Racism in Sanford
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.
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.
- Sanford’s Original Sin, and America’s (thedailybeast.com)
- Need a crash course in racism? Just ask Republicans (bazaardaily.com)
- Trayvon Martin’s death leaves town divided, struggling with stigma (cnn.com)
- Trayvon Protesters: Beware ‘Indignation Fatigue’ (newser.com)
- The Trayvon Martin Shooting: Examples of Institutional and Interpersonal Racism? (everydaysociologyblog.com)
- Van Jones speaks about Trayvon Martin and the ‘privatization of racial violence’ (dailykos.com)
- Why Race Isn’t the Issue In the Martin/Zimmerman Case (thecollegeconservative.com)
- Poll: Trayvon Martin Opinion Break Along Racial Lines (miami.cbslocal.com)
- Purported Zimmerman family letter demands NAACP ‘call off the dogs’ (thegrio.com)
- Trayvon Martin and the grievance factory (esr.ibiblio.org)
- From the Trayvon Martin Tragedy to a National Travesty (wyldgoose.wordpress.com)
- Attorney says Zimmerman not racist (local10.com)