On one side of our nation’s most divisive current divide are people who believe that race – mostly Trayvon Martin’s – was the prime reason George Zimmerman followed and shot him that night in Florida 17 months ago. And that race once again – in this instance, both Zimmerman and Martin’s – led to the not-guilty verdict last week. On the other side of the line are those who contend that race simply had nothing to do with either the shooting or verdict.
Despite this seeming 180 degrees of difference, and without metaphysical magic having anything to do with it, I would suggest that both arguments are simultaneously at work in a critical fashion. How is such a duality playing itself out?
I’m in the midst of writing a second book about family fragmentation, drawing extensively on interviews this time around with 35 exceptionally smart men and women from across the country, mostly white but also black and Hispanic. As you might imagine, questions about race come up regularly and I have no problem agreeing – at some level – with comments like this one by a most decent and empathetic respondent:
“Race is the most significant factor in every sociological development in this country. It’s all race related. You can’t take several million people, enslave them for two hundred years, repress them for another hundred, and then expect them, even in another fifty years, to successfully join a prosperous, mainstream economy.”
I also would agree, completely this time, with what another interviewee said:
“Obviously, it’s not like you just end discrimination and put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
How could a racial history like America’s not lead great numbers of people to assume, instantly and deep in their gut, that some manner of racism was at play that rainy evening when an African-American teenager was shot to death by a Hispanic man? How could large swaths of people not believe that some manner of racism was implicit again when Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury absent any black members?
Do we really expect everyone to confidently believe Zimmerman would have been just as suspicious of Martin if the teenager were not black? Are we really perfectly confident that members of the jury, in ways unknown and deep in their souls, don’t view black and white lives differently? Does our nation’s history, compounded by the possibility of ugly thoughts deep in the unconscious skulls of even the finest people, afford absolute confidence that race has played no part whatsoever in this case? The only fair answer is no: Absolute confidence in none of this is possible, with it somehow being even less so in certain communities, again for unsurprising historical reasons.
But instincts and doubts, no matter how deeply rooted in Jim Crow and lynching, should not be more determinative than facts, and based on what I believe to be factually true, I would argue that race did not play a role in Zimmerman shooting Martin or in a jury’s decision to acquit him. To believe otherwise I would be obliged to cite specific racially suspect acts committed by specific individuals, and I don’t see any of either.
Having done graduate work in sociology a long time ago, I’m not oblivious to definitions of discrimination which have little to do with what flesh-and-blood individuals actually do. But when it comes to passing judgment on the lives of defendants and the good names of police departments, jurors and the judiciary itself, condemning them based on airy assumptions about “institutionalized” and “systemic” notions of racism, rather than wrongdoing committed by identifiable men and women, simply put again, is wrong.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.
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