Trayvon Martin Was a Victim of Black-on-Black Crime

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It was nice to be some thousands of miles away when the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down. I confess to being about as skeptical of a guilty verdict as I was of the predictions of mass violence in response. But being back and having thought about this a bit, I think something needs to be pointed out. There is this horrible idea out there that we should bracket off murder; that Trayvon Martin was a victim of racism but Derrion Albert and Hadiya Pendleton were not. The thinking holds that black people are concerned about the violence done to them by people who aren't black, and forgiving of violence done to them by people who are.

But Derrion Albert and Hadiya Pendleton are no less victims of racism than Trayvon Martin. The neighborhoods in which these two young people were killed are a model of segregation funded and implemented by private citizens, realtors, business interests, the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and the federal government. This segregation is not a mistake but the desired outcome of racist social engineering. Beryl Satter's Family Properties helps us here:

Restrictive covenants were introduced in the 1920s. By the 1940s, Chicago led the nation in their use. Racial deed restrictions covered approximately half of the city's residential neighborhoods. Together, the bombings, "neighborhood improvement associations," realtors' sales policies, and restrictive covenants helped create Chicago's first all-black ghetto on the city's South Side. As historian Allan H. Spear explains, the ghettoization of Chicago's blacks "was not the result chiefly of poverty; nor did Negroes cluster out of choice. The ghetto was primarily the product of white hostility..." 

The FHA embraced these biases. It collected detailed maps of the present and likely future location of African Americans, and used them to determine which neighborhoods would be denied mortgage insurance. Since banks and savings and loan institutions often relied upon FHA rating maps when deciding where to grant their mortgages, the FHA's appraisal policies meant that blacks were excluded by definition from most mortgage loans. The FHA's Underwriting Manual also praised restrictive covenants as "the surest protection against undesirable encroachment" of "inharmonious racial groups." The FHA did not simply recommend the use of restrictive covenants but often insisted upon them as a condition for granting mortgage insurance.

Those black families that somehow overcame state-mandated segregation and attempted to leave the ghetto were greeted by "Improvement" organizations founded to resist "the invasion of white residence districts by the Negroes." The tactics endorsed by these improvement associations were nonviolent—until they weren't. Airport Homes, Cicero, and Fernwood all testify to the fact that the borders of the ghetto were patrolled not just by government policy but by the willingness of individual white citizens to resort to violence. 

Policies have consequences. The hands that forged the American ghettos are ours—and they are blood-stained. To claim that the ghettoes of Chicago, and all the violent deaths that flow from them, are the creation of white racism is not to make an overheated charge. It is to cite the historical record. It's not even history.  Arnold Hirsch's Making The Second Ghetto opens with this chilling quote:

Something is happening to lives and spirits that will never show up in the geat housing shortage of the late 40s. Something is happening to the children which might not show up in our social record until 1970.

Or 1975. That was the year that the term "black-on-black" crime was born. The phrase is a deceptive restating of basic truth—people tend to kill the people they live around. Black people are among the most hyper-segregated group in the country. The fact that black killers tend to kill other black people is not refutation of American racism, but the ultimate statement of American racism. 

Like so many other lost black boys, Trayvon Martin was killed close to home. He was killed by someone whom he lived around. His hoodie marked him, as surely as any gang color ever marked anyone. He was watched by George Zimmerman in the exact same way that I, and all my friends, were watched when we strayed into some other neighborhood. Indeed, one thinks of George Zimmerman's attitude and can't help but hear the moans of Kendrick Lamar ("Where your grandma stay, huh, my nigga?") And finally Martin was killed in a way that is very familiar to a lot of us: a sucker goes looking for trouble, finds it, and shoots his way out of an ass-kicking.

There are no fair ones in America. Recent events have born this out. Here is George Zimmerman speeding through town. Here is George Zimmerman touring the company that allowed him to take your son's life. Smile for the cameras, George. Here is George Zimmerman menacing his wife and then smashing the evidence. George Zimmerman claims his wife's father attacked him. Someone is always attacking George Zimmerman.

Black people see the relationship here. Jesse Jackson marched for Trayvon Martin—and then he marched for Hadiya Pendleton. It's worth listening to Hadiya Pendleton's mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton:

"I have a son that I am raising in this environment, under these circumstances. So now I have a youth that is not at risk because I'm raising him with certain value systems, but he is at risk of being viewed a certain kind of way," Cowley-Pendleton told MSNBC during an anti-gun violence summit in Chicago on Friday, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. "I have to do things and be boisterous to protect him before he gets to where he's going to go independently, walking down a street on his own with certain privileges and being misidentified as someone else. Right now he's 11. The Martins have already suffered and that's an awareness for the rest of us." 

That would be Trayvon Martin's parents. The story was written by Trymaine Lee, a black man, and a stellar journalist, who reported on Trayvon Martin and Hadiya Pendleton. There's no separation for us. We can't afford it. We've been talking about the plague of modern gun violence since the days of "Self-Destruction." People who are late to this, who do not know this, or who ignore this, are not filled with a sudden concern for Hadiya Pendleton so much as a sudden need to change the subject.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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