Published in The Guardian, Friday, July 19, 2013
There’s an old tale about a village that existed on the edge of a precipice. Villagers were perpetually tumbling into the abyss, until one day the elders addressed the problem by building a fence. People stopped falling to their doom, and all was well. Indeed, things went so well that the villagers decided the problem no longer existed. So they tore down the fence.
George Zimmerman’s exoneration in the killing of Trayvon Martin strikes me as being the result of this kind of foolish, shortsighted and circular thinking this parable exemplifies. For a while in America we were engaged in something like a serious conversation about the costs ofracial profiling: there were studies, proposals, acknowledgments and suggested legal recourse. Then, within the last 10 years or so, we seem to have completely lost any sense of direction. Not just anti-profiling policies but the entire edifice of civil rights laws has been attacked, eroded, torn down.
In Zimmerman’s trial, the judge explicitly barred any discussion of racial profiling. At the same time, his entire defence was precisely and explicitly premised on how much Trayvon Martin “looked like” a big, black “thug”, and how reasonable it was to be suspicious and alarmed when Trayvon – doing nothing more than walking toward his father’s house – resembled someone who “might be” a “predator” engaged in a “rash” or a “spree” of crime.
What else can we call it but pervasive racism when confronted with the overwhelming social consensus that so easily and completely displaced the real, unarmed kid carrying candy and a soda with ugly projected fears of much more?
And so, in a country divided down the middle about race – in a country where a young black man dies at the hands of police or security guards nearly every day of the year – we have decided that if we were to just stop talking about it so much, racial division would melt away. According to this logic, we don’t have any problem that the dismantling of civil rights laws won’t cure.
The civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s brought about some of the most effective structural transformations in race relations in US history. Since then the backlash has slowly swelled and regrouped. With the election of Barack Obama, there were those who insisted that the country had been “cured” of racism, and that we had achieved our long-hoped-for, colour-blind, “post-racial” apotheosis. If only.
Over the past few years the supreme court has aggressively restricted laws meant to redress the legacy of segregation: it has held that it is in and of itself racist to consider race, even for purposes of remedying inequality. It has made proving discrimination nearly impossible by all but barring data about disparate impact. Just last month it gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, placing a nearly impossible burden on individual citizens to show that state officials had invidious intent in restricting the opportunity to vote. It has made class actions, the very staple of civil rights cases, almost completely unavailable.
What makes the exoneration of Zimmerman particularly frustrating – to at least some of us in the United States – is that the killing of Trayvon Martin was in many ways business as usual, the continuation of a long and bloody history – except that in a “post-racial world”, we are not supposed to talk about it.
Zimmerman was found not guilty because of a sequence of unquestioned habits of thought: from the prejudgments that clouded his vision on that dark and rainy night; to the Sanford police department’s casual reaction to the crime scene, failing to preserve evidence or conduct a thorough investigation in a timely fashion; to the anonymous juror who has declared that Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place”. We are afflicted with the kind of “common sense” that turns one black kid into all black men and all black men into criminals – and, most worryingly, all criminality into a black male “thing”.
This is an insidious progression of reasoning, but how else to explain comments like the statement of the TV pundit Geraldo Rivera that: “I see those six ladies in the jury putting themselves … in that housing complex that has just been burglarised by three or four different groups of black youngsters from the adjacent community … I submit that if they were armed, they would have shot and killed Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did.”
The parable of the village wall, in its starkest telling, makes the village elders sound simply foolish for tearing down the fence that ensures their citizens’ welfare. But if the moral is seen as a caution about due process and the structures of reconciliation that preserve us as a polity, then the story illustrates the bewitching ease with which we sometimes get cause and effect precisely backwards.
In “post-racial” America, statistics are in many ways worse than they were in the 50s, particularly as to the so-called war on crime and its targeting of black neighbourhoods. As Michele Alexander’s excellent book The New Jim Crow has documented, our disparate enforcement of drug laws, as well as stop-and-frisk policies that target African-American neighbourhoods exclusively, are creating a caste system sustaining expectations and assumptions that all but licence the outcome in the Zimmerman case.
But this is a tale that is complicated by, but not exclusively about, race: for along with the slashing of funds for social safety nets and public accommodations of all sorts – from public housing to public education and law enforcement – we seem to be entering a war of worlds where each of us will be subject to the assumed, rather than legislated, justice of whichever of one’s neighbours has the biggest-barrelled gun.