Trayvon Martin and the myth of a post-racial America

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Christopher Keelty is a writer and artist based outside New York City.

Setting aside the willful racism of the smear campaign against Trayvon Martin, the public response to his murder has exposed a lot about America’s issues with race, much of it disappointing.

Others have pointed out the ugly implications of the mass online outcry over “Kony 2012,”  juxtaposed with the lukewarm response to Trayvon’s murder. Trayvon was killed two weeks before the Kony video’s incredible viral surge, and the news story about his death first got widespread public attention about a month after the incident. I’m not convinced the parallel is warranted – the Kony video is a half-hour of masterful propaganda* designed to play on every point of the rhetorical triangle, while Trayvon’s killing came through the lens of “impartial” news reports. That said, it has been a learning experience to see many of my friends, people I would never label as ‘racists,’ many of whom seemed ready to buy tickets to Uganda and personally beat Joseph Kony to death, respond to the Trayvon story with reserve, often “waiting to see more facts” before they settle on an opinion.

Let me be clear: I believe in the right to due process, and George Zimmerman is, for all legal purposes, innocent until proven guilty. I would never expect a jury to be anything but impartial, or for an alleged perpetrator to face justice outside the courts. But everyone has an opinion, drawn from the facts available to us. Many of the peers I see complaining about “the court of public opinion” were the same people recently condemning the acquittals of Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox as evidence that the justice system is dead. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone following the Trayvon Martin case (or is that lack of case?) could possibly see anything except an innocent child murdered because of his race.

What’s happening, I think, is that people refuse to give up the dream of “post-racial America.” Despite evidence to the contrary, they refuse to believe that racism could be such a problem in America that ‘Walking While Black’ can be fatal.** Confronted with circumstances that say otherwise, they assume there must be some deeper explanation, some fact as yet unrelieved that will prove racism was not the sole motive behind the murder of a 17-year-old boy. It’s this refusal to accept reality, the refusal to admit that our nation might have a very serious problem with race – serious as a gunshot – that allows the water to be muddied by smear campaigns and deceptive reporting.I can only speculate as to the motive behind this post-racial fantasy. Maybe white Americans don’t want to admit that we live in privilege. Maybe we don’t want to face that our successes might be as much the product of a system designed to favor a certain skin tone. Maybe we need to excuse the way we turn a blind eye to the obvious oppression around us, and maybe we’re afraid that on a truly  level playing field, we might for once be on the losing team. I don’t know the reasons, but I know the evidence is abundant. The Conservative machine is the most overt – as Fox News has been happy to demonstrate in their coverage of Trayvon’s murder – but President Obama’s election was trumpeted by nearly every news agency as the “beginning of post-racial America,” and despite the glaring inequality that should be obvious to every American, it’s never hard to find a person, be it a pundit or a fellow citizen, who will tell you about America’s commitment to equal opportunity. They’ll even tell you, given the opportunity, about how Affirmative Action and “reverse racism” are much bigger problems today than “traditional” racism. As Bill Maher pointed out in October, “Denying racism is the new racism.” Watch that video, by the way. I’m not a huge Maher fan, but that one’s terrific.

Sure, there are plenty of people for whom the “post-racial myth” is an agenda. The NRA, the Republican Party, and ALEC have received frequent mention for their economic interest in preserving the myth of equality (mind you, while blowing the dog whistle to keep their customer base afraid and shopping) but I haven’t heard many in the Democratic Party proposing significant criminal justice reforms or an end to the War on Blacks Drugs. Anyone with power or money has an interest in keeping the myth alive, to preserve the status quo that brought their success.

For most of us, though, it’s a simple matter of idealism and belief in the nobility of our nation. We were raised on the mythology of the Founding Fathers, of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. We’ve been taught to see the struggle for civil rights as something in our past, something America won thanks to Martin Luther King and the power of our democratic ideals. Thus, when we grow up and enter the real world, faced with the obvious and abundant evidence that equality is still very far away, we look away, ignore, rationalize. This is, to my mind, the biggest reason these problems aren’t fixed: not because a majority of white Americans are racists, but because we refuse to let go of our mythology and face reality.

Instead, we cling to flimsy explanations and “racism lite.” We’ll respond with outrage to a statement that African Americans are genetically inferior, but accept grossly disproportionate incarceration because, well, “those people” are so poor, and have fewer opportunities, and of course that kind of desperation leads to a life of crime. We’ll protest against “the One Percent” and decry income inequality, apparently oblivious to the racial income inequality that divides “the Ninety-Nine Percent.” And when a disturbed, paranoid gun nut who thinks dark skin makes a 7-year-old look “suspicious” pursues and shoots an unarmed 17-year-old who had the gall to wear a hoodie in his gated community, we reserve judgement. We wait for that other piece of evidence, that other fact that will prove America isn’t a racist country – and there are plenty who are only too happy to provide us with flimsy, “racism-lite” excuses: Trayvon was suspended for a drug violation. He posed for photos with gold foil on his teeth. He was a “wannabe gangster.” He wore the wrong clothing.

I’m actually a bit edified by Geraldo Rivera’s comments about the culpability of Trayvon’s hoodie. While his statements were outrageous and offensive, they implied something that I doubt Geraldo would ever openly state: Geraldo Rivera believes the US has such a problem with racism that wearing the wrong kind of clothing can be fatal. Let me say that again: Geraldo believes the United States has such a problem with racism that people of color who wear hoodies should expect racists to murder them. This is an incredibly powerful statement about America’s issues with race, and I’m a little disappointed that it was mostly lost in the partisan hysteria around his commentary.

It’s also sad that I think Geraldo is more right than most white Americans realize or want to accept. The US is a country where a 17-year-old boy was just last month shot for no reason except his race, and where the local police refused to arrest his murderer, and appear to have fabricated witness testimony and doctored evidence to justify their lack of response. My question is, how many more children have met similar fates, and been missed by the media?

There are those who claim the viral success of Kony 2012 exceeded interest in Trayvon’s death because Americans are all too willing to hate the dark-skinned bad guy. I won’t deny that phenomenon, but I don’t think it’s the primary explanation. I think the locale has more to do with it – white Americans are trained and ready to believe that terrible things happen in Africa, or China, or Iran, or other faraway places. Hell, a lot of us will readily accept that medicine from faraway Canada is secretly poison. When something happens in our country, however, it’s harder to accept because it tarnishes our idea of what America is.

Mind you, the response from many African Americans has been markedly different. While I’ll never paint an entire community with a single brush stroke, it’s safe to say that the US, in the eyes of a black American, is often very different from the whitewashed [pun intentional] myth to which so many white Americans cling. People of color know all-too-well the myriad nefarious ways discrimination and inequality creep into everyday life, not only in the Deep South but in cities and states from Atlantic to Pacific. Read or listen to responses from Americans of color, and you’ll hear plenty of outrage, but very little surprise – and almost never disbelief.

The first step in protecting innocent children from racist nuts like George Zimmerman — not to mention protecting millions of people of color from institutionalized discrimination, a monster of our own creation – may be to let go of our mythology and face the very real, very challenging problems the US still has with race.

* This is not to disparage the Kony video, per se. Propaganda is propaganda, whether its message is fair or not.
** I realize this ignores those motivated by garden-variety racism, but as I said we’re setting those folks aside for now.

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6 thoughts on “Trayvon Martin and the myth of a post-racial America”

  1. where is all the media coverage for black on white crimes Chris? Where is the justice for the white kids who have been killed in response to this Trayvon case? why isn’t the aclu helping or even writing about them. Chris do you think the murders of the white kids who have been killed/maimed in response to the Trayvon case will see an added charge of hate crime? Do you believe you are being fair and just to both sides in blogging about this or is your view point biased? Why was a picture of when trayvon was 10 being used instead of the one where is is 17?Why did Zimmerman become a white man when hes of white/Latino decent?

  2. Sean, you’re really helping my argument here. The questions you’re asking – either you’re just openly a racist, or you’re allowing racist arguments from the right-wing media to play on your own internal biases. The simple questions to the questions you shouldn’t even be asking:
    (1) The media consistently covers black-on-white crime. Hell, I remember a case here in Philly not long ago of a white guy who dropped dead of fear of a group of young black boys, and the media was calling for a prosecution against the kids who never touched him – particularly ironic in light of the white guy who shoots a black kid, confesses, and isn’t prosecuted.
    (2) The police consistently investigate black-on-white crime. The whole outcry over Trayvon Martin has been that the police, to date, have not treated George Zimmerman as anything except a victim.
    (3) What white kids have been murdered of “killed/maimed” in response to the Trayvon case? Have there been any? If something like that does happen, yes, I think the perpetrators will likely be charged with hate crimes.
    (4) Am I being fair to both sides? What sides are those? Innocent victims and the people who shoot them?
    (5) Am I biased? Yes. I am biased by the facts: the fact that George Zimmerman confessed. He’s not an alleged killer, he’s a confessed killer. He’s not innocent – he’s not even claiming he’s innocent, he’s claiming he was justified. There’s a difference.
    (6) An old photo was used, not because of any conspiracy or media narrative, but because that’s the photo his parents liked best, and therefore the photo they provided. Are you of the opinion that the family of a murdered child are obligated to provide the most recent photo they have? Or maybe the most “thuggish” photo, would that make you happy?
    (7) George Zimmerman is white. He’s also Latino. “Latino” is not a race, it’s an ethnicity. Only white supremacists, racists, and people who are confused about race will tell you that George Zimmerman is “not white.”
    (8) Furthermore, his own race has nothing to do with his racism – one can be racist against black people no matter what one’s own race is. Plenty of black people are racist against black people. George Zimmerman reportedly called the police many times to report “suspicious” black people, including 7 and 9 year old children who were playing across the street. He also used a racial epithet on the phone prior to shooting Trayvon. That’s more than enough evidence for me to consider him a racist.

  3. Wow Chris your openly calling me a racist and you don’t know me or I’m a tool to the right wing media lol. The police consistently investigate black-on-white crime yeah but where is the media coverage or the president addressing this?

    CNN has been caught editing the 911 tape to make it seem a certain way here’s a link

    Ps how many murderers call 911 before they murder someone Chris? lol they don’t.

    Here is a link showing your whole premise on Latino ethnicity incorrect as latinos are not listed under white for job applications also it says race not ethnicity its from a .gov site twice you have called me a racist for not agreeing with you or suggested at it with incorrect information.

    Hey Chris I’m glad i helped show how brainwashed you truly are and your lack of research skills as well.

    yes its from a republican website but here is more evidence about hate crimes only being a white thing or Latino thing why isn’t obama saying this could be is grandfather?Where is the media coverage Chris? where is the aclu Chris?Do you think a bunch of young white males ages 11-17 wouldn’t have received added hate crime charges if this 78 year old man happened to be black?

    An old photo was used, not because of any conspiracy or media narrative lol see the CNN story link “no media conspiracy “lol. Also his school photo would have been fine to use not one from 7 years ago. Trayvon photo was from before he was a teen and Trayvon was almost an adult at 17 and his height is 6’1 he was bigger then Zimmerman and beat Zimmerman up after Zimmerman was walking back to his car. The police video shows evidence of damage to Zimmerman and its from a liberal blog talked talkleft with pictures

    I suggest you do some research before forming an opinion or at lest get your story correct before you call someone a killer

  4. Okay Sean, I have a job so I can’t be going back and forth on this all the time, but I’ll indulge you one more time. Once again, I must itemize.
    (1) I would never be shy about “openly” calling someone a racist. It’s not a slur, it’s a label based on behavior. That said, I never actually called you a racist. I listed “being a racist” as one possible explanation for asking the bullshit questions you asked. As to whether you’re a “tool of the media” or not, once again that’s not what I said, but let’s be clear – it’s not as if they’re questions you came up with off top of your head – you got them from right-wing media sources, which have been using them to smear Trayvon and his family and muddy the waters and sew false doubt around this case.
    (2) Again, the media routinely cover black-on-white crime (and black-on-black crime, and white-on-black crime, and white-on-white crime, and any other combinations). The media storm around this is not because it was a crime, it’s because it was an UNPROSECUTED crime. You can turn on the television in any city in America on any night of the week, and the media will be talking about the local murders, rapes, robberies, etc. It’s false to claim that these kinds of crimes aren’t covered.
    (3) Even if those crimes WEREN’T covered, it’s immaterial to this case. This is the case we’re discussing. Other cases have no bearing on it. When Terri Schiavo was in the news for a month prior to being taken off life support, it made no difference that there were other people being taken off life support who weren’t on TV. That was the case people were discussing.
    (4) I saw the story about CNN editing the tape. CNN did a stupid, misleading thing, but even if they hadn’t done it, there are more than enough facts around this case to draw a non-legally-binding opinion.
    (5) I don’t know how many murderers call 911 before committing a murder, but I’d bet money George Zimmerman would not be the first one to do so. I’m also fairly certain that calling 911 first is not a “get out of murder free” card.
    (6) Re-read the .gov site you sent me. It clearly states that “Latino” is an ethnicity, not a race – in other words, a Latino person would check BOTH a race AND an ethnicity. In other words, what I said the first time.
    (7) Once again, I did not call you a racist. I assumed at the time that you were one of the “confused about race” people. However, your latest response, with its overall tone of virulent anger and its links to Breitbart and “PatriotUpdate” has caused me to mentally move you into the “likely racist” category.
    (8) A hate crime is more than just a person of one race attacking a person of another race. There has to be some evidence that the victim’s race (or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc) was part of the perpetrator’s motive. The only evidence we have of that, in the article you linked, is the victim’s claim that his attackers called him a “white man” and said “remember Trayvon” after he himself mentioned Trayvon Martin. Is that a racially-motivated crime? Perhaps, if all of that testimony is accurate, but not definitely. As evidence, it certainly pales in comparison with records of 911 calls to report young black children as suspicious, the assumption that a young black male must be “on drugs,” or the recording of GZ saying “fucking coons” as he gets out of his vehicle.
    (9) For the record, the Trayvon Martin case is not currently categorized as a hate crime – because it’s not currently categorized as a crime. Remember that, because it’s kind of a big reason there’s such a fuss about this. Also note that my post above has nothing to do with whether or not it’s a hate crime, and whether or not it’s a hate crime has nothing at all to do with whether it was justifiable homicide or murder.
    (10) Obama addressed Trayvon Martin because he was asked by a reporter about it. I can’t say why he hasn’t addressed the case you linked to, but for one thing I don’t believe he was asked about it.
    (11) Isn’t it interesting that the “news report” about that case is somehow written as a rebuttal to the Trayvon Martin case? And that the reporter feels qualified to report what “most blacks” are saying about it. Note: not “most black people,” but “most blacks.” I think that speaks to a certain mind-set on behalf of the writer. For the record, yes, I’m “openly” calling him or her a racist.
    (12) I’ve looked at the talkleft post. I still cant’ see any evidence of damage to his head or to his nose. What I see is the pixelation and distortion that occurs to any low-resolution when it is enlarged and the contrast and saturation are messed with. That certainly doesn’t prove he wasn’t hurt, but I also laugh at anyone who calls that evidence of his injuries.
    (13) The claims that Zimmerman was attacked from behind come from his father, the same source who originally claimed that Zimmerman “at no time followed” Trayvon Martin – until the 911 tapes were released, and suddenly his story changed. The police claimed to have an anonymous witness who corroborated that story, until the “witness’s” mother came forward to reveal he was a 13-year-old boy and she felt the police bullied him into saying what they wanted.
    (14) Fine, go ahead and make up your own reasons for the photo. I gave you the reasons as I’m aware of them. If you choose to believe in a media conspiracy, you have that right – but you’re lending a lot of weight to my original argument.
    (15) Oh, wait, Trayvon was taller than Zimmerman? Well, that clearly changes everything! He was a tall, scary black man!
    (16) Oh wait, no, it changes nothing. Who was following who with a gun, again?
    (17) George Zimmerman is a killer. There’s no room for disagreement or dispute about that. Claim he was justified in his killing if you like, but even George Zimmerman has publicly admitted that George Zimmerman is a killer.

  5. Nice back peddling Chris. Actually My sources are both liberal and conservative and one is from a .gov site I would say that’s pretty fair. You should know that if you report on something it just shouldn’t come off the top of your head Chris you should do research on both sides of the story and try not to get to emotionally involved which obviously you are.

    The recording of Zimmerman racial slur is a joke also done by guess who CNN lol to add spin, it isn’t easy to tell what he said. plus they retracted it. damn do some research on this here’s the link

    lol wow Chris really. I give you evidence and you shoot it down because it doesn’t fit into what you personally think or feel. the picture from the police station isn’t good enough because of pixelation. CNN did a stupid thing twice and i bet you got fooled twice. I know at lest once lol but its the conservative media that is spinning this story right Chris lol. I’m the one brainwashed right Chris? I will admit I messed up on the Latino thing from the .gov site. But this is news to me as i live in California and know Latinos don’t consider them self to be white, mixed yeah but not white unless they are from Spain and that wouldn’t make them Latino it would make them Spanish. As American Indian is on there as a race plus Being half Spanish” people from Spain” they wouldn’t make them white or American Indian so other should be used. but I digress sorry.

    Way to push the subject of hate crimes to the side chris I’m glad your smart enough to know when you don’t have a leg to stand on lol its not relevant to this case yeah it is because your openly saying zimmerman committed murder because of his racist ideals ie ifto facto hate crime. Yet 4 black kids beat up an 78 year old white man and its somehow not race related bs chris.

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