Ask the White Guy: Is Trayvon Today’s Emmett Till

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


Q: Some very prominent Americans compared Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till. Do you agree with this comparison

A: Recently, I was talking to a very accomplished Black woman corporate executive. She has two sons and was with her family at a hotel when the Zimmerman acquittal was broadcast. She was in a public space where a group of people were watching a television. They cheered. How do you think she felt Her sons Her husband When she relayed this story to me, her voice broke as she described teaching her sons how to behave when a cop pulls them over. In America. In 2013.

My answer to your question is: yes. I doubt George Zimmerman was motivated by hate as much as the men who killed Emmett Till in 1955, but many people in crowds that cheered his acquittal sure are. The difference is in the nature of the oppressor and the motivations for cultivating that hate. That said, the conditions for the oppressed are much the same.

I think our country is facing a cabal of loosely associated self-interests that are prolonging the misery of groups that can be defined by race. Gun manufacturers benefit greatly from “Shall Carry” and “Stand Your Ground” laws—as they do from the war on drugs. (Inner-city shooters in New Jersey all have the latest handguns, and manufacturers know damned well which of their distributors are involved in straw purchases.) The for-profit prison industry was created and is sustained because of the war on drugs. Other folks involved in this loose association include the people in our Congress advocating for the impeachment of the President, a natural outgrowth of the birther movement. Nobody can tell me it’s not driven by the President’s being Black. A guy who loses his job as governor (for “hiking the Appalachian Trail”) wins a seat in Congress on a platform of “a vote for me is a vote against Obama.”

So all these “special interests” are driving their financially motivated self-interests by cultivating hate. The easiest target for these special interests is middle-aged white men*, especially those not happy with their lives and/or career progressions. The oldest trick in the book is to find a scapegoat; all despotic movements do it—al-Qaida is doing it now.

Poor Trayvon gets to be the Emmett of his generation. Although I don’t think Zimmerman has the mental capacity for cruelty that Emmitt’s murderers had, people cheered when Emmitt’s murderers were acquitted as well. People are trying to smear Trayvon’s character (Skittles and Robitussin) just like people tried to smear Emmett’s character.

Again, at the bottom of it all is economics. The oppressed are pretty much where they were 50 years ago. How does our country benefit

* Almost 100 percent of the hate mail I get is from white men. Now that I’m in my mid-50s, I can see from my acquaintances and friends that men are vastly more angry about their perceived lack of success than women. I’m one of the fortunate few men of my age who is comfortable with where I’ve taken my life; many men are not. They don’t make the connection (as they rail about the poor life choices of poor people) that they were the master of their own destiny as well—and they don’t see that it wasn’t “affirmative action” that caused their problems. One of the most regular hate mailers to my site is a factory hand at a DiversityInc Top 50 company. He’s gone on and on for years, pouring his frustrations into hate for other people.

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