t in any greater danger after the Civil War, but black men were. The era of lynchings, in which black men were tortured to death by mobs (usually with law enforcement acquiescence or active participation) began at the end of Reconstruction. As the murders of Anderson or James Byrd remind us, these brutal racialized killings are hardly a thing of the distant past. 

Contemporary white male masculinity has a complex relationship with black men. One of the most popular and enduring of genres in amateur pornography features white men filming their wives and girlfriends having sex with stereotypically well-endowed black men. In that genre, black men seem to be agents of white men’s sexual humiliation—except that the white man is invariably the one to arrange the whole scenario and film the whole scene. It’s still the openly cuckolded husband’s fantasy that unfolds, one in which black men are always players, never directors.  

As with porn, so with sports. The highly paid black athlete may seem a fearsome exemplar of masculine power, but television viewers are regularly reminded that he’s coached (and in a professional sense, owned) by men who are almost always white. Black men are welcome to fulfill white male fantasies on the basketball court—and in certain instances, in the bedroom as well. They are less welcome in the boardroom. (Judging by data from the 2008 election, for many southern working class white men, they are decidedly unwelcome in the White House.) And young black men like Trayvon Martin are absolutely unwelcome when they enter predominately white communities without permission of the self-appointed gatekeepers.

During halftime of the NBA all-star game (whether that detail is significant or not is up to others to decide), George Zimmerman reported Trayvon Martin to a 911 operator, and against instructions, followed the candy-laden teenager until they had some sort of violent confrontation. An audio-tape of their encounter includes frantic screaming suddenly ended by a gunshot. Zimmerman claims that the screams were his and that it was he who was under attack; he says he needed to kill Martin in self-defense. 

Whatever happened on February 26, we can say with certainty that Zimmerman’s account follows a classic American narrative. A white male agent of the law confronts a black man; black man becomes violent, white man is “forced” to use deadly force to save his own life. The story plays on the classic racist assumption that black men are always physically stronger than whites. Because of that supposed physical superiority, the gun becomes “regrettably necessary” as a great equalizer. Too few white people question the familiar reasoning.    

As Prof. David J. Leonard points out in a brilliant essay, millions of Americans learned the names of two black men this month: Joseph Kony and Trayvon Martin. Both became famous because white men labeled them as evils from which the world needed saving. The parallel goes further. Jason Russell, the head of the Invisible Children charity that started the viral Kony2012 campaign, and George Zimmerman each played essentially the same part: that of white male savior, protecting Ugandan children and Florida suburbanites from the real or imagined dangers presented by two black men. 

While Russell had a bizarre (and notably sexualized) fall from grace last week, Zimmerman remains free. The black men they demonized have had different fates as well; while Kony survives somewhere in central Africa, Martin has been buried by his grieving family. Whether Trayvon’s family finds justice depends on whether prosecutors in Florida can find a lens other than that of anxious white masculinity through which to look. If history is any guide, we have little reason to believe that they will.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

Photo credit werthmedia/Flickr

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