White Picket Fences, White Innocence

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Black children in America are never innocent.  Innocence looks like Dick and Jane, our bright-eyed tour guides through the idyll of green lawns, lazy bike rides down hopscotched sidewalks, and the mystery meat treasure of sandboxes under blue skies that sparkle into eternity.  From the 1930s into the 1960s Dick and Jane taught America how to read the American dream.  Picture book primers with these two characters snaked through every schoolhouse from the Deep South to the rugged West of African American “Promised Land” reveries. Before the mainstreaming of phonics, the Dick and Jane primers were the first to provide sight reading instruction supposedly grounded in average everyday life.  In their sun-kissed freckle-faced average-ness, Dick and Jane schooled America in the cultural literacy of suburbia and the holy trinity of nuclear family, heterosexual marriage, and white supremacy.  Neat, well-dressed, ever-courteous, they established the template for a “normal” childhood of perfect single family homes in segregated subdivisions that would be tethered to the world’s largest interstate highway system in 1956.  Father was breadwinning and boozing. Mother was homemaking and Easy-Off sniffing.  Spot the family dog brooded faithfully at brother Dick’s side, primed to rip off the balls of any intruder.  Government subsidized Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans and GI Bill funded college educations smoothed the pathway for Dick and Jane’s nuclear bootstrapping.  Black vets and black families needn’t apply.

In her World War II era novel The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison begins almost every chapter with a bitter homage to the manufacturing of Dick and Jane. The book opens with “Here is the house.  It is green and white.  It has a red door.  It is very pretty. Here is the family.  Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane.”  On the next page the words blur together, spidery and damp, underscoring the brutal contrast between idyllic Americana and the novel’s blistering story of incest, racial apartheid, misogyny, and psychic degradation in the life of a black Midwestern family.

As metaphors for American innocence Dick and Jane continue to taunt and terrorize.  These are the bodies that matter, that are worthy of protection, that demand the kind of national security epitomized by America’s panting 24/7 tabloid obsession with all the missing Caylees, Jaycees, Chandras, Elizabeths, and Natalees.  This is the legacy of human value and worth that so-called “white Hispanic” neighborhood watch “captain” George Zimmerman, like scores of American children of all ethnicities, was steeped in when he murdered Trayvon Martin in cold blood. It is the code that gives law enforcement license to criminalize the lives of blacks while harboring white killers.  Some residents of the Sanford gated community where Martin was killed allege that Zimmerman targeted black men.  Early on, his white father sought to deflect charges of racism by trotting out his Latino heritage.  Yet reference to his “biracial” status hardly neutralizes claims that he subscribed to racist beliefs about black people.  In the U.S., Latino racial identification has always been fluid, whereas the categorization of blacks has historically been bound by the “one drop rule”, or the rule of hypodescent.  Reviewing the results of the 2010 Census the online publication Latino Decisions noted that, “the Latino population is responsible for much (74%) of (a) 6.5% increase in white population. This poses an interesting dilemma: Latino population growth is driving the national movement toward majority-minority status, but the rise in white identifying Latinos is also responsible for a renewed growth of the U.S. white population.” Indeed, the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2004 report also noted that nearly half of Latinos identified as white on the 2000 census.  So when the news of the shooting first broke, Zimmerman was variously identified as white, white Hispanic (by law enforcement) and Spanish-speaking.  In the eyes of the Orlando police, Zimmerman was able to occupy whiteness in a way that would never be afforded a biracial person with identifiable African heritage.  This kind of ambiguity—or what feminist activist Diane Arellano has called “lesser white status”—is part of what legitimized Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.

In his role as neighborhood watch captain, Zimmerman was upholding the time-honored tradition of white homeowners’ associations that protected white communities from dark interlopers.  During the era of restrictive covenants, pioneering 1940s subdivisions like Long Island’s Levittown New York ensured that black homebuyers were excluded through discriminatory clauses buttressed by the FHA, real estate brokers, private lenders, and banks.  In Los Angeles, black homebuyers who overstepped these boundaries were targeted, profiled, and often run out of their new homes by the local blockbusting “welcome wagon.”  These exclusionary white affirmative action policies solidified white middle class upward mobility. And their legacy can be felt in 21st century America as residential segregation continues to trump income.  According to Brown University’s 2011 “Separate and Unequal” report, “affluent blacks have only marginally higher contact with whites than poor blacks” and the overwhelming majority of all whites still live in white communities (regardless of class background).  Then as now, national security meant protecting white homes and white property values.  Open carry and stand your ground laws merely reinforce this regime by giving white citizens carte blanche to police the “dangerous” racial other.  Fifty-seven years after Emmett Till was lynched in the name of white womanhood, the murder of Trayvon Martin—a beautiful son, friend, and prospective college student—is yet another testament to the terror of white picket fence innocence.

White Picket Fences, White Innocence

15 thoughts on “White Picket Fences, White Innocence

  1. 1

    Great post: a very clear explanation of why “Zimmerman is hispanic so therefore the killing of Martin cannot be about enforcement of white supremacy” is total fucken bulleshitte.

  2. 2

    In his role as neighborhood watch captain, Zimmerman was upholding the time-honored tradition of white homeowners’ associations that protected white communities from dark interlopers.

    *wince* I’m ashamed that I missed that. I freakin’ LIVE in what I suspect used to be a “sundown town” in rural Texas, and in all this kerfuffle I never even thought of the defending-the-good-white-community angle.

    1. 2.1

      No? It was mentioned in almost every news report I read about this case that it happened in a white gated community. I kinda assumed that ‘gated community’ in itself means ‘keep them darkies out’.

      1. I’ve persistently seen figures that say the neighborhood is ~20% black in the news. Zimmerman has an established history of harassing his black neighbors as well, calling the police whenever he sees more than one at a time, jumping up at neighborhood watch meetings to accuse them of being responsible for any recent crimes/an alleged increase in crime generally*, etc. As I write this out, though, I realize that it only adds weight to the “protect the white neighborhood” narrative. The people who are into that narrative might easily consider this the time to double down on the vigilante shit, because now there are fewer legal means available to keep their neighborhood ‘pure.’

        *Alleged by Zimmerman, as I understand it; I’ve seen no reports that crime has been increasing in that area.

      2. Um, no, it’s not “WHITE gated community” being mentioned all over the place. Just “gated community” maybe with a fine-print mention of the percentage of minorities that live there. However, like you said, “gated community” implies good-white-people neighborhood, and that implication went completely over my head.

  3. 4

    If I can, I’d like to add a source to this discussion. The Southern Poverty Law Center put out a report last year which talks about the effect of refusing to teach civil rights history in the K-12 school system. To spoil the punchline, it affirms the assertion that conversations about race are not important to understanding history or current events, which is likely a contributing factor to the dynamics you’re discussing with white identified Hispanics.

    Report: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/teaching-the-movement-the-state-standards-we-deserve

    On a more personal note, I live in New Mexico, a state with a fairly high population of Hispanic and Native persons. It disturbs me to see in person the dynamics you’re describing; there is a great deal of paler/darker oppression dynamics between white-identified/white-appearing Hispanics and Hispanics who are darker skinned or Native or not middle class.

    1. 4.1

      I have to ask, why do you think we “Hispanics” (I hate that term, it has as much meaning as Eurasian) are any different than other Americans? In whatever country/culture we came from, we have the same problems to one extent or another.

      1. I don’t assume everyone who is Hispanic will be different, I’m just sad to see how ubiquitous pale skin privilege/oppression is. I suppose that it is naive of me to feel like the experience of oppression is necessarily uniting, and rather stupid, to boot. The cruelty of the divisions perpetuated by racial privilege just keeps going and going, and ever so often I am reminded by it.

        I am aware that my not seeing it all the time is a function of privilege.

  4. 7

    Great post. When you grow up and realize that behind every wholesome seeming thing you were ever taught that supposedly represented the best of the world was racism, bigotry, misoginy and hatred it makes watching leave it to beaver, reading the hardy boys and listening to country music almost impossible.

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