A French journalist asked: With Dozens of homicides happening every day in America, many people in Europe are confused. Why is the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case causing so much emotion? Isn’t America a post-racial society?
My response to America-watchers in European is: America is post racial and it isn’t. On the surface Americans of all races usually move among each other with little obvious, or even subtle, racial animosity, as in Europe.
In Europe there is wide-spread dismay that multiculturalism is on the verge of failure. Multiculturalism works better in America because we are a nation of immigrants. (And here’s a switch) we’ve been at it much longer than European nations. From the start of our nation we've blended cultures from almost every European country and region. We've also blended into one American culture, African cultures from almost every tribe in Africa.
Our racial/cultural heritage has always been widely mixed. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene D. Genovese begins: “. . . slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.”
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology, came over to America and discovered that: ". . . your Southerners speak with the negro accent; your women are coming to walk more and more like the negro,” he said in the New York Times of September 29, 1912. On another visit in 1930, Jung wrote in "Your Negroid and Indian Behavior" that (white) Americans are different than Europeans because of the long contact with African-American culture.
Martin Götze, a German citizen who travels to the United States often, said in 2009: “White Americans don’t like to admit it but the country definitely has “Negro Behavior.” And, I might add, what Jung saw as (cowboy and) Indian behavior might show up in the adaptive behavior of the wide-spread, American penchant for carrying of guns.
America might be further along than most places in the world towards having a multi-cultural, multi-racial fusion culture. On the surface Americans of all races usually move among each other with little obvious, or even subtle, racial animosity. In America it is easy to maintain the illusion that we are post-racial, because it is not until you get down into the internal workings of America that you are likely to see any racism that matters very much.
And no place is America more brutally and stubbornly racist than the criminal justice system, which is one of the reasons that the Trayvon Martin case has stayed in public consciousness so long. It has the precise right ingredients for the media to get the American public to look into an area of our historical legacy that most post-racial Americans do not wish to look into.
To summarize the case: On Feb 26, 2012, after having purchased ice tea and candy at a nearby convenience store, a 17-year old black youth, Trayvon Martin, was walking back to where he was staying with his father and his father’s girl friend in Sanford, a city of just over 50,000 in central Florida.
If seeing a white youngster walking in a predominately white (or we might say post-racial) gated community in Sanford on a Sunday evening at 7 PM, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, would not have made a 911 call that: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something.” It later turned out that Trayvon was neither up to no good nor on drugs. He was simply on his way back home from the store.
Even if Zimmerman did not make a racial slur, even if the actual shooting were an accident, even if Zimmerman had been black himself, if America were truly post-racial there would have been no reason for the call.
In American culture you don’t have to be a racist to do racist things. Just as, for example, you don’t have to hate innocent Afghanis to find yourself killing one, or several. All you have to be is a defender of what you perceive to be American interests, or a citizen trying to stop the status quo in our cultural wars from shifting.
Zimmerman’s initial guilt might amount to no more than stereotypical thinking, which almost all of us do to some extent. And thinking in stereotypes can be lethal when mixed with over-earnest self-righteousness and a permit to carry a gun.
Add Florida’s stand- your-ground law to the mix and you find Trayvon Martin, an innocent teenager, dead on the wet grass. Stand your ground laws which are now on the books in 20 states should never be present in place where racial stereotyping is as powerful as it is in America. Such laws say that a person may use deadly force in public areas when there is reasonable belief of a threat of death or serious bodily harm.
These laws themselves might well reflect what Jung saw as our cowboy and Indian heritage. It did seem fitting for foreign policy of the Bush/Cheney administrations to be called cowboy diplomacy, which Europeans were equally unable to completely understand. How can you justify attacking someone with deadly force if you have nothing but a reasonable belief.
Many Americans have what they consider a reasonable belief of a threat whenever a black male is present. The image of the black male in America’s multi-culture is a threatening images. No black male completely escapes it.
The irony in this case is that George Zimmerman, provoked what was an even more reasonable belief in Trayvon Martin’s mind that there was a threat, as indeed there was. But black fear of whites, especially defenders of the status quo who are armed, is not deemed reasonable.
A black trying to escape can look exactly like a black fleeing a crime scene to someone armed with a Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm semi-automatic pistol and the self-righteous impression that “these assholes always get away,” as Zimmerman said to the 911 dispatcher, who told him not to follow the boy.
Again: Would an innocent white youngster who had gone to the store to get ice tea and candy been as likely, 50% as likely, 30% as likely, 10 % as likely to be followed in such a neighborhood by a neighborhood watch volunteer? Until there is the same degree of likelihood then we’re not post-racial as a nation no matter how many of us boldly declare I don’t see the color of a person’s skin. I just see the person.
It is a silly argument erected to defend a large wound left in the American psyche by a history of bitter struggle for equal rights by black Americans. It is a cheap way to try to escape the organic, complex, ambivalent relations that slavery and brutal racial discrimination created.
It is as silly as saying I don’t see if it is a man or a woman. I just see a person. Differences exist and history has given them meaning. Was the dispatcher’s question “OK, is he White, Black, or Hispanic?” just an attempt to get a description or to get a fact that would determine what action to take. Zimmerman said he looks black. Would the dispatcher have asked for more reasons to send out police if Zimmerman had said he’s white?
Trayvon Martin’s cell phone was likely to have indicated that he actually lived most of the year in Miami Gardens, 3 hours 53 minutes or 238.6 miles down the Ronald Reagan Turnpike. Miami Gardens is an area of Dade County that is 76% African American.
According to the Miami Herald, August 12, 2007
The deadliest ZIP Code for teenagers in Miami-DadeCounty is a place where boys play ball on the street, other children ride their bikes up and down sidewalks, and teenagers congregate on the neighborhood wall.
The placid scene belies the tragic reality of ZIP Code 33054, which includes parts of Opa-locka and MiamiGardens (where Trayvon lived with his mother). A review of five years of statistics from the Miami-DadeCounty Medical Examiner's Office shows a higher rate of gunshot deaths among children 17 and younger in this area than in any other part of the county.
Sanford police would have known that many homicides are not rigorously investigated in Miami Gardens. Homicides are so numerous in neighborhoods created by historical and present economic discrimination, which create broken families, inadequate and/or corrupt policing, and failing schools, that it is safe to say that the criminal justice system finds the raw materials in these neighborhoods to “manufacture” young homicide victims, and perpetrators.
Inside these neighborhoods you don’t have to be a criminal to be treated as a criminal; and that increases the probability of your becoming one. These neighborhoods produce the raw material for the criminal justice industry to create both criminals and stereotypes, which the most harmless of black males cannot escape.
The police and first prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case cannot, even now, admit if they did as law enforcement agencies all over the country do routinely in homicide cases involving black boys. They could not admit that tagging Trayvon as “John Doe” is acceptable. But so tagging a white youngster, so tagging blond haired, cleanly dressed Scott or Todd, is unthinkable.
Americans need not be racist to think racially. Were the multi-racial groups of product sales persons who pushed toxic loan products off on targeted minority home buyers racists? They probably got along well with minority people or else they would not have been able to sell the products. However, their behavior produced homelessness, which feeds into the criminal justice industry.
Are the multi-racial groups of teachers at failed schools in minority neighborhoods racists? Some are, but my guess is that most are not. However, most post-racial Americans do not want to look at what these teachers do on a daily basis to feed school dropouts into the criminal justice industry.
Lack of compatibility with a particular school, loyalty to the status quo, and under-funding are only three of the many reasons teachers who are not racist end up doing things that are, in effect, racist.
It has always puzzled me that a majority of colleges and universities in America have large and growing criminal justice departments to train staff for the criminal justice industry; but these institutions have no social or economic justice departments. Is it impossible to be post-racial without social and economic justice?
The nation certainly deserves to be credited for overcoming overt racism; but unless we change the judicial, financial, educational, and other systems of America, we might have, alongside black and Hispanic ones, white “John Doe” corpses that we ignore unless they end up on the grass of post-racial, gated communities.
George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. He is working on a TV series based on his up coming nonfiction novel, Branches. His spiritual spy novel, The Melting Points, will be published in 2012.