I tend to filter out crime stories, because so often they get more coverage than they deserve, like O. J. Simpson. So I’ve been slow to catch on to the significance of the Trayvon Martin story. But lately this has turned into a meta-story: reactions to the killing say even more about our country than the killing itself did.
The basic facts are simple: A white-Hispanic neighborhood-watch volunteer (George Zimmerman) got suspicious of a 140-pound black teen-ager (Trayvon Martin) for no apparent reason. He called 911, and the dispatcher told him not to follow the kid. Zimmerman followed anyway. Some kind of confrontation ensued and he shot Martin dead. Martin was unarmed and had nothing easily mistaken for a weapon, but the police accepted Zimmerman’s self-defense claim (in spite of at least one witness who denied it) and let him walk away. That all happened back on February 26, there’s still been no arrest, and the local African-American community is getting pretty upset about it.
The story points out the continuing presence of racism in America. To some segment of the population, being black raises suspicion all by itself. Probably Zimmerman is not the kind of racist who would go out hunting black teens at random. Probably he really believed that Martin was planning some kind of mischief, and that Martin must be armed, so that he had to shoot first once the confrontation started. But why did he think that? Why did he frame the situation in such a way that shoot-to-kill seemed sensible?
And why did the police find his story credible and his actions excusable? You’re an armed white adult chasing an unarmed black teen-ager you outweigh by about 100 pounds. Naturally, you would feel threatened.
That’s the kind of racism that is still endemic in every nook and cranny of America. We’re almost entirely past the “I don’t hire niggers” phase, but still in a phase of “he just doesn’t look trustworthy to me”. What would look like a well-deserved break for a white employee is goofing off when a black does it. An ordinary mental glitch becomes evidence of low intelligence, and so on.
Being black is no longer three strikes against you, but it’s still one or two.
By and large, White America doesn’t want to believe that. Last year a poll found that 51% of whites (also 60% of Republicans and 68% of people who name Fox as their most trusted news source) say that reverse discrimination against whites is at least as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
You can see just how badly White America doesn’t want to believe in its continuing racism by how it has reacted to the Martin story. Fox News did its best to ignore the whole thing. ThinkProgress totaled up how much attention each cable news network gave the Martin story during its first three weeks:
Compare this to Fox’s obsessive coverage of a series of scary-black-people stories. For example, it devoted 95 segments totaling 8 hours of air time to the trumped-up voter-intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party.
Or check out how the Glenn-Beck-founded blog The Blaze has covered Martin’s death. Searching on the word “Trayvon” got me 15 stories, five of which were about the scary ways black people are reacting to the incident — the New Black Panther Party (of course), Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Barack Obama, and the New Black Liberation Militia. The Sharpton post ends by raising more suspicion about Martin. (He was on a 10-day suspension from school, and “Sources sympathetic to Martin say he was suspended for ‘excessive tardiness’.” But the Blaze makes sure we know all the more serious stuff that a 10-day suspension could be about.)
A sixth Blaze post quotes Beck himself, who is worried not about white vigilantes, but about black extremists “winding everybody up”:
“We have this extremist African-American militia group that says they’re just going to come in and handle it. You’re got Al Sharpton winding everybody up. You’ve got Color For Change winding everybody up.” … Beck ceded that the man who shot Trayvon could indeed be a racist, but that many of his detractors are driven by a racial agenda too, and thus are everything they claim to stand against.
Got that? You should focus not on what actually happened to an innocent black teen, but on what “extremist” black groups might do. Zimmerman could be a racist, but blacks and liberals upset by the Martin story are racists.
So the beat goes on: For the part of the media that panders to I-am-not-a-racist whites, the Martin story is just one more example of racism against whites and one more reason for white people to be afraid of black people.
Among the presidential candidates, only Newt Gingrich directly pandered to white racists by turning the incident into a reverse-racism story. President Obama had reached out to Martin’s parents, saying “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. … When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.
Gingrich glossed over the whole walking-while-black angle that makes the story important: If Trayvon Martin had been white, he might not have been shot at all. George Zimmerman “turned it into a racial issue”, not President Obama.
While researching this case, I learned something interesting about the law: Self defense falls into a class known as affirmative defenses. In other words, at your trial you’re not just looking at the state and saying “Prove I did it”, you’re making assertions about facts that are supposed to exonerate you. When you do that, part of the burden of proof shifts to you.
So the state does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self defense. In making a self-defense plea, Zimmerman would be conceding that he killed Martin, and he would then need to convince the jury of his self-defense claim by a preponderance of evidence (not beyond reasonable doubt).
Want some background music to read this piece by? Try Eminem’s “White America“:
Look at these eyes:
Baby blue, baby, just like yaself.
If they were brown, Shady lose,
Shady sits on the shelf.