As the unnecessarily divisive and horribly overblown Zimmerman trial and its aftermath begin to fade into memory, it behooves us to gather our thoughts and ponder the notion that there are lessons to be learned from our folly, so that somehow, we can avoid the madness the next time a racially charged incident sears the consciousness of black people, reminding them of past — and present– injustices.
A folly, indeed. The incident that led to the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman is pregnant with counterfactuals, any one of which, if they had come to pass, might have allowed us to avoid the bitterness and sense of betrayal felt by so many. To wit:
1. If the shooting of Trayvon Martin had taken place in many other states, there would not have been 45 days between the time of Mr. Martin’s death and the arrest of George Zimmerman. Prosecutors in many states with narrower definitions of self-defense and no “stand your ground” law would have had far less leeway in deciding not to prosecute Zimmerman initially. This means there would not have been a need for a special prosecutor. Nor would the federal government have been given the opportunity to meddle in a purely local criminal matter and ratchet up racial tension by helping organize demonstrations against the Sanford authorities.
This is not to say that there would have been a jury in the U.S. that would have convicted Zimmerman. The reactions of the jurors in Sanford would probably have been the same as any in the country when presented with the same evidence. But the delay in indicting Zimmerman allowed groups and individuals with a political agenda to muscle their way forward to the microphone where they could scream their obscenities, half-truths, and outright falsehoods about Zimmerman, about Trayvon Martin, and about some people’s idea of “justice” in America. It is a sad commentary on the media that it is so often the partisan with the loudest voice and the most outrageous charge who ends up getting undeserved attention.
2. If the press had reported the story accurately, and fairly, the narratives that developed on both sides would have more closely resembled the truth as it was eventually understood and not been so wildly divergent as to give partisans ammunition with which to attack the other side. One expects agenda-driven journalism from most media sources. But one also expects the media to behave responsibly. NBC’s “mis-edit” of the 911 tape from that night that the network twisted to “prove” Mr. Zimmerman was profiling Trayvon Martin went beyond any agenda that might have been at work. In another age, there might have been an FCC investigation into whether the network would keep its broadcasting license. The reporting by Fox News (and much of the conservative media) on Trayvon Martin’s short life should also come in for heavy criticism. It played to the absolute worst stereotypes of a young black man in America. Martin was a “thug”; he smoked marijuana; he got into fights at school; he was perhaps immersed in the “gangsta” culture.
The fact that this description could be applied to a significant subset of young white males apparently was not considered relevant. Martin was no angel. Neither was Zimmerman. But bringing these “facts” forward about Mr. Martin was not intended to illuminate, but rather to justify Mr. Zimmerman’s actions.
3. If President Obama had picked up the phone and called Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, asking that they cease their inflammatory rhetoric, while issuing a statement asking for patience and harmony, the racial temperature might have been kept at a low simmer. Instead, it exploded into a hate-filled, exaggerated, near hysterical outrage, and the president of the United States took sides in the controversy by saying “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” and calling for investigating “every aspect of this.”
No one doubted whose side the president had taken. And in an already polarized situation, it was like throwing gasoline on a fire.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking to believe that there was anything that could have occurred in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting that would have headed off the explosion. As in a bad drama, the roles had already been cast, the plot had been written, and the stage had been set. Each side played their characters to perfection: the angry populists, the race baiters, the warriors against political correctness, the profilers, the politicians, and the whole gaggle of shouting, screaming, incoherent pundits who tried to tell us there were larger lessons to be learned from the shooting of Trayvon Martin — that the incident proved white racism, or black racism, or that gun laws are too liberal or not liberal enough.
There is only one lesson to be learned from this tragedy. It’s the same lesson we’ve been trying — and failing — to learn for 150 years: that whites and blacks in America will never be comfortable living together until we understand each other. And rather than use opportunities that incidents like the Zimmerman trial afford us to try and work past these vast differences in outlook, in culture, in how each race perceives reality, we use them to widen the chasm of understanding. The reason is simple: there is profit and fame to be had on both sides in acting the part of race baiter. By playing to the absolute worst instincts and prejudices of their partisans, those who seek racial conflict reap enormous personal rewards. They are considered heroes for battling political correctness or the white power structure. They receive tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees. They further their careers by tapping into the rage and emotional desperation of those who feel betrayed by “the system.”
Maybe it isn’t a question of “blame” as much as it is a matter of faith and hope. Black Americans don’t need Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton to tell them that living in a white world carries with it burdens that they shouldn’t have to carry as Americans. It is incomprehensible to them that Trayvon Martin’s death can be seen as anything but an injustice. Indeed, it is fair and proper to ask the following question: Had it been a young white boy walking in George Zimmerman’s neighborhood wearing a letterman jacket rather than a black kid wearing a hoodie, would George Zimmerman have been quite as zealous in carrying out his responsibilities as a neighborhood watch commander that rainy night? Every fair-minded American knows the answer to that question, and upon that answer rests the source of pain and cynicism for most of black America.
For perhaps the greatest counterfactual of all: Would this incident have even happened if Trayvon Martin had been white? Would Zimmerman have seen a white kid’s sauntering through the neighborhood in the same light as he saw Mr. Martin’s? Would he have been as suspicious? Would he even have bothered to call 911?
If you’re white, you probably believe we don’t have the answer to those questions. But black Americans think they do. Their perception is informed by life experiences that most whites can’t possibly comprehend. How could we when we can’t comprehend “driving while black,” or when casual racial stereotypes that are so offensive to blacks roll off the tongues of white people with regularity? It is a view of reality that whites have no way to fit into their consciousness, so alien and beyond the ken of understanding it is.
If it seems that this puts the burden of bridging the racial divide on whites, you would be correct. But with the way things stand, it also seems ridiculous to try. A “national conversation” about race? What are we going to talk about? What possible agenda could be developed that would even approach fairness or logic, or reason? Too many have too much invested in keeping the races at each other’s throats for any meaningful dialogue to arise from incidents like the death of Trayvon Martin.
And that may be a lesson we’ll be a long time learning.