Talking the Zimmerman trial and “making things about race” with Samuel James

The following exchange is extracted from a conversation I had with Samuel James about the social media response to the Zimmerman case. I reached out to Sam because so much of the commentary I had seen online, particularly from within my immediate circles, sounded very much as if it was written by and for white people which is not surprising considering the ethnic makeup of the state. Seeing Sam’s responses online over the past few days, and the responses of other friends who are black, I saw something decidedly different in content and tone. The nature and realities of the case meant something substantially different to various groups of friends depending on where they were coming from, and seeing some of the frustrations Sam was expressing made some of the other commentaries I had seen elsewhere appear trite, offensive, and absurd.

So I reached out to Sam and we talked about it.

I saw a number of folks suggest via social media that the realities of this case, or its place in our culture, have nothing to do with race. People are “making it about race.” So why are you making this case about race?

So… I disagree with the premise of the question.

Of course. Isn’t this something a white person would only say to another white person?

Yeah, I think the question is wonderful in what it illustrates. To me it is very easy to tell whether something is about race, or gender or about minorities or whatever. Just switch the roles. If this was about a skinny white teenager and a black man who was 100 pounds bigger and he stalked the kid down with a gun, there would be race riots in the other way. There would be white-on-black violence all over the country.

One friend of mine is big and black and he doesn’t like to talk about race. His own refusal to talk about it is jarring to me, it’s upsetting to me. Very traditionally, the darker you are, the harder you have it and I am pretty white. For Maine, I am dark but sitting next to my friend, I am Casper. He is giant and very dark. His voice is so low that you can hear it and feel it in your chest when he talks. When the verdict came down, he wrote something on Facebook about how every day he gets coffee, takes a shower, and hopes that he is not confused for a suspect in a crime. Every day. These re the things that he does. For him to get to a point where he was saying that, for me, I was tearing up. I have tried to talk with him about race in the past, about different things that have come up to me and I have a difficult time with. And he is from here, he is older than me, and so he must have similar stories and he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when he wrote that, I thought, fuck. This is serious. This is fucking serious.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece today that suggests that it isn’t the conclusions of the case that are problematic, but the whole of the scenario. Specifically he suggests that based on the laws and presented evidence, he saw no reason for Zimmerman to be found guilty. He writes, “The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for the lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.” Martin’s existence was effectively criminalized. It’s not about how this case was won or lost, but it is about the long game.

I was looking at these memes, particularly Trayvon Martin photos and I found all of these right wing memes and the best they could do was this one in particular that addressed the photos that were being used in the press. There was that 5-year-old photo of Trayvon looking sweet at school contrasted against Zimmerman in his orange jumpsuit and it just said “Media Bias. You do that, two can play at this game.” And then there was a picture of Zimmerman in a suit next to a picture of Trayvon who has his shirt off, his pants sagged and he is giving the camera the finger.

And so the person looking at the picture is supposed to be glad that the guy in the suit killed the wise-ass?

Yeah, exactly. Like it evens out. It’s like, that is the best you can do? Try to find me one person in this room who doesn’t have a photo somewhere of them giving the finger to the camera. Good for you. You killed a teenager. Try to find me someone who doesn’t have a picture of them acting tough. It’s a weird layer cake of racism. They’re saying, see? He is a thug. And it’s like, no. You’re scared of a 100 pound kid with his shirt off. It’s just crazy.

A number of people suggested that there are white people making this about race when it isn’t. The racial element and commentary about racism is fabricated. If that is the case, why are you making this about race?

[Laughter]

Because I also saw a number of people suggest that the racism element was inserted by white liberals, particularly a white liberal media. But I mean, I have better things to do, really. I have my family, and work and my garden to tend to. It’s not like I go out of my way to find cases, look at them and think, “This case would be way more exciting if there was an element of racism injected into it!”

I have a friend who is a lefty green type and on paper, very progressive. He is white. So I was flying from Toronto to New York and I am on the plane and the plane is boarding and past me walks these Canadian ladies and we are sitting toward the rear of the cabin and she walks by me, doesn’t see me, and to her friend says, “Oh, I guess we are on the back of the bus.” My blood starts to boil right away.

So I drop my magazine and I remember the old white man sitting next to me start to really get into reading his. She was two seats behind me and there was no one between us at that point and I looked into her face and I said “I don’t think that ‘back of the bus’ shit is funny.” She froze, started laughing and then realized I wasn’t joking and she sort of froze and leaned back. Because she had no idea, she had no frame of reference culturally. She is Canadian. There was no Rosa Parks in Canada. Their racial rules are totally different. But I am mad so I sit back in my seat and they kind of whisper and as we are getting off the plane and I overhear her tell someone that she is going to New York and I lean in and tell her, “You know if you are going to stay in New York, you might want to leave your nigger jokes on the plane.” And then I left.

So I tell this to the aforementioned lefty friend and he says, “Oh, you said that? You shouldn’t have said that. And he behaves as if I was a white person talking to a black person saying that.

So he was suggesting no one should say that?

Yeah, that it can be as offensive to a white person as it can be to a black person. It’s crazy, and this person is so on point on so many things, but the fact is that this person is from a very white place and his views on race are very skewed because of it. And frankly I just don’t think it is as important to him.

I found it interesting that on Sunday, the day that the verdict came down, you posted on Facebook, “If you defend Zimmerman I will block you. If you try to post a funny retort to this status update I will block you.” What is your experience with dealing with issues like these via Facebook?

Once a week I am blocking somebody on Facebook because I have racist fans. I am ethnically vague, but I think very obviously I am playing a form of black music and I am wearing it on my sleeve. So if you are a fan of mine, you know who I am, what I am doing, the kind of music I am playing and more than likely you are a fan of that kind of music so to find a racist fan in that is infuriating.

When I was three I was in Tucson with my parents and we were at some county fair where they were pushing me in a stroller and this elderly white couple came up to me, looked into the stroller, and said, “What a cute, little niglet.” And they meant it as complementary. I think of those people as people that would be fans of mine, but then post this racist thing. A “look at the nigger dance” kind of thing.

So I have that happening like once a week where somebody posts some crazy racist shit and I have a natural want to try to get into. You know, “Let’s discuss this, you’re a reasonable person” sort of thing. But with the court decision, I realized it is not reasonable. It is not reasonable to have these sorts of thoughts now, in a time when you are recording me with a device that is both your phone and your computer at the same time. Now in 2013. I feel like that’s why. The world is too small to think like that and if you can figure out how to get a Facebook account, you can figure out how not to be racist. People don’t like being told that they’re wrong, and that’s often what it comes down to. Being told that you’re racist is being told that you’re wrong, and people can’t really deal with that. There is a way around that and a way to approach it, but to me, at this point, it’s like, “That’s your fucking mother’s job, not mine, and she failed.” This case was one of completely institutional racism. To look at this and not see the racism involved, or to discuss it, is to question your own humanity and I am not going to get into a discussion about people’s humanity.

Just to be sure, are you positive that the mainstream media has not fooled you into thinking there is a racial issue that’s not there?

I hope so. Because if not, then it’s legal to hunt black kids in Florida.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.