The jury has spoken in the Trayvon Martin case, rendering a verdict that many find infuriating and unjust. Now it’s time for the rest of the nation to be heard, and the discussion has begun in earnest, online and in churches, at workplaces and in bars, on television and at street protests. Across Twitter and other social media, and in a million places in the real world, a national argument has begun over what exactly the killing and trial mean.
Largely lacking from the discussion, unfortunately, is a clear analysis of where, whether, and how race fits into the case and its aftermath. For all the talk about a new conversation on race in the age of Obama, the Zimmerman trial serves as a bitter reminder that Americans, by and large, do not tackle this touchy subject—and when we do, the term of the debate are cramped, unclear, emotionally charged, and unlikely to lead to insight or shared understanding.
It’s not that people aren’t trying. The problem is that Americans, wishing to bring about a colorblind society, often end up being colormute—fearful of offending, we simply clam up about race and racism, confining our blunt, not-politically-correct sentiments or questions to small groups of trusted friends and family.
Then, when we attempt a public discussion, participants start out in different mental and moral universes, with almost nothing in the way of shared assumptions, facts, or understanding of how society works. It’s a formula for conversational disaster, after which people decide it’s better to keep their mouths shut—remaining colormute in a society that desperately needs a rational conversation about race.
“All Americans, every day, are reinforcing racial distinctions and racialized thinking by using race labels; but we are also reinforcing racial inequality by refusing to use them,” writes anthropologist Mica Pollock. “By using race words carelessly and particularly by deleting race words, I am convinced, both policymakers and laypeople in America help reproduce the very racial inequalities that plague us.”
I got a dose of the problem the morning after the verdict was announced, when I was a guest on a call-in radio program, “Religion on the Line,” with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack. I had been booked to talk about local electoral politics, but the Zimmerman case was the topic of the moment, so we got into it.
One caller, who described himself as a 53-year-old white man, said in rapid succession that:
1. He was sick of university professors always demeaning white men.
2. Blacks commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime in America.
3. Black Americans should deal with the violent-crime issue rather than expend energy and time on situations like the killing of Trayvon Martin.
My few minutes were hardly adequate to even begin sorting through his long list of grievances and bias.
Listening to a black radio station later that night, I heard callers conclude, in ahistorical despair, that Trayvon's killing was akin in all essential matters to the notorious 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old kidnapped, beaten, and murdered after flirting with a white woman in segregated Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.
Online, the debate raged on with a range of emotions from sadness to rage to deep cynicism. In one strikingly off-base meme, a popular viral image of a Photoshopped Martin Luther King Jr. wearing a hoodie posits Trayvon as a civil-rights hero. Conservative bloggers, resorting to a favorite theme, noted a lack of protest over victims of neighborhood violence in Chicago, implying that black communities and civil-rights leaders do, say, and care nothing about black-on-black violence.
The long and short of it is that we mostly avoid talking about race publicly until it’s unavoidable—at which time we have a maximum of misunderstanding thanks to the long silences and are pretty much guaranteed to talk past one another.
It’s a very old problem: in 1903, in The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois famously noted that white acquaintances often danced around the question they really wanted to ask: How does it feel to be a problem? DuBois said he smiled and rarely answered.
American talk of race reminds me of the striking fact that, if asked to sketch a picture, many adults—even learned, sophisticated adults—often produce scrawls that resemble those of a second grader. Why? Because for many of us, second grade is pretty much the last time any teacher made a serious attempt at a serious explanation and drills on how to execute the basics of perspective, human form, color, shadow, and light on the page.
Something similar goes on with race. A Twitter follower suggested to me, in apparent seriousness, that black Americans should work on lowering the level of black out-of-wedlock births, which in turn would lead to less crime and higher educational attainment.
How this would have helped a future Trayvon Martin (whose parents I have met) remains a mystery to me, unless the assumption is that racial profiling is a rational response to statistics about births and test scores. But assuming the suggestion was earnest and not malicious, it suggests a level of confusion about culture, social inequality, and political change that would require more than a bit of conversation to cure.
But there are too many incentives for people to stay mute: as Pollock notes, teachers and school administrators who talk openly about racial differences among students face serious professional risks, including lawsuits and firings. The same is true in corporate and government settings, where fear of getting in trouble creates a convenient incentive to simply allow unequal treatment and stereotypes to flourish.
Politically, President Obama, who called for a national conversation on race, has learned the hard way that he gets damaged every time he initiates or even participates in such a talk.
The minefield of race even became an issue in the case of George Zimmerman: Judge Debra Nelson specifically warned prosecutors not to use the phrase "racial profiling” during the trial, although the more limited "profiling" was allowed.
So when audiotape of Zimmerman’s 911 call picked up him muttering "These fucking punks," and “these assholes always get away,” prosecutors were banned from saying he was drawing the kind of conclusions that people draw every day about black boys.
Trayvon, said Zimmerman to the 911 dispatcher, "looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something. Something's wrong with him."
What did he mean by that? an investigator later asked Zimmerman.
The shooter’s answer: “I don’t know.” Like so many other Americans, he went mute at the moment of truth. That may have saved Zimmerman from prison, but it leaves the rest of us that much more in need of straight talk about the crisis that dares not speak its name.