The racism that connects these murders

March 27, 2012

Winning justice for the murders of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi means challenging the racism at the heart of U.S. society, writes Khury Petersen-Smith.

FOLLOWING THE news these days is like witnessing a parade of horrors. As soon as you regain your composure after being disturbed by an incident of racist violence, another comes into view.

Each day is bringing new details about the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager killed by racist vigilante George Zimmerman, whose body was drug-tested and classified as a "John Doe" by Sanford, Fla., police, as his parents desperately searched for their missing son. The same police department has allowed Zimmerman to go about his business without arrest.

On March 14, a few weeks after Trayvon's murder, police in Del City, Okla., killed Dane Scott Jr., an 18-year-old Black man, after pulling him over for a traffic stop. Scott--who the cops say was armed when they killed him, although no weapon has been produced--was shot in the back by police. He is among the latest African Americans killed by police this year, in a long list that includes Ramarley Graham in New York City, and Stephon Watts and Rekia Boyd in Chicago.

Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi
Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi

Then came the murder of Shaima Alawadi on March 21, one week after Dane Scott Jr. died.

The mother of five was viciously beaten into unconsciousness with a tire iron in her home in El Cajon, Calif. She died five days later after being removed from life support. According to Shaima's daughter, who discovered her mother's body, the killer left a note near Shaima, an Iraqi Muslim who wore a hijab, which read in part, "Go back to your country, you terrorist."

Yet police said in a statement, "Evidence thus far leads us to believe this is an isolated incident."

SPEAKING ABOUT the murder of Trayvon Martin, President Barack Obama said that we would all have to do some soul-searching to ask how such a killing could happen. But an honest look at racism in the U.S. reveals that these killings are neither isolated, nor complicated, nor surprising.

Trayvon, Shaima and others are the latest victims of a deeply bigoted society, and their killings are the bitter fruits of the most recent trends in institutional racism.

Racist violence has been a feature of U.S. society since the founding of the country. Both before and well after 1776, establishing the U.S. involved settling a land that already had inhabitants--the indigenous of America were subjected to a racist genocide. The enslaved Black population endured tremendous violence. And wave after wave of immigrants to the U.S. has been met by racist brutality.

In other words, racist violence in the U.S. is as old as the country itself.

One particular form that racism has taken recently is the criminalization of Blacks and Muslims.

The past 40 years has seen the mass incarceration of Black people on a level unheard-of in the U.S. or internationally. According to anti-racist legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander, there are more Black people currently incarcerated in the U.S. than there were Blacks in prisons in South Africa at the height of apartheid.

A central part of the effort to lock up so many Black people has been ideological. Through government policies, policing and the media, "Black" has become associated with "thug."

The same institutions are responsible, particularly since the September 11 terror attacks and the launching of the "war on terror," for making "Muslim" synonymous with "terrorist." Untold numbers of Muslims and Arabs have been detained, interrogated and deported since 2001.

The mainstream media and the political elite have been enthusiastic partners in whipping up a racist frenzy about the supposed Muslim terrorist threat. They are the ones who should take Obama's words about soul-searching to heart--the policymakers in the Obama administration (and Bush's, and every administration before that), and the media executives whose TV news channels nightly portray Blacks as criminals and whose newspapers promote fear of Arabs and Muslims and celebrate the invasions of their countries of origin.

Another contributing factor to the climate of racism today has been the behavior of the right wing during the 2008 election campaign and after.

As it became clear that their bid for the presidency was a losing one, the 2008 Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin increasingly invoked racism to attack Barack Obama and mobilize the hard-core right wing of the party.

McCain rallies became notorious as places where Nazis were welcome and calls for the murder of Obamawere tolerated. Meanwhile, right-wing media personalities like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity preached a doomsday scenario if a Black man actually became president. On the night Obama was elected, racists burned a Black church to the ground in Springfield, Mass.--one of many on a list of hate crimes that coincided with Obama's election.

Yet the Obama administration has been virtually silent about the rise of hate crimes and the climate of open racism tolerated in American politics. All of these things set the stage for the latest racist killings.

IT'S IRONIC that African Americans on the one hand and Arabs and Muslims on the other are cast as the violent threats to an otherwise peaceful American society. It's obvious to anyone paying attention that these groups are subjected to violence.

Among the tragic aspects of Shaima's murder this month is the fact that she and her family emigrated here from Iraq, a country made barely habitable by two--count them, two--U.S. invasions in the last quarter century and an occupation that falls on the list of crimes against humanity in world history.

Together, these killings are revealing a nightmare of a society, with racist violence as a feature of daily life.

That racism must be rooted out. As disturbing as the news has been over the past few weeks, the antiracist solidarity that is growing in response to these crimes is very heartening. There have been rallies and marches across the country demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, and people everywhere are using social media to communicate about the killings and show solidarity with victims of racism.

There is nothing new about the police murder of unarmed Black people or hate crimes against Blacks, Arabs and Muslims. What is inspiring today is that many people are drawing a line with these recent incidents--and deciding that they will not go unchallenged.

Justice for Trayvon and Shaima will require far more than the arrest and prosecution of their killers. We have a whole set of racist institutions to take on and destroy. As anti-racists, we need to take these killings as a call to action and this moment as an opportunity to revive a tradition of relentlessly fighting oppression.

If racism is a central feature of U.S. history, struggle against it has been as well. We must rebuild, deepen and strengthen that struggle.

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