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From the Trayvon Martin Tragedy to a National Travesty

April 1st, 2012 - 4:05 pm

The Rules of Outrage — Or Why the Trayvon Martin Tragedy Divides the Country

Every year hundreds of Americans are shot and killed under controversial circumstances, where the evidence is incomplete and subject to dispute, often making impossible an immediate charge of murder or manslaughter, at least until further witnesses or information come forth.

We, the public, rarely, if ever, hear of such tragedies. These certainly are not national news items. What, then, made the Trayvon Martin shooting so different?

A few unpleasant facts were assumed that explain the subsequent protests—and the growing backlash against the protests. I think they run something like this, presented here without much editorial commentary.

1. If Trayvon Martin had been white, or George Zimmerman had been black, or had both been black or both white, there would have been no outrage: 94% of murdered blacks are killed by other blacks, to almost no national outcry. Just this past Friday in Florida, fourteen were gunned down (two killed) to silence (at a funeral parlor, no less), as the protestors of the single Martin fatality went ahead with further demonstrations.

Whites are far more likely to be murdered by blacks than vice versa, despite the latter comprising only 11-12% of the population — again to no national outcry. The distinction in this case was that Martin was black. Zimmerman was not. The rule in America is apparently that only rare white on black crime — not far more common black on black, or black on white, or white on white — is symbolic of larger pathologies, both past and present. In earlier decades of American history, the reverse was more likely true: black on white crime aroused public furor in a way white on white or black on black or white on black crime did not. That fact in time was accepted as clearly symptomatic of racial bias, but the inverse of that today is said not to be.

2. If George Zimmerman had been black and not charged with a felony, there would have been no outcry — given that black assailants of other blacks often are not charged because of the occasional difficulty of obtaining eyewitnesses’ affidavits and the unwillingness of many to testify in court (especially in gang-related violence), as well as the use of the self-defense plea. If no one comes forward with enough information to arrest all those who shot up a Florida funeral parlor last Friday, wounding fourteen and killing two, no one I fear will care all that much. Again, the apparent problem in the Martin case was that the one who was not immediately charged was white — and that again made it symbolic of supposedly larger pathologies.

3. George Zimmerman allegedly used a racial slur caught on tape. I say allegedly since the recording is scratchy and unclear. Yet we know the deceased self-identified himself on his twitter account with the N-word. One problem in this case is that everyone did not realize that someone not black who may have or have not invoked a racial slur is thereby rightly suspect — whereas one who is black may use racial slurs aplenty with impunity, understood as they are as terms of intimacy or endearment. When whites, remember, use racial epithets, it is symptomatic of larger pathologies; when blacks do, it enters the realm of sociological exegesis. It does not matter that there are social implications to young black males referring to each other with the infamous N-word — from matters of proverbial self-esteem to lowering the bar for the usage of such a slur by others. It matters only that non-blacks accept that they will hear the N-word frequently in rap lyrics, in movies, on some radio, and in colloquial speech and that they nevertheless realize that the omnipresent smear has not in fact now transmogrified into mere slang.

4. George Zimmerman, we are told, had credit problems. He had brushes with the law. He apparently displayed in the past a bad temper. All that was considered to be necessary background information to understand his motives on the night of the shooting. Trayvon Martin was suspended from school three times, for allegedly possessing drug paraphernalia, defacing school property with obscene graffiti, and possessing items not his own, as well as posting on the internet some disturbing references to apparent criminal activity. All such information was announced to be irrelevant to the issue of whether Martin may have provoked a fight, broken Mr. Zimmerman’s nose, or pounded the latter’s head into the pavement. Such background information about Martin was considered character assassination — that about Zimmerman a key to his criminal psyche. Whether such distinctions were predicated on the fact that Mr. Martin was black and Zimmerman white, or, conversely, that Mr. Martin was shot in the altercation and Mr. Zimmerman shot him, is not entirely clear.

5. Trayvon Martin’s mother, understandably, is upset that unflattering information about her deceased son is publicly aired, contrary to her own portrait (as is true of all mothers in extremis) of him as a model student. She is going to court to trademark the use of his name — not, it is promised, for commercial purposes, but to ensure that others do not. All publicity about the deceased that is positive is now rightly in the public domain and soon to be merchandised; all that is not is scurrilous and blame-the-victim defamation.

6. George Zimmerman is now referred to as “a white Hispanic” on the basis of his Hispanic mother and white father, although he would be classified as “Hispanic” should he have applied for a civil service job. The president of the United States, to my knowledge, is not supposed to be referred to as a “white African-American” due to the fact of one of his parents being white. Apparently the insertion of “white” into racial identification is to lessen the claim of the referent on victimhood. Or is the race industry worried that skin color or nomenclature can fool us into to thinking race is incidental to our personas?

Note that had Zimmerman preferred, as do many of mixed heritage, to Hispanicize his first name (e.g. Jorge) or use his mother’s Peruvian maiden name, he would be de facto “Latino,” and the case would have lost its white/black resonance. It surely would not have made the national news. Latino/black and black/Latino crime either offers no teachable moment in our ill society or provokes a counter-response from the Latino activist community.

7. One can be conscious of the fact that 2-3% of the population (young black males) commits over 30% of the nation’s crime; but if one were to use that information to guide one’s behavior then it is deplorable and degenerates into racial profiling.

The national emphasis is not on ensuring that 2-3% of the population does not commit 30% of the nation’s crime, but that the population not be aware of that fact for any particular use — or that it realize in the collective sense that society is responsible for such inordinate rates of crime. All media pundits and elites who live in New York and Washington (including the president of the United States) deplore racial profiling, but — in the selection of their children’s schools, in their preferred neighborhoods, in the decision where to shop or buy gas after hours, in the advice they give their teenagers who go out on Saturday nights — employ such general profiling and stereotypes hourly. Stranger still, so do young African-American males: black males who might wear cardigan sweaters and ties on the Saturday night street would be safer than those with hoodies and tattoos.

8. When the narrative of the case was first aired in the media — a white vigilante murderer with a Germanic sounding name had gunned down a preteen African-American child with skittles — the nation was outraged. The furor intensified especially when photos aired of the mug shot of Zimmerman, juxtaposed to that of the smiling preteen Martin, even as demonstrators preferred the photos of a hooded 17-teen-year-old, 6’2” Martin. I gather that for purposes of ethnic solidarity, Trayvon was to be portrayed as a defiant hooded 17-year-old; while for purposes of public empathy, he was also to be frozen in amber as a slight preteen in his football uniform. Were we the public not to be aware of that?

9. The New Black Panther Party quite quickly put a bounty out for the arrest of George Zimmerman. The director Spike Lee tweeted his supposed address in apparent hopes that a mob might assemble at his front door. These acts were cries of the heart, not potential felonies to be investigated by state or federal authorities — although should other organizations have emulated their actions in anger over a black suspect in a shooting of a non-black victim, warrants probably would have ensued.

10. In commentary on the case, pleas for patience and caution to ensure a full airing of the facts of the case were said to be symptomatic of callousness, if not racism; demands that immediate arrests and indictments follow from popular agitation were deemed liberal and ethical.

11. There was no expectation that either the president or attorney general would issue advisories, calling for a reduction in tensions while the criminal justice system investigated the shooting. Mr. Holder had little credibility as a disinterested adjudicator (cf. “cowards,” “my people,” charges of racism against congressional inquirers over Fast and Furious), and President Obama had lost his opportunity by bizarrely reminding the nation that the deceased would have resembled the son he never had. There is no credible administration voice calling for calm; nor can there now be. Did President Obama infer that had Mr. Martin been white, he would have been silent, or expressed no particular solidarity with the deceased — and thereby those of us who are not African-American should feel no special connection with the deceased because Mr. Martin did not look like our sons, but we should have, if he had? If so, then the president of the United States sees American society largely in tribal terms, where our own interests and empathy are predicated largely on kindred race.

Where do these realities of the case leave us?

Much of black America, and many liberals in general, believe that the Martin shooting is a classic reminder of both contemporary racial prejudice, and the wages of decades of discrimination and oppression in the United States. In such a climate and in a country with such a history, there is not necessarily logic to be found, or some sort of constructed equivalence. Instead, they accept that America is a racist society, and then all of the above assumptions take on a certain logic.

The problem?

There are millions of Americans who do not buy into the above paradigm. Millions of whites were born decades after the civil rights movement, and do not believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are privileged on the basis of their race. They came of age in the era of affirmative action, do not discriminate or tolerate discrimination, do not wish to utter the repulsive N-word, and, to be candid, often have experienced first-hand inordinately high black crime percentages. (My first two experiences with violent crime were as a graduate student in East Palo Alto in 1975, when an African-American male tried to break into my apartment with a bat, and when two African-American males tried to knock me off a bike and steal it.) For millions, then, the notion of collective guilt is less palatable. Millions of others are Latino, Asian, or of mixed heritage. In their view, fairly or not, they too do not accept many of the above premises: they do not see their apostasy as racism, and charges of racism cause them little worry. Nor do a growing number of blacks see their fates as predicated on the degree present of white racism.

In other words, we are left with the following paradoxes: the traditional civil rights industry will see the Martin case as an indictment against America, one deserving of compensatory and reparatory action from the majority, which they are prepared to oversee and adjudicate. The majority, of citizens, however, sees the current civil rights hierarchy as much of the problem with, not the solution to, the Martin tragedy. No, it is worse than that still: the Martin case has evoked renewed interest not in disproportionate rates of black crime alone, but in the civil rights leadership’s apparent lack of concern about it.

And Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman?

At this writing no one yet knows whether an edgy neighborhood watch bully gratuitously provoked an incident and shot an unarmed victim, or whether he was himself pounded to the pavement, when in self-defense reaching for a weapon to ward off his assailant — or neither of the above scenarios or something else still.

And increasingly few sadly seem to care to find out.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage photographed Ira Bostic / Shutterstock.com.)

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