Hope and Despair: A Week To Make You Question Your Country
Between work and the added parental duties of Summer, I haven’t been able to blog as much recently. But my complete lack of posts during the past week had nothing to do with my busy schedule. Rather, it’s hard to write coherently when you want to scream at the top of your lungs in every direction. A week ago yesterday brought the verdict in the Florida murder trial of George Zimmerman for the death of unarmed, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin.
As shocking as the not-guilty verdict was, it was hardly surprising. Still, the aftermath of the trial has been nothing short of nauseating. The usual suspects of right-wing bigotry and hatred were, of course, triumphant and celebratory. Watching the coverage, one got the feeling that media outlets such as Fox News were genuinely disappointed by the lack of rioting. (Perhaps explaining why many conservative Americans now believe it to be a “fact” that rioting did occur.)
In the wake of a trial during which Trayvon Martin (the victim!) was put on trial for his own murder, the right-wing media has gone into hyper-drive to smear Martin even more than they previously had. (Witness stupidest-man-on-the-internet Jim Hoft arguing that Trayvon’s iced tea and Skittles were obviously going to be used for making sizzurp when he got home. — Nevermind that he never made it home, or that Hoft has zero evidence for this claim, in fact has the recipe for sizzurp wrong, or that preemptively killing someone to prevent misuse of legal drugs is hardly an adequate defense.)
Still, the response of a racist right-wing media is hardly surprising. What is truly disturbing, though, are the thousands of white Americans who are undoubtedly good people, and who would never consider themselves to be racist, who nevertheless feel compelled to complain (some quite loudly) that this case wasn’t about race.
It’s a mantra with them. Stop seeing racism where there is none! This wasn’t about race, it was about self-defense! And yet, if they truly believe that, then they bought Zimmerman’s version of the night’s events hook, line, and sinker. As Trayvon is not here to give his version, why would people simply buy Zimmerman’s story? There is an assumption here that Trayvon must have done something to provoke Zimmerman. And there’s only one reason that assumption is made. Because we all know what young black men are like, don’t we? Thugs. Criminals. You’d better get them before they get you.
But back to the main thing: because these fine, upstanding white citizens say we should be beyond race, that clearly means the case was not about race. The trial judge said it, the prosecutor said it, the defense counsel said it, heck, even juror B37 said it wasn’t about race. Sheesh, when will you bleeding heart liberals listen?
Except that it was about race. Every single thing about this case was affected by race.
- George Zimmerman admitted that he profiled Martin because he was young and black, just like the perpetrators of recent burglaries in the neighborhood. (Although, since those burglaries went unsolved it is unclear how Zimmerman, or anyone, knows the perpetrators were black.)
- In the aftermath of the shooting, police simply accepted Zimmerman’s version of events and thus didn’t adequately secure the scene to vigorously recover forensic evidence.
- Police did not test Zimmerman for alcohol or drugs, but they did test Trayvon Martin.
- The police didn’t even notify Martin’s parents. They had to file a missing persons report before they learned of their son’s death.
- It took six weeks filled with protests and outrage at the national level before Zimmerman was even arrested.
- The trial judge expressly prohibited the prosecution from using race as part of its case, and instructed jurors to that effect.
For all the talk of Florida’s heinous “Stand Your Ground” (aka Shoot First) law, the defense never invoked it. Still, they didn’t have to, because the jury took it into account anyway, deciding that it didn’t matter if Zimmerman created the entire situation by following Martin. It didn’t matter who swung first (although they took George’s word that it was Martin.) All that mattered was that Zimmerman felt his life was in danger. Heaven forbid that he should be expected to retreat. He feared for his life and so he was justified in shooting. And who wouldn’t fear for their life? After all, Trayvon was a somewhat tall (5’11”, not 6′ 2″ as many right wing sites would have you believe), somewhat skinny (158 lbs.), African-American boy just 3 weeks past his 17th birthday.
I could go on and on about the injustice in the way many Americans have treated the victim of this crime. Suffice it to say, though, that they’ve taken a perfectly normal young man, about whom no one that knew him has had anything bad to say and turned him into a hulking thug, addled by pot-smoking and gawd-only-knows what else, with a chip on his shoulder who took the first chance he had to beat up on a white man. (There seems to be no concern that maybe Trayvon was terrified that night. After all, he was a 17 year-old kid being stalked by a grown man.)
Luckily for George Zimmerman, African-American boys in this country, as Eugene Robinson writes in a piece you really ought to read, aren’t allowed to be children. They are suspect and responsible. Last week, a Florida jury found a 17 year old boy more responsible for his own death than the 29 year-old adult who stalked, confronted, and shot him. Now you tell me that’s not due in some way to racial preconceptions.
On Friday, President Obama made an unscheduled appearance at the daily White House press briefing and delivered a heart-felt statement about the Zimmerman verdict and the status of race relations in the US. He talked about how we can go about rescuing a generation of black boys from the inequity intrinsic in our institutions. He spoke personally of being profiled throughout his life. He spoke about the fact that despite our best intentions, there is history, there is intrinsic bias, and yes, there is still racism.
If Americans had listened with empathetic ears, they would have grasped just a little bit of what it’s like to be young, black and male in America. Many Americans did hear that message and were moved. On the other hand, the clowns on the right went berserk. “Race-baiter in chief!” “Obama’s the real racist!” “He’s trying to tear our country apart!” And on and on it went…
And it wasn’t just the idiots we’ve come to expect. Sure, it was Fox, and Breitbart, and Malkin, and the nutty freepers at FreeRepublic… but it was also all over Twitter. And not just from the old-guard #TCOT faction full of mostly 55+ white conservatives, but from a whole slew of people with awfully young-looking profile pics. And that, for me, was when despair set in. Because we often feel better in the midst of this ugliness when we remind ourselves that the most vile, intolerant bigots are slowly dying off. The Twitter display on Friday showed a disturbing number of twenty-somethings thrilled to have a chance to post tweets calling their president a nigger.
So each time someone earnestly tries to tell me that racism in the US is over because we’ve elected a black President, I see red. If anything, the election of Barack Obama has made the heretofore quiet, modern American racism more overt and more vocal. Sure, 51% of voters elected our first black president. Maybe (maybe) most of them are free of racism – but that still leaves 49% who didn’t vote for him. What of them? I’m not saying that everyone who voted for McCain or Romney is a racist, but I think it demonstrates just how ridiculous it is to point to Obama’s presidency as proof that we’re living in a post-racial world.
It’s a beautiful dream, and perhaps one day we’ll get there. But we’re not there now, and we won’t get there if well-meaning people stick their heads in the sand and refuse to see the remaining work to be done.