San­ford. And Son.

I didn’t intend to write another Trayvon Mar­tin arti­cle. Really. Once I had the time­line done, I hadn’t planned on say­ing any­thing more.

But yesterday’s news about the shoot­ing of five African-​​Americans by a Cau­casian man in Tulsa, Okla­homa, led me to con­sider how often our news is cast from a racial perspective.

It didn’t take long after the Mar­tin shoot­ing became national news for the story to become focused on racism. And once a story becomes a “racism” story, par­tic­u­larly when it involves a (half) Cau­casian shooter and an African-​​American with a bul­let to the chest, it starts to take on shades of “Ku Klux Klan hang­ings” on one side, and shades of “Tawana Braw­ley hoax” on the other.

These car­i­ca­tures become an insid­i­ous form of reduc­tio ad absur­dum.

In the Trayvon Mar­tin case, there are many par­tic­i­pants who may or may not have been moti­vated in their behav­iors by race. There is shooter George Zim­mer­man, of course. But then there are the peo­ple who called the police, and the police offi­cers who arrived on scene. There are the crime inves­ti­ga­tors, and the state jus­tice depart­ment offi­cials. There are those who spoke to the press in defense of Zim­mer­man, and those who spoke to the press against Zim­mer­man. And there are mil­lions of peo­ple on the Inter­net, each with an opin­ion that may or may not be based on fact.

San­ford res­i­dents did try to keep him out.

Then there are the more sub­tle forms of racism. The way that George Zim­mer­man assumed Trayvon Mar­tin was up to no good, an assump­tion that almost cer­tainly wouldn’t have been made had he instead seen a cute blond teenager. It’s the same sort of racism that leads some­one I know to be wary of an approach­ing African-​​American male, even to the point of cross­ing the street to avoid him — and this is an African-​​American male who feels this way. And it’s not ter­ri­bly far from the sort of racism that leads over half of African-​​Americans to fol­low the Mar­tin shoot­ing story very closely, while less than a fifth of Amer­i­cans of other races do.

We often find our­selves with this binary def­i­n­i­tion of racism: either some­one is, or is not, a racist. But that’s sim­ply not the way human beings work. There are plenty of peo­ple who are very happy to have Barack Obama as our Pres­i­dent, yet still would have felt at least a twinge of con­cern for their safety if they saw Mar­tin walk­ing up to them in a dark alley at night. As observed in the Broad­way musi­cal Avenue Q, everyone’s a lit­tle bit racist some­times.

So was Zim­mer­man being racist about Mar­tin? Absolutely, inso­far as his behav­ior was influ­enced by Martin’s race. But on the spec­trum of racism, Zim­mer­man seems pretty far from the mur­der­ers of James Byrd, Jr.

At first blush, there isn’t any pub­lic infor­ma­tion that would lead one to con­clude that the police offi­cers who went to the scene behaved in a man­ner that was racially influ­enced. They ques­tioned him at the scene, hand­cuffed him, and took him to the police sta­tion for ques­tion­ing. That very night, the lead inves­ti­ga­tor rec­om­mended that Zim­mer­man be charged with manslaugh­ter, which hardly sug­gests a racial bias. And, given the his­tory on Florida’s “stand your ground” law, it’s unsur­pris­ing that the state Attor­ney General’s office con­cluded that there wasn’t enough evi­dence to lead to a con­vic­tion. None of these actions sug­gest a racial motive among these participants.

Yet the offi­cers who inter­viewed the wit­nesses were unable to pre­vent their biases from com­ing through in their inter­views. After being influ­enced by Zimmerman’s ini­tial state­ment, they couldn’t help but pres­sure a wit­ness into say­ing that the per­son he saw being hit was Zim­mer­man. They couldn’t help but dis­count the state­ments of Mary Cutcher and Selma Mora, who called 911 shortly after Zim­mer­man shot Mar­tin, but whose state­ments con­tra­dicted the shooter’s account of the events lead­ing up to the fired shot. Did race con­tribute to their will­ing­ness to accept Zimmerman’s claim of self-​​defense? I doubt we’ll ever be able to tell.

And what of the many who weren’t directly involved in the case? Had the races been reversed:

  • Would Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cor­rine Brown (D-​​Jacksonville, FL), whose dis­trict includes the site of the shoot­ing, have been so quick to label Zim­mer­man a mur­derer (as she did on March 21 on the House floor)?
  • Would the con­ser­v­a­tive media still have sup­ported the shooter?
  • Would the New Black Pan­thers have offered a bounty for the cap­ture of the shooter?
  • Would Ger­aldo Rivera have blamed the victim’s clothing?
  • Would Jesse Jack­son have called the dead boy a martyr?
  • Would Spike Lee have (badly) attempted to spread the address of the shooter’s parents?
  • Would Al Sharp­ton have called for a boy­cott of the city of Sanford?
  • Would the Media Research Cen­ter have painted the shoot­ing as equiv­a­lent to the Tawana Braw­ley case?

From where I sit, it seems that the answer to all of these ques­tions is “no”. That makes race a moti­vat­ing fac­tor in every sin­gle one of those. And that makes every one of those involved at least a lit­tle bit racist.

We can’t address racist behav­ior until we stop pre­tend­ing that it’s a binary con­di­tion, or that racially-​​influenced behav­ior isn’t influ­enced by race. Until we stop, step back, and really look at the facts — not what we wish the facts to be — we will con­tinue to shout past each other, and accom­plish nothing.