Why do we do this all the damn time? How come every 4-5 years something happens and we turn it into a Racial Event without letting the facts come out? It’s the most predictable, depressing process. White person allegedly commits crime against black person, racial connotations are implied by the press. As tension heightens, we roll out the aging civil rights figures (an increasingly archaic and unnecessary class of pundit) to dreamweave a narrative where the United States has not changed racially in 50 years. Others, increasingly shrill, compete to be the most outraged and anyone who disagrees is a racist and an idiot.
So now, as with all of these Racial Events, the Trayvon Martin case has reached a point where it is nearly impossible to talk rationally about it. But its possible for TWO.
1. The Specific Narrative
On February 26th, 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, a man who says he acted in self-defense but who may have been an over-zealous (and racist) neighborhood watch captain. He was not arrested. By March 21st, Al Sharpton had organized a rally and by March 23, President Obama was commenting on the murder.
When a murder becomes a symbol of a broader systemic issue – in this case, racist treatment by police and unfair stereotyping of black youth by society in general –such attention risks swallowing the event itself. The media uses inflammatory language to get ratings and page views, the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of this world swoop in, and people on facebook and twitter frantically update their feeds, increasingly outraged. During the process (indeed, in order for this process to work) the unfortunate people actually involved in the incident are reduced to caricatures – oversimplified manifestations of good and evil – in the story that the participating public has constructed for them. Trayvon Martin the human becomes Trayvon Martin the symbol – the innocent 17 year old black kid returning from the store where he bought Skittles. George Zimmerman the human becomes George Zimmerman the White Hispanic (?), bigot and cold-blooded murderer.
However, the truth (which some of us still care about) is rarely without nuance. First, it turns out that George Zimmerman was a mentor to black youths and, if his friends and defenders are to be believed, not a racist at all. Trayvon Martin, meanwhile, was suspended from school for drug paraphernalia possession, had recently assaulted a bus driver and apparently beat George Zimmerman severely before being shot (this last point is, of course, the most salient).
The media, complicit in all of this, has only shown photographs of Trayvon Martin from 5 to 6 years ago – a young and innocent looking boy, while withholding more recent photographs where Trayvon looks a bit more streetwise. Meanwhile, the photographs of George Zimmerman are apparently from years ago and he has since lost 40 pounds. The effect of this is obvious – George Zimmerman is meant to look dangerous while Trayvon appears entirely non-threatening. The media wants these characters to stay true to its preferred storyline.
The point is not that George Zimmerman should or shouldn’t be arrested. The point is a narrative has been forced upon the public by the media, and by opportunists like Jackson and Sharpton, that may not reflect reality. Let the facts come out.
2. The Broader Narrative.
Assume for a moment that George Zimmerman is guilty of everything the media has assumed about him. In that case, I would still object to the broader narrative presented by the Trayvon Martin uproar – that white on black racism and crime is a major social issue. In 2012, that is simply not the case.
One would think, based on the media coverage, that white people shooting black people in hoodies is a national epidemic. It turns out that this is not the case. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of black murder victims are killed by other black people. Why no outrage there? Where are the marches? Where are the calls for change?
The marches aren’t there because protesting black on black crime is not a comfortable or familiar narrative. In the United States, we are comfortable with certain storylines – in this case, the storyline that informs is black victimization at the hands of white oppressors. Of course, this narrative is an accurate representation of what went on in this country until the 1950s and 60s. Fueled largely by this historical baseline (as well as lingering guilt and fear of being called a racist), white people are hesitant to note that the treatment of black Americans has greatly improved over the last 50 years and that white on black racism is no longer a major social issue. Are there individual racists? Sure. No matter how civilized we become, we will never entirely eradicate humankind of all evil. However, individual instances of racism do not necessarily indicate that there exists a broader systemic problem. It boggles the mind that a society could exert such energy on this anomalous event while ignoring true systemic issues.
In conclusion, don’t rush to judgment…After all, a rush to judgment is exactly what you are accusing George Zimmerman of doing in the first place.