The Long Echo of Inequality

A friend asked me to share some thoughts on race in wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting; these are those.  

It has been half a century since the primary struggle for racial equality was at its height.  Unlike many political issues that still confound and divide us, this primary struggle has been ended.  Overt racial discrimination is illegal, is generally recognized as immoral, and today it is the exception, rather than the rule.

However, issues of racial equality continue to echo in our time.  In some ways, our society remains racist, but has changed its vocabulary to carefully avoid that label.  We discuss the problems of urban youth, underprivileged youth, gang members, high-risk youth, ethnic communities, and racially diverse neighborhoods; what we mean, in many cases, is black.

Even that word, black, has become tainted.  In some circles one must carefully say “African-American,” as though the subject just arrived from Cameroon.  We don’t trouble ourselves about the distinction for white people; we are just white, not “Dutch-American,” or “Caucasian-American.”  It is lost on many people that by avoiding one word while embracing the other, we are underscoring that just-under-the-surface idea that there is something wrong about being black.

What we have become is a culture of racial code-words.  Many of us still hold prejudices, but we feel constrained from overtly expressing them.

When the story broke nationally this year about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, this strange racial paradigm was on full display.  The shooter described Trayvon as looking suspicious, and “up to no good.”  He later told police that he felt threatened, even though Trayvon was much smaller than him, and unarmed (Skittles are not commonly used as weapons).

In code, Zimmerman was revealing that his suspicions were aroused by the presence of a young black walking around this “non-diverse” neighborhood.  The media focus on Trayvon’s attire- a black hoodie- shows our willingness to immediately find a symbol that is more associated with black than white culture, and hold it up for partial culpability.

I was particularly intrigued by Geraldo Rivera’s comment that black parents should not allow their children to go out in public wearing hoodies, since they might be associated with, well, hoodlums (in fact, there is no etymological association, as “hoodlum” is derived from a Bavarian word for “ragamuffin”).  It struck me that this is dangerously close to telling rape victims that they are partly to blame for wearing enticing attire.

It is a credit to our society and our national discourse that this crime, which was not overtly about race, has been discussed in the context of race and prejudice.  CNN audio-enhancement technology notwithstanding, there were no immediate indications that race played an obvious role in the shooting, but our media and our discourse saw right through that and quickly reached the deeper issue.  It is one that merits discussion.

We do have a problem with racism in this country, and it is related to the long echo of inequality.  One statistic often raised in support of racial profiling is the higher occurrence of crimes among members of the black community.  This oft-quoted statistic has to do with economics, and the long legacy of denied opportunity, and not some inherently-flawed characteristic associated with the black race.  If the races started on an equal footing, those statistics simply would not exist.

But, we did not.  Just a generation ago the opportunities available to black families and white families were curtailed by law, by custom, and by society writ large.  We cannot suddenly level the playing field and assume that we have undone the adverse effects of centuries of discrimination.

If there are inequalities in our crime rates, we need to uncover their cause and work towards their eradication, rather than focusing our suspicions on members of a suspect race.  Calling Zimmerman a racist for his behavior as a community watchman may be extreme, but the shoe certainly seems to fit.

-Andrew

Published in: on May 14, 2012 at 7:57 pm  Comments (1)