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The Trayvon Martin Case and the Growing Racial Divide

April 15th, 2012 - 12:27 pm

Two Racial Narratives—and the Current Hysteria

Polls show that the Trayvon Martin case has split the country apart over perceptions of race and justice, in ways that may dwarf the polarities of the O.J. Simpson trial days of 1994. Or does the new friction simply reflect an ongoing erosion in relations since 2009? Or is it all hype, and things are still about as they were?

This tension was not supposed to have increased with the election of Barack Obama, who ran on “healing” and “unity,” and who was proclaimed by supporters as ushering in a new post-racial age.

Here I list a few random examples of the new racial furies and conclude with the two irreconcilable narratives.

The Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Hollywood director Spike Lee tweeted what he thought was George Zimmerman’s address, in hopes, apparently, that vigilantes might assemble there. Ex-boxer Mike Tyson called for George Zimmerman’s death; the New Black Panther Party put a “dead or alive” bounty on his head, confident that there would never be a state or federal charge of conspiracy to commit a felony lodged against them. I think all these examples were more or less open calls for violence.

Many of the publicly reported “facts” of the yet to be tried Martin case really were in error and in error by design. Indeed, George Zimmerman was not white; he really did have head injuries; he did not employ a racial epithet on tape; he did not voluntarily profile on tape Martin as a “black”; there was indeed an altercation; Mr. Martin was not a preteen, tiny, and a model student; Zimmerman did not outweigh Martin by 100 pounds.

But such constructs were all necessary for the narrative of a white Germanic-sounding vigilante, who, after uttering racial slurs, executed a little African-American boy, then lied about a fight and injuries, and got off due to a racist police department and by extension a racist America. We don’t know what happened (murder, manslaughter, self-defense?), only that the above narrative did not happen. Most agree that when one party is shot, killed, and was not armed, then the evidence must be carefully reviewed to substantiate a self-defense plea; the objection is not to the review but to the prejudging of the review and public threats.

The Race Establishment

The problem with the race establishment is not its acrimony per se, but (a) that the acrimony is frozen in amber around 1960, with no acknowledgment of some 50 years of federal action and three new generations of Americans, and (b) the inordinate time invested in blaming “them” rather than spent on introspection on how to achieve parity with a majority culture in the manner of other minorities’ successes. Or at least that is how I perceive the growing anger at the Sharpton/Jackson/Black Caucus nexus.

One day, Rev. Wright, the president’s former pastor, is once again railing against Jews and whites; while on the next, Louis Farrakhan tours the country warning of the dangers of racial intermarriage and declaring Jesus a black man. No one rebukes such overt hatred. Revs. Jackson and Sharpton, as is their wont, flew to the center of the Martin case controversy, to be photographed and to “organize.” Al Sharpton is now rebooted from the days of his involvement in the Crown Heights and Freddy’s Fashion Mart cases. No one wishes to remember his derogatory comments about homosexuals, Jews, and Mormons, much less the Tawana Brawley matter in which he lost a defamation case after falsely accusing a state prosecutor of being one of the assailants. He has a nightly MSNBC show where he reports on his earlier daytime heroics; in some sense, he has eclipsed Jesse Jackson as the black community’s premier civil rights leader. I say that without irony but based on the official praise from the country’s leading officials.

Attorney General Eric Holder lauded the defamer of state prosecutors “for your partnership, your friendship, and your tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless, and to shine a light on the problems we must solve, and the promises we must fulfill,” and said of the ongoing Trayvon Martin case: “I know that many of you are greatly — and rightly — concerned about the recent shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young man whose future has been lost to the ages.” Holder’s “lost to the ages” quote bookends the president’s comment that Martin resembled the son he might have had. Whether those editorials will influence the jury pool in Florida no one knows, but I cannot remember a president and attorney general editorializing about a local criminal case before it has even gone to trial. If before the O.J. trial Bill Clinton had said that Nicole Simpson looked like the daughter he might have had, or had Janet Reno said Nicole was lost to the ages, well, fill in the blanks.

Holder himself almost seems to enjoy expressing his racial passions (e.g., “cowards,” “my people,” his allegations of racism against congressional overseers in the Fast and Furious inquiry, his accusations of racial profiling against the Arizona immigration law, which he confessed that he had not yet read, etc.). He chose not to prosecute the New Black Panther Party for voter intimation. Nor, apparently, has he much concern with the latter’s bounty on Zimmerman–or its radio station’s calls for a race war. If John Ashcroft had said anything similar, or had even Alberto Gonzales, proverbial hell would have broken loose.

From the Very Top

This attention to racial division is not new with this increasingly desperate administration. Before a Latino audience, President Obama blasted congressional Republicanism and soared with the following statement: “America should be a place where you can always make it if you try; a place where every child, no matter what they look like, where they come from, should have a chance to succeed.” The “look like” formula was popular and used also by First Lady Michelle Obama, who had also complained about a description of her White House infighting, written by a New York Times reporter: “That’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since, you know, the day Barack announced, that I’m some angry black woman.” None of these comments was helpful in erasing away the old “never been proud,” “raise the bar,” and “downright mean country” campaign tropes of 2008.

When Rick Perry referred to “a big black cloud that hangs over America — that debt, that is so monstrous,” charges of racism flew. Chris Matthews referred to Perry’s support of federalism with the quip “this is going to be Bull Connor with a smile.” At some point, every Republican nominee was alleged to be waging a racialist campaign, as we heard that Gingrich’s food stamp references were racist and still more about the segregationist past of Romney’s Mormon Church.

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