Canton examines criminalized groups throughout American history

David A. Canton, associate professor of history at Conn. College, presented a lecture titled “We Are Trayvon Martin: Or Are We?” on Thursday. The talk focused on the history of marginalized ethnic and racial groups in America.

Professor Canton of Conn. College discussed the historical implications of the Trayvon Martin case. Photo by Sevonna Brown.
Professor Canton of Conn. College discussed the historical implications of the Trayvon Martin case. Photo by Sevonna Brown.

Canton focuses his studies on African American urban history, civil rights and northern race relations. His recent book Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia won the 2011 W.E.B. Du Bois Book Prize. He currently directs the Center for Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Conn. College.

Given all of the coverage of the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin case, Canton said that “as a historian, [I have] to always go back.” Throughout American history, the stereotype of the person who automatically raises suspicion has changed. Canton said that on paper we are all American, so we are all Trayvon Martin. However, crime is racialized in America. In order to give some background on the Martin case, Canton discussed the 14th Amendment, which dictates the citizenship clause, the due process clause and the equal protection clause, before summarizing the dilemma at hand.

Canton then went through the history of marginalized and criminalized groups in America. From 1607-76, the “suspicious people” were “landless white men with guns,” he said. In this period, black slaves and white indentured servants socialized together and had a common agenda against rich white people. After Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, rich white people struck a race-based bargain to lower taxes on white people. This “constructed race-based slavery” in America, Canton said.

The next period he discussed stretched from 1676-1865, and was described as one that “[criminalized] a race.” The North saw slavery as economically obsolete, and white people, who were concerned about how black people would affect their economic prospects, introduced vagrancy laws, essentially telling blacks that “your crime is freedom,” according to Canton. This was the start of America’s disproportionately high black prison population.

After 1865, when the 13th Amendment freed slaves, the Ku Klux Klan arose as the first domestic terrorist group. Despite this, the new suspicious group became black men as “black male beast rapists,” even though just years earlier slave owners had “portrayed black men as children,” Canton said.

In the North from 1880-1920, the criminalized group came to be known as white ethnic groups, such as Irish, Italian and Eastern European people.

From 1920-45, the criminalized group was Mexican labor workers. “This isn’t a new issue,” Canton said, as “this country was founded on cheap labor.” Canton posited that the majority of Americans blamed Mexican laborers for the Great Depression and that the ‘Zoot Suit’ was the 1940 hoodie – the clothing item that Zimmerman alleges made him suspicious of Martin. Canton indicated that there have always been clothing styles “more equal than others” in America.

During World War II, new ethnic groups were criminalized. Even in the internment camps, Japanese Americans were “becoming more American.” The same happened to Italians and Germans, who were sent to Ellis Island. These groups, however, “by the second generation, can join the white team,” while black people remain marginalized.

In the Civil Rights Era and the Black Power Era, the new suspicious group was briefly the communist “Reds” during the Cold War. The Reds were quickly replaced, as civil rights workers became “a threat to white supremacy.” In the minds of the in-group, black power was reduced to black violence against true Americans. “Locking up black dudes … is in our nation’s DNA,” Canton said.

The next period Canton described was the war on drugs in the 1980s. Hip-hop culture became the new suspicious group. Incarceration became “the new Jim Crow.” Canton stated that the prison population of the U.S. has multiplied by a factor of 10 since 1980, mostly due to the war on drugs.

In the post-9/11 era, the new suspicious group is terrorists, and when we think of terrorists, “we think of Muslim guys,” Canton said. We construct who terrorists are, and we have applied race and religion to terror. “We all believe it,” Canton said.

Canton’s next showed a picture of Justin Bieber in order to talk about racial profiling. “White guys can ‘sag,’ wear hoodies and buy guns,” and they are still not suspicious because Bacon’s Rebellion linked rich and poor white men with privilege, he explained. Hoodies are simply a popular American clothing item, one worn even by Justin Bieber, and the clothing itself does not reveal anything about one’s character. However, as Canton said, our criminal justice system is based on “suspicion, not crime.”

For this reason, we all have to question ourselves, Canton said. Everyone thinks they are good, so the “hardest interrogation is of self.” We are all American, Canton said, but there are multiple tales within the American story, and race is a division that lasts. We must break away from the idea that every American can get by on hard work because not every American has the same background and life. We are getting better, Canton said, but “we have a long way to go.”