Trayvon Martin cartoon controversy: Reflecting back, moving forward

As the semester draws to a close, and as students and faculty focus on exams, grading and the pending summer break, it is important not to forget the controversy that briefly engulfed the UT campus and The Daily Texan earlier in the semester following the publication of a cartoon about the Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. This seems like an appropriate moment, then, for some critical reflection concerning what insights we can glean from the incidents moving forward.

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. In response to tragic events, people often seek means to connect to the victims through “personalization.” The personalization of Trayvon’s innocence could be seen in the instant proliferation of photographs of a young, smiling Trayvon in his football uniform or in snowboarding gear or holding a baby. These pictures sought to emphasize that Trayvon was an average teenager and helped shape the outrage directed at George Zimmerman. Often, these pictures were shown side-by-side with a mugshot image of Zimmerman from a previous arrest. This was then followed by a push by supporters of Zimmerman wanting to portray Trayvon as aggressive and delinquent. These versions told of a Trayvon who allegedly got caught with marijuana at school, had tattoos and a gold “grill” and possibly had friends connected to a gang. Accompanying these stories were photos of Trayvon without a smile, holding his middle finger to the camera, tapping into cultural stereotypes of criminal black youth.

While these representational practices serve an important component in mobilizing affective responses, they also undermine our ability to discuss structural and systemic issues related to race. For example, painting Zimmerman as the racist vigilante emphasizes the actions of the individual that precludes discussion about the ways in which capitalism and racism collude in creating the circumstances in which Neighborhood Watch schemes are established to police the presence of insiders and outsiders. Inherent in this model of self-policing is the privileging of private property over human life and gun laws that, in this instance, appear to have permitted a man to wield a weapon against an unarmed youth. Rather than focusing on the alleged racist intent of particular individuals, we should understand recent events through the concept of institutional racism, namely that there are policies, practices and procedures at the institutional level that serve to promote the collective interests of whites even after the successes of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in ending overt forms of white supremacy.

What does an institutional understanding of racism point us toward? In the case of Trayvon Martin, it suggests that instead of debating whether or not Zimmerman is a racist, we should examine the ways in which the justice system puts the burden of evidence on black boys and men to prove that they are not criminals. It tells us that to understand why the death of Trayvon was seen as a departmental footnote and why Zimmerman’s vigilante zeal might have been tolerated instead of truncated, we must engage seriously with the institutional culture of the Sanford Police Department, which has a questionable past when it comes to equal application of the law in cases of violence against blacks.

Similarly, in the case of the cartoon that ran in The Daily Texan last month, an institutional approach to thinking about racism implores us to avoid painting the artist as “the bad apple,” whose de facto firing will propel the newspaper back into clear post-racial skies. Instead, we want to suggest that the discussion should be broadened to include The Daily Texan editorial board as well as the wider culture at UT, a historically white institution, wherein such a cartoon could even pass as unproblematic.

As we know, the cartoon generated noticeable nationwide controversy and sparked a prompt response at UT, with some local critics launching an online petition demanding her removal. Targeting one individual to pay for broader social dynamics, in an impulse to act quickly, is often the result when systemic or institutional issues become individualized and personalized. Elsewhere, responses focusing more intently on Zimmerman adopted similar approaches to calling for punitive measures aimed specifically at the individual actor. In addition to such petitions, social media has figured centrally in prescribing justice for Trayvon Martin — including Facebook groups that demanded Zimmerman’s arrest, blog essays and hoodie photos Tweeted in solidarity.

Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior has questioned these approaches as part of a broader political climate of “slacktivism,” a mode of expressing political discontent that takes advantage of the publicity and accessibility of digital media while incurring little cost and effort to the individual poster or tweeter. While slacktivism highlights the limitations of online social movement efficacy, it would be erroneous to discount the sincerity of people’s feelings of sympathy, anger and concern driving digital participation. However, one of the dangers of such rapid, emotionally-driven responses (in truncated form of 140 characters or fewer or in image memes) is the reification of certain tropes.

While we do not as yet know the exact circumstances that led to Zimmerman shooting Martin nor why Zimmerman was not initially arrested, what we do know is that the death of Trayvon Martin is not a singular incident. Understanding the processes of systemic oppressions that make cases like the death of Martin a common occurrence requires a more nuanced analysis than is often permitted in social media campaigns, mainstream media coverage and political cartoons (whatever the intent of the artist).

In this context we welcome what appears to be a genuine attempt by The Daily Texan editorial board to think critically about the missteps it made and to open up its pages to critical analysis and honest reflection. However, as an intellectual community, we also need to think about how we can engage in a broader dialogue that recognizes the empathetic desire to express solidarity toward those like Trayvon, but in ways that do not end up masking the structural systems that maintain inequality and racial oppression both in wider society and here on the 40 Acres.