It is ironic that as final statements are being made on the Martin-Zimmerman case, my daughter is preparing to lead a literature group in the discussion of “To Kill a Mockingbird“. This thought hit me in my waking moments, with a local talk-show host ranting in the background, either reflecting the sentiments of White America or providing fodder to be repeated as our own opinions at the water cooler and on Facebook.
Some ask why this case is so important, saying it is the news media who decided to make it noteworthy, to make it a race issue. That’s not inaccurate. Charged opinions aside, we may never know for sure if Trayvon Martin’s fate would have been different if he had lighter skin. We can say racism has been overcome, dark-skinned head of state and all, but in the streets, there are still plenty of non-gated communities where people get pulled over for “driving while black“. But this happens all the time without it making the news. Higher guilty verdicts and longer sentences for minorities are a repeated but not truly confronted statistical fact.
This case is important because WE made it important. The media is giving us what we crave — an excuse to reopen the wounds of our prejudices and say things that are (currently) too taboo to express in polite conversation. We WANT it to be about race. Not just over-sensitive African-Americas or blatantly racist European-Americas, ALL of us. We want to herd people into one camp or the other, not knowing we do so under our own unsettled bias.
Honestly, we don’t care what the facts are — how many of us arguing over it even bothered to follow the trial? No, the arguments are along the lines of our institutions sanctioning an open season on shooting innocent people on one hand, and those same institutions convicting the innocent by bowing to perceived political correctness on the other.
And people of all colors are finding ways to be outraged, not trying to understand — or choosing not to understand — each others point of view. “White” people are afraid they will risk jail any time they defend themselves or their property against a minority, and already believe (not without reason) that minorities are given special rights or considerations “they” do not have. “Black” people are afraid we are returning to a time (or are still in a time) of lynchings and hate crimes going uncontested under the supposed rule of equality-demanding law. Like the accused in Harper Lee’s classic book, they must wonder if the weight of one man’s word be heavier than that of another based on the color of their skin.
But it is our socially collective, heated insistence of racial implications that shows us how little progress we have made. The Black Panthers are threatening premeditated riots specifically in “White” communities, as if all members of some group of people with light skin are individually responsible. And all the snide comments about the ridiculousness of “white riots” if Zimmerman is convicted? Sorry, but that is blatant racism, too. Sorry, Mr. Talk Show Host, your statement may be crudely true, but it’s an underhanded way of judging African-Americans in a most un-novel way, making others out to be less “savage“. American history isn’t filled with black-on-white crime going unpunished, while the opposite cannot be so easily asserted. There were never White riots because generally no one has been oppressed for being White.
But this is more than a race issue. This is people on both sides tightening the springs in anticipation of their own tantrums if they don’t get their way. Yes, THEIR way, as if it’s personal. Sure, there’s a racial context, where we are rooting for “Team White” or “Team Black” and some of us will take it out on the next fan wearing the wrong color skin. But we’re this way with everything.
On any issue, usually along the lines of other colors — Red and Blue — we want to defy the government when the “wrong” law gets passed or the Supreme Court makes a “mistake”. Should we discuss, argue, debate, disagree, protest? Of course we should. But it’s often no more than a token rationalization for stomping the ground with our foot and pouting.
For example, the Republicans are running wild in places like North Carolina and Texas, pushing through legislation that ordinarily would be deadlocked. The Democrats are outraged, forgetting that’s how most of the country felt with Obamacare and other measures were rammed through during the federal super-majority in their favor. But almost no one can see past this dichotomy. The problem isn’t whose team has the ball, but that we’ve given far too much of our attention, power, and consent to the game itself.
And in the case of Trayvon and Zimmerman, with each side feeling or anticipating pressure from the other side, we’ve all given far too much wind to the sails of racism. It’s not some other “people” who need to take responsibility, but ourselves for participating in and perpetuating a game of “us” and “them”.