How prejudice has changed in the past 60 years
Elijah Anderson | 7/26/2013, 6 a.m.
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 14 in the summer of 1955 when he walked into a local grocery store in Money, Miss., 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 17 late last winter when he walked into a 7-Eleven near a gated community in Sanford, Fla., to buy Skittles and an iced tea.
He was later shot to death at close range by a mixed-race man, who claimed Trayvon 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 re-examination of race relations.
Very different racial tension
In the aftermath of Trayvon’s death, 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 Emmett’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’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 Emmett’s time.
While the sort of racism that led to Emmett’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 mind-sets 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 or she must disprove before being able to establish mutually trusting relationships with others.