Martin case distracted from real racial issues
BY NEIL STEINBERG Sun-Times Columnist firstname.lastname@example.org July 28, 2013 10:34PM
FILE -This combo image made from file photos shows Trayvon Martin, left, and George Zimmerman. The jury in the trial of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman began deliberating his fate, Friday, July 12, 2013, on charges in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. (AP Photos, File)
Updated: August 30, 2013 6:45AM
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.