Home National Politics Post Trayvon/Zimmerman Trial: Thoughts on Race in America

Post Trayvon/Zimmerman Trial: Thoughts on Race in America

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( – promoted by lowkell)

What disturbed me most about that whole sad affair was the reaction on the right in the wake of the trial.

No empathy whatever for the distress that black people feel about a young black man getting shot and killed because of a train of events triggered by his doing nothing more than walking through a white neighborhood and then being followed by a “Neighborhood Watch” man who thought he didn’t belong there.

At my otherwise mostly extremely good high school reunion (I just returned from my 50th!), one classmate channeled the right-wing line that President Obama’s talk about “Trayvon could have been me” speech did more damage to race relations in America than anything in recent memory.

Amazing. Besides the complete lack of empathy, and probably connected with it, we see here an insistence on denial of the realities of what the historical experience has been, and the wounds that this experience has left.

Here’s how I see the meaning of the Trayvon killing for black people in America, growing out of many generations of experience.

The present event can be described in these terms: a black man is accosted, and shot to death by a man acting (as he saw it) as an agent of the dominant white world (one valid way of characterizing Zimmerman’s neighborhood watch role).

This represents a pattern associated,from the experience of many generations of black Americans, with deep trauma.

In the time of slavery, slave patrols –into which white Southerners were essentially drafted– to comb the countryside looking for blacks outside the slave quarters. If they did not have papers, they were subject to not only being returned to their owners, but also to being whipped or worse. Also there were slave-catchers, who might kill blacks thus caught.

In the time of Jim Crow, a black man might be lynched for stepping out of the role in which the dominant white culture sought to confine him. A regime of terror punished any black who failed to “know his place.”

That kind of traumatic history leaves its mark. And so, from the vantage point of a people who have absorbed those wounds, the events of recent times –a killing, the lack of any inclination (until pressure was brought to bear) to prosecute, and an eventual acquittal– fit a painful, frightening pattern.

How can any white person who knows that history not understand how painful and distressing such a recapitulation would be for a people whose collective memory is shaped by such experiences?

Today’s right wing had no trouble finding a way. The power of denial is so strong, that they’ve managed to see themselves as the victims entitled to feel outraged.

This gives us yet another glimpse into the psychology cultivated by that “sick and broken spirit.”

  • At the same time, I think the Progressive movement needs to revisit how it has largely approached its response to the right. I agree with you in most regards, that if many people – not just white Americans but Americans as a whole – took the time to contextualize history to understand the present, we’d be in a much better place but at the same time, we have to understand the most effective manner in which to approach many who don’t understand the realities of race in America.

    I think this goes back to the marriage equality debate, perhaps the most salient example of a shifting consensus on equality/equity in the past decade. Once the debate shifted from ‘the legality of gay marriage’ to ‘marriage equality under the law,’ you really saw a shift in how people approached the issue and how people felt about it. I’ve heard so much in the past few months from people who are against gay marriage for whatever reason – who are marriage equality supporters. By reframing our movement, we spoke to people and we showed them that this wasn’t about opinion, this was about equality.

    Many people in America – not just conservatives – believe that we exist in a ‘post-racial construct,’ or what I call, a color-blind utopia in which our institutions and our laws and our people treat everyone the same. As we know, this is simply not true. Racial polarization has stemmed from the very moments we’ve celebrated as so-called signs of ‘progress’ – namely, President Obama’s election.

    Talking about the past, and contextualizing the past, isn’t going to change people’s mindsets about race in America. We have enough current examples of racial discrimination and discriminatory practices to convince people that this isn’t a problem in the past, but rather that this is a problem in the now. That we exist in institutions and societies that don’t treat people equally to this day. That the idea of “equality of opportunity” starts with equality, which doesn’t exist for many Americans, even today. We can point to voting law changes driven by race, we can point to drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences, we can point to numerous cases of racial profiling. There’s no need to talk about the past to understand the present, especially when it’s not an effective argument and we have evidence of such racial animus and predispositions in 2013.

    I think it’s time for the Progressive movement to reframe its argument to get across the aisle. Because without conservatives, without the many Americans who consider this country a ‘post-racial nation,’ I find it hard to believe that we will ever truly find more common ground – both in principle and legislatively – on race in America.

    Just my two cents! -Shane