We're Shooting Elephants

Apr 6, 2012

Andre Perry discusses the Trayvon Martin shooting and our society.

In his classic essay titled “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell writes of a colonial, sub-divisional police officer’s experience in twentieth century Burma. The narrator, who we presume to be Orwell, reflects on the officer’s pursuit of a rampaging elephant in heat that was ravaging the fragile village that stood in the way of the humungous beast’s unpredictable path.  The impassioned elephant even killed a man who could not dodge the animal’s urges.

The policeman responded to the Burmans, who hated officers as much as the entire British occupation, by summoning for a rifle to simply scare the elephant into an unpopulated space and allow nature to take its course. The pursuit quickly became a hunt as two thousand members of the small community expected to see a breathtaking finale.

Eventually the officer sees the elephant grazing peacefully in the clear. But, he still has thousands of people on his heals with the unmistakable expectation of action.  Within the moments of a decision, the officer realized that he committed to killing the elephant when he grabbed his rifle.  The demands from the mob reinforced the commitment.  Orwell states, “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

Therefore, the policeman shoots the enormous elephant. He shoots it again, and again, and again and again.

We are killing elephants everyday. Trayvon Martin is the collateral damage of a society wanting action against the menacing black male.  The Trayvon Martin killing of February 26, 2012 is related to other cases in cities and towns across our country like New Orleans.  Martin is the brother of Justin Sipp who was killed days later on March 1 in a shootout with New Orleans Police officers after a traffic stop.  Trayvon Martin is the brother of Wendell Allen who was killed March 8th also by a New Orleans police officer; however, they killed the unarmed Allen during a drug bust.

Martin, Sipp and Allen are related by the unconscious bias, which we have all internalized, against black males. Researcher Alan Lambert posits that stereotyping is not just a conscious act.  Lambert found that bias could be thought of as implicit responses that are magnified in certain social settings through a loss of cognitive control.  In other words, societal prejudices are being internalized en masse, and we don’t give discrimination a second thought particularly in certain situations. 

Again, we all have internalized negative perceptions of black men.  All one has to do is turn on news or music video stations to see caricatures of stereotypes being lived out as the hyper-masculine, baller-shot caller gansta.  Certainly, we need organizations like the American Values Institute, Open Society and 2025 Black Men and Boys Network to help us to “re-imagine” black males so in the very least we don’t hunt innocent people down like animals. The high profile Martin case will bring attention to the issue.  However, too many black men who won’t make headlines are pilling up as the collateral damage of a society mobbing for action. 

The depth of our normalized suspicion of black men doesn’t just manifest itself in the “hustling game.”  In the New Orleans metro, deep racial disparities in the rates of employment, income as well as school suspension and expulsion should also be considered consequences of unconscious bias. 

The Greater New Orleans Data Center reported the New Orleans metro unemployment rate at 7.4 percent in 2010 was well below the national average of 9.6 percent, but minorities experienced unemployment at 12 percent locally.  African American and Hispanic Households earn 48 percent and 24 percent less income, respectively, than white households in the area. In neighboring Jefferson Parish, African-Americans comprise approximately half of students but received at least two-thirds of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions and three-quarters of the school-related arrests. Like the policing example of Zimmerman or the lesser know New Orleans case of Wendell Allen, employers and schools don’t give inequity a second thought. Our unconscious actions are leading to stark disparities and suffering.

The travesties of the day force us not to read Orwell’s essay as a benign metaphor or life lesson. We are shooting elephants everyday, and most of them look like Trayvon Martin.