Reaction to President Obama's speech on race shows how Zimmerman verdict has emboldened prejudice
Here we go again.
Once again, America’s first black president has responded to a racially-charged, internationally-seen issue with his own personal observations on race.
And once again, some who oppose him have used the moment to accuse him of being the one who has a problem with race.
Pundit Charles Krauthammer, declaring that the murder trial of George Zimmerman “wasn’t about race,” criticized Obama for “re-racializing” the issue of Zimerman’s acquittal for killing unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin.
Fox News Channel anchor Sean Hannity, speaking on his radio show, theorized that when the president observed “I could have been Trayvon 35 years ago, he was talking about drug use. “Is that the president admitting because, what, he was part of the choom gang and he smoked pot and he did a little blow?” said Hannity, evoking an image which thug-ified both the president and a dead 17-year-old youth. “I’m not sure how to interpret that because we know Trayvon had been smoking pot that night. I’m not sure what that means.”
Pat Buchanan, who was dropped as a pundit by MSNBC after writing a book which maintained America’s growing ethnic diversity was like a slow suicide, actually wrote a column advising black America that white racism isn’t its biggest problem. Later, on PBS, he insisted Obama had "taken sides" by talking on his exprience.
I expect to discuss these issues and much more on CNN at 11 a.m. today, joinng the channel’s media analysis show Reliable Sources.
And what I expect to tell viewers is that one of the most troubling results of the Zimmerman verdict is the freedom some people have felt to air seriously messed-up views on race, media criminality and society.
The simple fact is, the prosecution was never able to prove that Zimmerman’s decision to follow Martin that night was based on racial prejudice. But the reaction to his not guilty verdict is all about race and how it is lived in America.
That’s why the president – a black man who gets accused of racism every time he tries to talk about his own racial experience – faced the cameras in a surprise appearance Friday to say this:
“There are, frankly, very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often. And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic has written best about this, noting that the fear is that back life itself may become criminalized. In New York, police admit they are stopping and frisking young black men simply because they are young and black, reasoning that these are the types of people committing violent crimes in their city.
But beyond the fact that it allows other types of people committing crimes to escape notice, such a policy sends an awful message. Most school shootings are committed by white teen males; should they always have to pass through a metal detector when going to school?
Or do we realize that making people feel like criminals and turning them into second-class citizens can have an awful impact beyond whatever crime you might actually stop?
The Zimmerman verdict has also lent new life to mistaken arguments. Comparing a lack of response to gang murders in Chicago to furor over the Zimmerman trial misses the point; police knew who killed Trayvon Martin for 44 days, resisting arresting or prosecuting him.
Far as I know, no one has accused the Chicago police of waiting that long to arrest the known perpetrator of a drive-by shooting.
Also, as I have noted many times in this space and in my book, Race-Baiter, talking about race isn’t racist. But asking black people to ignore the unique quality of their history and experience in America, just might be.
I spoke to a longtime resident of Sanford last week who said some local people felt residents in the subdivision where Zimmerman lived were seeking to crack down on lower income people who had moved into the community. Whether or not that affected Zimmerman’s contact with Martin, the fact is that some black people in Sanford now feel that the verdict will give others the right to harass them when they are walking where they are allowed to be.
And sadly, once again, reaction to a racially-charged court case has ripped the mask off to reveal some people’s true feelings about race and criminality.
Even if Krauthammer is right and the actual trial of George Zimmerman wasn’t about race, it’s obvious that the public reaction is all about it.
Only question left, is whether we have the courage as a country to turn these sometimes ugly revelations into real social progress.