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From the Trayvon Martin Tragedy to a National Travesty

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.