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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Trayvon Martin was a distraction from the real issues

     It's late, I know. All the pundits were opining on Trayvon Martin LAST week. But I don't like to jump in and yabber on cue. You're allowed to think about things, and if race was an issue last week, it's still an issue this week. It hasn't gone away yet.  I was looking at the after echoes of the case, and realized I had said nothing, and that maybe I should try to say what's on my mind.

     OK, I’ll bite.
     After reading the umpteenth post-verdict piece of punditry calling for a national conversation about race in America in the wake of vigilante George Zimmerman being exonerated for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, I began to wonder if maybe it’s time to stop pressing my lips together and join in.
     After all, it has been well over a year since I’ve written about the case. And it’s been two weeks since the verdict. Time enough for passions to cool, maybe a little bit.
     No mystery as to the reluctance — race is not only the third rail in American politics, but in journalism too. Touch it at your peril.
     At least for white folks — say the wrong thing and you’re a racist. Time was, you used to have to actually spew racial hate to be a racist; nowadays, any opinion that somebody doesn’t like will do.
     When black pundits call for a conversation about race in America — and it seems to be primarily black pundits, plus, of course, the president — they seem to mean themselves. Whenever the rare white guy is emboldened enough to chime in, such as Roger Simon, or, I guess, now me, we’re invariably told it’s a Black Thing and we just wouldn’t understand. At least that’s what I hear from many quarters whenever I address race: You just don’t get it.
     Which seems a self-defeating notion, because if whites, by definition, can't under­stand and shouldn't express what they believe is true, because they'll never understand, then we're sort of off the hook, aren't we? Isn't that a formula for whites to shrug their shoulders and ignore the whole thing? Which is kinda what most of us want to do anyway. But that's too easy.
     So let's talk about race and Trayvon Martin, and why the case has become such a focal point and rallying cry. President Barack Obama, in his moving speech, talked of the experience of black men being followed in stores, of having white women cling more tightly to their purses in elevators.
     The implication is that white fear—or in Zimmerman's case, Hispanic fear—as reflected in the case, is an important problem in the black experience today.
     No question it is a problem. And not to diminish the badness of it. But being followed in stores is not really the crux of the challenge that blacks face, is it? Because if it is, we're already in the Promised Land. That's why the Trayvon Martin case puzzled whites, when we saw the emotion wrung over it. "We are at war!" a black Florida pastor declared. Well, yeah, a war being conducted by other young black men, not by white bigots or armed Hispanic vigilantes. Blacks make up 13 percent of the American population yet constitute 55 percent of the murder victims. They're killed 93 percent of the time by other blacks.
     To me, the Trayvon Martin case is so popular because it's a distraction from the hard truth, a chance to cast the problem not as something blacks must take the lead in fixing—to stop killing each other—but as something being done to them. The case is being clung to not because it represents something crucial, but because it's a chance to offload responsibility elsewhere.
     Last time I looked, the major problem facing African Americans was not white bigotry—not anymore—but the enormous zones of poverty, crime, drug use, despair and dysfunction that ring every city. Not totally; there's a struggling black middle class with its own concerns. But if we're talking about key black issues, we're talking about the inner city. Blacks didn't create the situation they're in; that's the undeniable product of several centuries of slavery plus 100 years of Jim Crow repression that ended last week, assuming it's actually ended. But that's that situation they have to come to grips with.
     What fixes it? Education, jobs, anti-drug programs, strengthening families, a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, which wasn't designed as a Gulag to destroy the lives of young black men, but essentially functions that way.
     That's a tall order. It's easier to focus on Trayvon Martin than face the fact the average white family has six times the wealth of the average black family. Or that for every $1 earned by blacks, whites earn $2.
     Bigots tried to slur Trayvon Martin into some kind of thug, freely fictionalizing his image. Blacks erred in the other direction, trying to make him into a saint, an Emmett Till figure in an era when the kind of gross physical repression that Till suffered has all but vanished. Now racism is much more silent and subtle, much more worked into the entire system, which is rigged against a wide swath of black youth who aren't killed, but still never have a chance in life. It has nothing to do with racial profiling or Stand Your Ground laws or Trayvon Martin, but is something uglier and tougher to confront. I'm sorry to be the one who has to say it.


  1. You write about liberal causes and are merely emboldened when the right tells you you don't understand.

    You write about Christianity and allow your reason and insight accompany you through the objections of bigots who tell you that a Jew is not qualified to wander into that territory.

    You sure as hell don't let your lack of Portuguese or understanding of Brasilian culture keep you from fighting with an entire nation.

    So what happens to that bravado when confronted with the equally unfounded objections of the overly defensive when it comes to race? It's not like you have a Paula Deen past to keep covered up.

  2. Just about all you say here makes sense and is true, but, I have heard black leaders including the President make the same points concerning black-on-black crime and the complex, difficult roots of the problem and its "solutions" which we never seem willing to research and invest the resources to tackle in any halfway meaningful way.
    Also, in my circle of people who are " white like me", there are a majority who really "don't understand" what it is to try and raise an African American male in America anywhere, even far from the hood. My husband is a smart guy, a scientist with multiple degrees who is horrified by the hateful, outright racism that permeates some corners of our society, but, he "does not understand" the lack of trust in the police that black males everywhere in large numbers have. This is still "news" to him that he has to hear explained from the mouths of African Americans to begin to walk in their shoes.
    Finally, I admit, as a teacher, I get real irritated with everybody who ever had a teacher thinking they know how the job should/could be done better. To some degree, we probably all need to defer a little more to those who have walked the tough walk, and ask them questions and listen, instead of offering our less educated/credible opinions.

  3. Good column. Had Trayvon Martin died from the bullet shot by another black youth, this would be a one day story mixed in with the half-dozen shootings in other neighborhoods. I only hope the outcry against gun violence will focus on the real problem; the epidemic of violent death in low income urban settings. Something African Americans and whites are strangely accepting of while outraged at the thought of a crime related to racial profiling.

  4. So white people are afraid of engaging in a dialogue about race because they are afraid of being branded racists? I disagree. Within the civil rights and progressive community, there are scores of white people who are at work with black people, helping to address the issues of racial inequity in this country. Somehow they figured it out. And in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, I've read and heard truly compassionate and heartfelt statements from white people who want to speak to and do something about the race issue. Those who really want to heal and help have always found a way.

  5. Good point Lee, as always. Maybe I'm speaking for myself. This issue always interests me -- I can't see how any responsible citizen wouldn't be engaged here -- and I always get the reaction I describe. The key phrase in your comment is "within the civil rights and progressive community." How big is that community? And what's it like OUTSIDE that community?

  6. Thanks, Neil! And I used "civil rights and progressive" community as an example of people who are not only talking, but working together. And that's the key. How big is the community? As large as the people who want to join it, or join some aspects of it. I know some politically conservative Catholics, for example, who will fight to the death for some aspects of what could be a liberal agenda, such as fair housing and employment and lending practices for blacks and minorities. There a lot of places where black people and white people intersect to deal with race. But it work best when the dialogue leads to action.


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