Will justice be served?

April 12, 2012

The special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case has announced that George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Trayvon in a gated community in Florida a month and a half ago, has been arrested and charged with second degree murder.

Zimmerman was only charged after an outpouring of anger and protest around the country. Police and prosecutors in Sanford, Fla., initially decided against arresting Zimmerman because, they claimed, there was no evidence to contradict his claim of self-defense. But in the weeks since, Zimmerman's story that Trayvon was the aggressor unraveled, leaving millions of people to ask if a Black teenager claiming self-defense in the killing of a white neighborhood watch volunteer would go 45 days without being arrested.

Everything about the Trayvon Martin case--from the moment Zimmerman singled him out as "suspicious" to the foot-dragging response of authorities--shines a spotlight of the reality of racism in U.S. society. But as Danny Katch points out, that's an issue the political and media establishment say as little about as possible.

A FOREIGN visitor unfamiliar with America's racial pathology might not understand why the protests for Trayvon Martin are controversial. Virtually no one came out and said that George Zimmerman shouldn't be arrested, which has been the main demand of the marches so far. So where's the controversy?

Even gun nuts like the authors of Florida's vigilante "Stand Your Ground" law don't think Zimmerman has a legitimate claim to self-defense.

Ditto for John Lott, the author of "More Guns, Less Crime," a book whose Tarzan-ish title indicates his political leanings and possibly his intellect. In a FoxNews.com column mostly devoted to attacking the usual Fox Enemies (Obama, the liberal media, critical thinking, etc.), even Lott concedes that it should be that "a judge or jurors get to decide" if Zimmerman's defense is credible.

It's settled then. We all agree then that authorities were right to arrest George Zimmerman and bring the case to trial, even if they took too long to do it. Racial unity and harmony ensues.

Thousands of protesters marching for justice in New York City
Thousands of protesters marching for justice in New York City (Joe Lustri)

NOT SO fast. The problem, according to Newt Gingrich, is that people are "trying to turn it into a racial issue."

I am eagerly waiting for Gingrich to provide a non-racial explanation for what happened in Sanford. Are we supposed to view this as a debate over criminological theory? Perhaps the local authorities are radical post-modernists who question whether anything--forensic evidence, 911 call transcripts, eyewitness testimony--can really be considered the truth.

"Race-baiting" is the phrase of the day. It's right-wing shorthand for talking about race. Gingrich's comments were a response to the flash of empathy President Obama showed when he noted that a son of his would look like Trayvon. In so doing, Obama committed two counts of race-baiting--by acknowledging the skin color of both Zimmerman's murder victim and (gasp) himself.

It's race-baiting for those who don't personally know Zimmerman or Sanford officials to claim that their actions are influenced by melanin--so say the right-wing pundits who routinely denounce the "thug mentality" in urban neighborhoods they would never dream of visiting.

National figures like Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who marched in Florida are denounced as "Race Hustlers" on the cover of New York Post. (It must have been a heated debate in the editorial room to go with that over "Race Pimps and Ho's.")

Race-baiters are usually contrasted to the saintly Martin Luther King, who today is remembered as a civil rights version of a sitcom gay roommate: wise, nonthreatening, and only there to help make us all better people.

Of course, back in King's time, there actually was racism to call out. But America today is colorblind!

Or at least color-mute. African Americans are seeing their rates of poverty, unemployment and school segregation plunge down toward pre-1960s levels, but it's no longer legal for them to be told on the record that it's due to their race. In return, it's no longer acceptable for Black folks to "play the race card." It's a fair bargain: oppressors and oppressed are equally banned from naming the oppression.

Even though the movement for Trayvon has been led from the start by his family and local activists, conservatives like to target the big names like Jackson and Sharpton in the same way that they used to blame communists, civil rights workers and other "outside agitators" for stirring up the docile local "negroes."

If you think we've moved past that mentality, think about all the attention given to Trayvon's school record and Facebook page. A national debate quickly developed over whether Trayvon was an angel or a gangster, one of the good kind or the dangerous kind.

Of course, when an armed George Zimmerman decided to ignore a 911 dispatcher and follow Trayvon, all he knew about the teenager was that he was Black and that he was wearing a hoodie. Guess which detail some folks claim is more relevant?

When Geraldo Rivera said that the "hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman," and he's been well and widely mocked. But Rivera's Fox colleague Juan Williams made the exact same claim, albeit with a contradictory preface: "There is no fashion, no thug attitude that should be an invitation to murder. But these are the real murderous forces surrounding the Martin death."

Williams, already known for his fear of "Muslim garb," has become quite the fashionista. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Williams railed against not only hoodies but "jailhouse fashion," and he blasted the protests for not also targeting Black drug dealers, Black rappers and Black drop out rates--while quietly mentioning that he, too, thought Zimmerman should be arrested and tried.

I would hate to be on the demands committee for a demonstration these days. The critics have become so finicky--Occupy's demands are too broad, Trayvon's too narrow...

But I have the sense that the haters are going to have many more protests to critique in the coming years. The movement for Trayvon is not just a response to one incident. It comes out of the anger from last year's execution of Troy Davis, and it has flowed into dozens of actions around the country for local victims of police violence. Almost all these victims are African American, which in a country that really was colorblind would be an incredible coincidence.

The coming years could see a return of ghetto riots, which would be described by leading minds of the color-mute society as sudden outbreaks of racial conflict. That term is rarely used to describe the sufferings of African Americans from predatory home lending and unconstitutional stop-and-frisks by police--and it's never applied to civil service layoffs or urban deindustrialization.

The fear of the next Black uprising is ever-present in the conscience of American conservatives, which explains their hostile reaction even to protests whose main demand they don't even disagree with. It's the demands of tomorrow that scare them.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives