President Obama did an effective job a couple of weeks ago, I thought, of giving voice to why African-Americans tended to see the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as a racial incident. A lot of Americans had been waiting some time for him to say something similar.
This past week, author Jesmyn Ward writes about her experiences of growing up black in Mississippi in the 1980s, as well as her family’s history of far worse experiences, including the murder of her great-great-grandfather in the 1930s by white thugs who were never held accountable. It is a passionate account, the type we have been seeing more in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal.
Ward concludes her essay with a paragraph this is both powerful and chilling:
In the end, I learned that all I could do against something so great and overwhelming, all those histories and years and lives and deaths and threats secreted like seeds, was to open my mouth and speak. I could not let it silence me as it had done when I was younger. There is power in naming racism for what it is, in shining a bright light on it, brighter than any torch or flashlight. A thing as simple as naming it allows us to root it out of the darkness and hushed conversation where it likes to breed like roaches. It makes us acknowledge it. Confront it. And in confronting it, we rob it of some of its dark pull. Its senseless, cold drag. When we speak, we assert our human dignity. That is the worth of a word.
The powerful part of this message is that it reminds us that we can’t forget our past or ignore our present and persistent problems with race. No argument there.
The chilling part is this: Ward seems unconscious of the destructive effects of naming something racism when it is, in fact, not racism. The power of naming something is a power that, like any important power, needs to be used very cautiously. Indeed, the abuse of that power can seriously undermine the progress most people want to continue.
Which brings us to the case of George Zimmerman, the man whose foolish actions brought the life of an unarmed young man to a tragic end. There are many aspects of this case that deserve social scrutiny and discussion. Any time a civilian carries a gun into a contentious situation is a case that deserves scrutiny. But is this really about race?
We cannot ever know this for sure, but there are ample reasons to be very cautious. A large, hooded young man walking at night comes into the view of an overzealous man wanting to protect his neighborhood. President Obama said after the incident that this could have been his son. Well, I got news for everyone. It could have been my son, too. And it probably could have been yours.
Guess what, America? In case you haven’t noticed, young white men walk around in practically every neighborhood in America wearing hoodies and baggy pants. And so do Asians, Hispanics, Italians, and Greeks. Hasidic Jews probably would, too, if the young men thought they could get away with it. Before the 911-operator asked the race of Martin (and before Zimmerman mentioned it—a fact that NBC news intentionally edited out, for which they deserve the hefty defamation lawsuit that seems to be headed their way), Zimmerman was complaining about the “punks” always getting away with it.
So everyone can look into his heart and tell he meant “black punks?” My bet is that if you go up to a group of hoodie-clad white kids at the skateboard park, they can regale you with stories about how they are hassled by the police, given dirty looks by passers-by, judged by nothing more than their appearance. This is likely even more to be true if they tattoos or piercings or long hair or low-riding jeans or if they specialize—as many young men of all races do—in giving menacing looks to passers-by.
Is any of this fair? Not particularly, but let’s not forget that almost all violent crime in America is committed by adolescent and young adult males. There is very little more deeply embedded in our human nature than the inclination to quickly assess threats and to respond—often with little or any conscious thought. Are those quick threat assessments shaped by social attitudes (as well as social realities)? Sure they are. But they are still enormously complex.
The potential threat from an interaction with another person is a function of many things: time of day, place, age, gender, mannerisms, clothing, body size and type, and, yes, race. But in many situations race is completely incidental to the threat assessment.
If you heard footsteps behind you in the afternoon and turned around to see a middle-aged woman in a frumpy business suit, it would not make an iota of difference whether said woman was white or black. Frumpy, middle-aged women do not scare anyone who is not married to them. Similarly, if you were in a urban, high-crime neighborhood late at night and heard heavy footsteps behind you and turned and saw a large, young man, head covered by a hoodie, hands in his pockets, and a menacing look on his face, most people (with good reason!) would feel at least a little fear, and they would react. It would make little difference whether that face was a white one or a black one. Context matters.
That black men are much more likely to be seen as threatening (and are much more likely to be the victims of crime, not coincidentally) are social facts that deserve attention. But to racialize an individual case that seems to be about everything but race doesn’t help us address those social facts. All it does is inflame passions and harden walls. The media love to tell stories about evil white people (even if they have to make them up—such as by flooding the airwaves with pictures of a much younger, smiling Martin and a menacing-looking photo of Zimmerman), and the old guard civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have nothing else of value to get themselves on TV except by jumping at every opportunity to call someone a racist. If a case with so much uncertainty and reasonable doubt is the only one that the race-card-players can latch onto, then maybe things have improved more than previously thought.
I can understand why many blacks immediately want to cast this story in terms primarily of race. Those visceral reactions are there for reasons, important reasons that we need to keep talking about. But that doesn’t mean that we should let the visceral reactions carry the day, that we let empathy conquer good judgment.
I appreciated the President’s comments, but I was also saddened. It is good to have a President who can say, “I understand.” It would be even better to have a President brave enough to say, “I understand, but….”