Lingering racial divide cost Trayvon Martin his life

Published April 4, 2012

Remnants remain of what a Swedish sociologist so aptly described in 1944 as the "American Dilemma." No, we are not still living in Jim Crow America with segregated buses, obstructions to voting booths or blatant racial epithets. Yet we seem to be confused over different nouns used to confront race. We no longer are overtly racist, nor do most whites condone racism. Prejudices and discrimination still exist within our society.

One problem is how whites and blacks look at how far we've come in the nearly 50 years since the Civil Rights movement and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Just prior to Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that twice as many blacks as whites believe racism remains a problem in the United States, while twice as many whites as blacks believe that blacks have achieved racial equality. Further, a CNN poll in 2008 found 72 percent of whites believe that blacks overestimate the amount of discrimination against them while 82 percent of blacks believe whites underestimate racial discrimination against blacks.

Obviously, blacks and whites view racism through a different prism. A myriad of issues still separate us, from affirmative action to playing the "race card" and the idea of racial profiling to even celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s national holiday.

The most jarring reminder of this ongoing divide is the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford. Newspaper reporters, many or at least some, innocently reporting on aspects of the case, mention "black neighborhoods" or question what an innocent teenager is doing out at night (it was 7 p.m.), walking in that particular subdivision. That occurs for a simple reason: despite all the progress and improvement in race relations over the past decades, with the integration of schools, businesses, social venues and universities, the races, in America, still live separate lives.

This separation plays out in numerous methods. Some communities remain segregated, not by law or decree but through tradition and poverty. Many minority communities (east Tampa) still lack sidewalks, paved roads, streetlights and other municipal amenities. Minority communities (Brooksville, Dade City, Zephyrhills) have higher chances of being home to wastewater treatment plants, landfills, railroad lines and industrial parks, increasing risks from environmental hazards, tainted water, contaminated soils and other impurities.

Minority residents often are excluded from municipal boundaries limiting their access and voting power. In larger cities, traditionally black neighborhoods are isolated and minorities are grouped into their separate districts, again diluting voting power and access to community leadership roles.

In the racial demography of established communities that impacts everyday life, a majority of blacks will spend much more of their time interacting with whites than the majority of whites spend interacting with blacks. And more blacks work, shop and travel with large numbers of whites, where few whites do the same with larger numbers of blacks. Whites very much live separate lives from blacks and from other Americans of color. This is a systemic relationship most of us are unaware exists.

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There is also the well-known quote that the most segregated hour in America is on Sunday morning, with whites in their churches and blacks attending their church. It is this type of separation that lends itself even to the dilemma of naming a street after Dr. King. If it is located wholly within a black community, there is no problem. As it crosses over to white neighborhoods, whites get nervous. They fear the linkage of the name of the most famous black icon in America tied to their neighborhood.

A simple truth is that prejudices still exist. Just look to the anonymous blogs under news articles, particularly those focused on race, or for that matter, the Obamas. In a news article last October reporting on Michelle Obama's trip to South Africa, racial diatribes flowed freely in the comment blogs. Similar sentiments were featured — also last fall — in an article regarding environmental contamination in Brooksville. The cloak of anonymity releases real feelings and beliefs. Polling comments also reveal the truths people are thinking and living.

In the Trayvon Martin case, commentators and bloggers are now asking why Americans are focusing on this case, not the many more cases of black on black crime. Obviously both are tragic and result in senseless loss. It's the racial component in Trayvon's situation that is different. The components of racial profiling and Florida's now controversial "stand your ground" law make this a much different and sensational case.

This is why, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, that Americans must take a collective breath and recognize that we have conquered many of our demons and demonstrated great resolve in besting the American dilemma on race. But the inability to put the race question to rest and to define neighborhoods without a racial adjective preceding it has cost us the unfulfilled life of a 17-year-old.

America's teenagers should not be afraid to walk through any neighborhood. They surely should not be gunned down in them.

Former Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina holds a doctorate degree in public administration/political science and is an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida.