After Trayvon and Zimmerman: Talking, talking, talking about race

We talk about race plenty in America - one long monologue after another on top of the other. Talk less, listen more. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, July 17, 2013 — Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday that it’s time for America to hold a dialogue about race. In his remarks to the 104th NAACP Convention in Orlando Holder declared, “Today, starting here and starting now, it’s time to commit ourselves to a respectful, responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality so we can meet division and confusion with understanding, with compassion and ultimately with truth, however hard that is.”


SEE RELATED: Zimmerman in the hands of Eric Holder: Is this justice?


President Obama and others have called for a “dialogue about race” over and over again. The cable news programs have seemed to be about little else for the last week. It sometimes seems that the problem isn’t lack of dialogue about race, but that it’s a dialogue that never ends.

In fact, there really has been little dialogue about race in America. Instead we have an interminable series of monologues. We can’t stop talking about race. It’s just that no one says anything that anyone else wants to hear.

The role of race in the Trayvon Martin shooting, the charges brought against George Zimmerman, and then Zimmerman’s trial are a case in point. Partisans all around have argued that race was an issue, but without any agreement on how, and apparently with no comprehension or interest in what anyone else says.

The people shouting their monologues all want everyone to understand how they have been hurt by racial unfairness. The problem is that if you have one man with a broken leg and another with a flat tire, neither is interested in the problem of the other and will be agrieved if the other says that his problem is worse. It only complicates things when one caused the other’s injury. Grievance and resentment make us deaf and blind.


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The competing narratives are simple. According to one, Zimmerman would never have been tried for murder if Martin had been white. According to another, Zimmerman would never have shot Martin if Martin had been white. Yet another says that Zimmerman would have been charged and convicted in an instant if he had been black and Martin white.

These narratives are probably all true. If Martin had been white, the police decision not to charge Zimmerman would not have been protested by Al Sharpton. Obama would not have declared that, if God had granted him a son, that son would have looked like Trayvon Martin. If Martin had been white, Zimmerman would probably have hesitated just a little longer, and Martin himself would not have felt the anger of a young black man being followed by a creepy white stranger. And if Zimmerman had been black, the DA’s office might have gone for a manslaughter charge in the first place without the disastrous, incompetent interference of the special prosecutor.

Race warped and distorted the entire process. Instead of justice, we’ll get at best a settling of grievances. People who should know better think that justice was possible once that case was politicized, and think that further politicization will retrieve justice from injustice. Using the courts and the political process to ensure that someone who is obviously guilty is guaranteed some punishment can be many things, but “just” isn’t one of them.

Justice failed with this verdict? Justice failed the instant we decided it should produce a forgone conclusion. It failed the instant that only one verdict became acceptable. 


SEE RELATED: Zimmerman acquittal a slap in the face for African-Americans


White observers are tone-deaf to the complaints of the black community. “Well, yes,” we say, “it’s unfortunate that innocent black men are more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police and the neighborhood watch than white men. But that’s because young black men are much more likely to be criminals. That’s just using good sense and statistics. The police shouldn’t be stopping elderly white women, should they?”

No, not unless they’re carrying firearms or look demented. But if the argument is that we should be stopping young black men because more of them are convicted of crimes, we’ve reduced all black men to nothing more than the faces of a suspect group. Those of us who are southern white men would be outraged to be treated as presumptive members of the Klan, and those of us who are Christian aren’t automatically snake handlers who spend our Sundays talking in tongues. Most rapists are men, but it would be outrageous to treat every man as a potential rapist. 

There’s no evidence, except in the fevered imaginations at MSNBC, that Zimmerman killed Martin out of racial hatred. If he’d wanted to murder him at all, he would have done so before he was getting pummeled on the ground. Yet the odds are very good that the whole incident would have gone down differently had Martin been white. That’s the fact that helps keep that knot of rage kindled in the hearts of so many black Americans. They live a reality that the rest of us don’t understand.

That doesn’t take away the bitter taste that comes from knowing that the prosecution of Zimmerman was political. If we believe that America is intrinsically racist and that blacks can’t be racists, then we assume away the possibility of justice for white George Zimmerman, assuming that this case was only about justice for black Trayvon Martin. If the men are just symbols of their races, there can be no justice at all.

America needs to get a grip on itself. Racism is very real, and it warps the lives of millions of Americans even when we have a black president and a black attorney general. It hasn’t gone away and won’t if we pretend it already has. On both sides of the racial divide we treat people as members of categories. It’s wrong for the police to treat young black men differently than young white men, and it’s wrong for race baiters like Sharpton to treat white men differently from black men.

We should profile on behavior, not race, and treat each other according to the content of our character, not the color of our skin. And until we can stop nursing grievances and care about the hurts of others, we’ll never listen to each other long enough to hold a dialogue about race. 

 

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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