Race is an inherently loaded and divisive topic; when race is a key component of a politician’s winning election identity, it remains part of his governing identity. Racial divisiveness is thus likely to be more present, not less.
Seattle, Washington–It was quite a week. Most of the world’s attention focused on developments in Egypt and Syria, collective breath-holding for the Royal Birth, Czar Putin’s show-trial and imprisonment of yet another political opponent and the E.U.’s latest hot-cold treatment of Israel; but America could not be bothered with any of that.
Though Israelis are largely unaware of it, social convulsions monopolized America’s attention following last weekend’s acquittal of George Zimmerman, on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. For those of you not following the story, Zimmerman, a “white Hispanic” (to use The New York Times’ racial neologism) Floridian on neighborhood-watch patrol, shot and killed black teenager Martin in an altercation last year.
Zimmerman claimed he had acted in self-defense, and no evidence or witness contradicted him. Nor was there the slightest bit of evidence of racial motivation for the shooting. But the race-incitement industry—abetted by the media—couldn’t let go of this white(-ish)-on-black killing and possibility of racial profiling; notwithstanding the absence of any evidence which would come close to proving Zimmerman guilty of anything beyond a reasonable doubt, justice-for-Trayvon fever would only be cooled by bringing murder charges. Even President Obama got in on the act, saying “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” The ensuing evidence-free politicized prosecution was worthy of Kafka; fortunately, the jury of non-politicians found Zimmerman not guilty.
The angry, often violent aftermath revealed fissures in America of surprising depth. Most of the country understood the verdict as fair. But for many, especially in vocal sectors of the black community and left-wing America, “not guilty” was simply not an acceptable outcome. Riots ensued. Looting. Threatened boycotts of Florida. Beatings of innocent whites and Hispanics by black youths yelling, “This is for Trayvon.” Zimmerman is in hiding, hounded by calls for additional prosecution and not-so-veiled threats against his life and his family. All week, this dominated the news and was the story on every talk radio program in America.
Perhaps most worrisome were the comments from people who should know better. Author and poet Maya Angelou was one of many who claimed she was “shaken by the verdict,” saying it shows “how far we have to go” as a country. “That one man, armed with a gun can actually profile a young man because he is black and end up shooting him dead…It is so painful,” Angelou said in an interview with TIME.
Jesse Jackson complained that Trayvon did not face a jury of his peers—as if he were the one on trial.
And President Obama, silent for days about either the verdict or its violent aftermath, chimed in just as the racial heat started to subside. Unhelpfully, he explained his thoughts in overtly racial terms, including stating that Trayvon “could have been me.” Obama could have risen above the moment, a black president uniquely positioned to call for calm, respect for the law and judicial process, and keeping racial anger in check. Instead, he stirred the racial pot further, emphasizing recycled cliches of black victimization (including his own) with only the most tangential relationship to the Zimmerman trial. (Isn’t it a bit incongruous for a man who has never lost an election to stand at the White House podium and invoke personal racial victimization?)
Is it possible that America has actually regressed in terms of racial division? It’s been 22 years since the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers filmed beating Rodney King. At least there, the video evidence seen by the public appeared compelling; with Zimmerman, the case was laughably weak—the prosecutors had to be pressured into bringing charges.
Should we be surprised by the presence of overt racial division even after America twice elected a black president—a self-proclaimed “uniter,” no less? Not at all. I suspect the answer, in fact, is quite the opposite.
Race is an inherently loaded and divisive topic; when race is a key component of a politician’s winning election identity, it remains part of his governing identity. Racial divisiveness is thus likely to be more present, not less. It took the election of David Dinkins, who was elected Mayor of New York partly on his black-ness, to bring about the pogroms of Crown Heights (complete with rioters shouting “Get the Jews out!” and black marchers in front of “770” chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and ”No justice, no peace!”) and the racially-charged boycotts of Korean grocers. Racial tensions and agitation in the black population were also exacerbated with the racially-tinged elections of black mayors Harold Washington in Chicago and Coleman Young in Detroit. It is not surprising to see a similar effect with the race-conscious election of President Obama.
The injection of race by outsiders into the judicial process can only serve to corrupt the search for truth and justice. Racial politics are about grouping people together by skin color and sewing friction between them. It is the opposite of what a trial should be, where the focus is on the particular actions of individuals, not the collective grievances of groups.
The facts don’t matter to the Justice for Trayvon crowd. Zimmerman is not so much a man to these people, but a symbol, the emblem of endemic racism. To them, the “Truth” is more important than the truth; broad symbolic “Justice” trumps actual justice. Yet, in their effort to prove how racist a country America still is, they have created their own inversion of the racist injustice of yesteryear—think To Kill a Mockingbird, but with a white defendant doomed by his race—and it is every bit as ugly and unjust when anti-white as when it was anti-black.
America will soon get bored with the Trayvon story and move on. But this is unlikely to be the last time we will see justice corrupted by race-based politics.