Trayvon Martin and the battle of racial narratives

Monday, Jul 29, 2013, 12:33 AM | Source: The Conversation

Timothy J. Lynch

The murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a white man, has reignited the race debate in the US. EPA/Michael Nelson

Alexis de Tocqueville warned in his great book, Democracy in America, that the race problem could not be resolved, short of war between blacks and whites.

It is the most dispiriting part of his brilliant analysis of American society. Whilst full-scale racial war in America is the fantasy of supremacists on both sides, race continues to ignite deeply held passions.

The George Zimmerman trial was the latest realisation of Tocqueville’s dire prophecy. Even with an African-American in the White House – a remarkable fact given what the Frenchman observed in the 1830s – racial politics endures.

Race has become a proxy for a struggle over contemporary public policy. There are, broadly construed, two sides. Those protesting against the Zimmerman acquittal claimed the verdict was proof of the lack of progress on racial equality; the federal government must do more to make Americans equal.

Those sceptical about Trayvon Martin’s purported innocence have cited the case as evidence of the failure of the modern civil rights movement; black alienation and grievance have been increased by government meddling. Welfare and affirmative action, policies born from the civil rights movement, have not made African Americans equal but have entrenched their separation and failure.

This debate is difficult to navigate without sympathising with one side or the other. The liberal left, in the US and here in Australia, regard the recent trial as confirmation of the innate racism of American society.

This view stems from a powerful caricature. Many university students begin with the premise that America is racially unjust, always has been, and – unless the Republicans are locked out of power indefinitely – always will be.

Learning that it was the Republican Party that abolished slavery (in 1863) or that the Democrats were the party of racial segregation (until the 1960s) comes to many as something of a shock.

Today, the identification of Democrats with racial equality and the Republicans with resistance to it is strong. If 71 per cent of Hispanics and 93 per cent of African Americans vote Democratic, that party must obviously represent racial justice and rainbow politics. No?

The narrative is so well established as to be immune to serious emendation. America was born in racial iniquity, the narrative goes. Blacks were first legally enslaved and then, following a civil war, socially excluded and economically deprived. A non-violent civil rights movement arose a hundred years later and made good on the promise of equal rights.

Progress towards that equality, according to the narrative, was hampered at every turn by nervous and/or vindictive whites, determined to maintain their social, economic and political superiority. Zimmerman’s acquittal was a victory for them.

There is a notable South Park episode that depicts the narrative in all its certainty. Many viewers treat it as a historical documentary.

But it is possible and appropriate to challenge it, or at least parts of it. To do so does not mean eliding the horrors foisted on blacks by whites. It does question the rosy certainty of racial progress as pursued by many progressives, black and white.

The Zimmerman trial was an imprecise proxy for this battle of narratives. Martinists see the slain Trayvon as a symbol of racial injustice, of a criminal justice system that routinely imprisons more black men than white, of a political class that tolerates the socio-economic deprivation of black communities.

Zimmerman “apologists”, on the other hand, cite the part-Peruvian wannabe guardian angel as a symbol of a society that refuses to police black crime for fear of upsetting “the black community”, of a politico-academic class that bemoans black incarceration but is silent on the disproportionate number of crimes blacks commit (largely against other blacks) compared to whites.

Why, they ask, don’t black leaders take another lesson from the case: that black kids need to be less menacing for the world to treat them better?

Shelby Steele is rare in America today. An African-American intellectual, he has consistently questioned how far racial equality has been advanced by the currently anti-Zimmerman civil rights movement.

For Steele, Trayvon was not the next inevitable victim of white racism but an illustration of the ignored collapse of the black family. If African Americans are disadvantaged it is as much, now, by the consequences of the modern civil rights movement – which blames whites too much and black culture too little – than by any systemic white racism.

Thomas Sowell, another African American thinker, makes a similar argument in his 2005 book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

Indeed, for Steele and Sowell, it is white liberal guilt that has facilitated a moral collapse in poor black neighbourhoods.

However, just as Zimmerman was an imperfect bogeyman for Al Sharpton and the NAACP – being insufficiently white and notably pro-black in his personal relations – so too was Martin a more complicated figure than the stereotype Steele seeks to chide.

Martin, unlike a majority of black American teenagers, seems to have enjoyed regularised contact with his father and grew up in a paternal home. His parents have been their son’s most moving memorialists.

Fulfilling other racial stereotypes of the black teenager hardly made his pursuit by Zimmerman that night a sensible one (even if we accept that Zimmerman went after Martin because he was black, a claim the prosecution did not pursue).

As President Obama said, if he’d had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon, dressed like him, listened to the same music as him.

Zimmerman needed to be more white and more racist; Martin needed to be more hoodlum, more drug- than Skittles-infused. Neither obliged. The killing of the latter by the former is destined to be exploited by two sides, irrespective of the actual evidence that the jury, unfashionably, used to decide the case.

(I will be speaking about some of these ideas at a University of Melbourne elections masterclass in September.)

The Conversation

University of Melbourne Researchers