The Trayvon Martin killing has once again brought into focus the thorny and tragic issue of race in America. At his blog, Rod Dreher has asked what it would look like to have an Important Conversation about race:
The problem is, if we’re going to have a broader Important Conversation about this stuff, it’s going to have to involve a discussion of social and cultural contexts in which people make these judgments about young black men, and race, more generally. Trayvon Martin was almost certainly a victim of irrational prejudice — and he paid for it with his life. If what appears to be the case turns out to be so, then I hope and expect Zimmerman to go to jail, and I would hope and expect the local police department, if they did a sloppy, racially prejudiced investigation, to pay some price too.
That said, we don’t see in our media discussions of victims of crimes committed disproportionately by young black males, nor do we hear much about the valorization of thuggery in hip-hop culture, and how these things affect perceptions of young black men in the non-black community. How can we know which prejudices are rational (that is, based on sound judgment of the facts) and which ones are irrational? Why does it matter, if it matters? These things are important to explore, but also pretty much impossible to.
I think it’s unfair to blame the president’s election for making it more difficult to have an Important Conversation about race in America. That conversation is not going to happen no matter who’s president. There’s nothing in it for white people. Don’t misunderstand me: I think a genuine conversation, in which both sides (all sides?) aired their grievances and their fears, in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance and even reconciliation, would be hugely important and beneficial. Black-Hispanic tension and prejudice is a big deal too, though one that doesn’t often get discussed in the media. I doubt there’s a single soul — white, black, brown or whatever — who doesn’t have some prejudice that he or she could stand to confront and dispel. But like I said at the beginning, non-liberal white people accurately sense that the Important Conversation is almost always going to involve them being told how racist they are, and being expected to agree and promise to do better. You can have these Conversations if you want, but they won’t be Important, because they’re not going to be honest. Think about it: a culture in which many media outlets won’t give the race of at-large violent crime suspects — this, even as they report sex, height, clothing description — because they don’t want to encourage stereotyping, is not a culture that is prepared to speak forthrightly about race and crime.
Dreher’s own post is an extended reflection on this piece from Renique Allen in the Washington Post.
A few weeks ago, I was standing outside a posh bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with my friends of almost two decades. I made an offhanded comment about the ratio of blonde-haired-blue-eyed chicks to brown girls like me. It seemed like a zillion to one.
My pals, who are white, didn’t get why I was bringing this up. “No one cares about race except you,” one said.
I tried to explain my frustration with having to always choose between an all-black experience or being the “only one,” whether at work, in grad school or even out for a night in New York. I waited for a nod of sympathy; instead, my best friend threw her hands up and said: “How can we all be racist? Look at who is president!”
I didn’t have a response.
At this point, I’m a broken record on the subject, but once again we have to try and understand this issue through the lens of narrative if we are to understand it at all. There have always been two racisms at work in the United States – the naked racism seen most starkly in individuals. It’s the racism of Bull Connor, the sort of racism that explicitly states that one race is better than another. With World War II, the American Civil Rights Movement and the ending of Apartheid, that sort of racism stopped being PC. The naked racists still exist – and it’s highly possible that George Zimmerman is one of them – but the way racism is spoken of in our culture makes it utterly impossible to speak to those people directly. That kind of racism is no longer tolerated and so with the exception of extreme fringe groups that sort of racist is no longer going to announce themselves publicly.
And yet when Americans speak of the sin of “racism” that is still the primary sort we’re thinking of. We’re thinking of ethnic slurs, legalized racial segregation, and the like. But because of the stigma associated with racism in the public square, it’s impossible to actually have an honest conversation about it. (The difficulty to which Allen is alluding.) If a black person raises the issue of racism with white people, the natural response a white person will have is to get defensive and uncomfortable. Being Archie Bunker isn’t culturally permissible and being accused of racism makes you Archie Bunker, so we get defensive.
This is why we need to recognize a softer, harder-to-pin-down definition of racism that I’m going to call narrative racism but which could also be called systemic racism.
When I worked at Selby Wine and Spirits in St. Paul, MN I was the lone white employee in the store and the store was the lone black-owned liquor store in the Twin Cities metro. When Vernon started working to establish the business, it took the city three years to give him his license. Why? It wasn’t because he lacked experience. He had been a manager at a liquor store for 15 years. Nor was it because he lacked the skills – he had a degree in accounting and had run several small businesses throughout his life. Nor was it because he lacked the means to make the business work. He had a building picked out, he’d poured tons of work into the building (an abandoned hardware store) and he had a sister who had also run a small business moving out to help him with the store. He was an excellent person to open a store and he had an excellent chance of succeeding at it (which he has).
But he was black and he was opening the store in a majority-black neighborhood. So the city drug its feet and did everything it could to keep him from opening the business. And to this day whenever he calls the police about a break-in or theft, he’s fearful of it being held against him. Even in the cases of legitimate break-ins which we were unable to prevent, he doesn’t want to call it in because if something really major ever happens and he goes to the police, they’ll say “well, you’ve called us x amount of times, which suggests you’re running a disorderly business.” Then they’ll do as little as they can to help him resolve the problem.
Are any of the city officials dragging their feet on the issue racist in the Archie Bunker sense of the word? Probably not. But they are judging a man they do not know to be unworthy or incapable of running a business based largely on his skin color.
So there’s racism and there’s racism. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the Trayvon Martin case. As it turns out, it’s entirely possible – and highly likely – that George Zimmerman is more of an Archie Bunker racist. You can judge for yourself, but it sure sounds to me like he’s using a racial slur on his 9-11 call. But in one sense that’s kinda immaterial. Martin was a black man walking in an upscale gated community wearing a hoodie. And, sad though it is, I know Zimmerman isn’t the only one who’d look at that and think “suspicious.”
The solution offered by Giraldo Rivera of Fox News is that Trayvon shouldn’t have been wearing a hoodie. But that misses the point completely. You don’t fix social evils by accommodating them. You do it by addressing them directly. You don’t fix the problem by telling black kids to dress less like black kids and more like a certain type of socially-accepted (white) kid. That makes the problem worse by accommodating the soft bigotry of certain people and by reinforcing the message to black children that there’s something innately wrong with them that requires them to worry about things no one else has to worry about.
It’s good that the naked racism of Bunker and Connor is no longer PC. I’m glad. But the narrative racism that shapes the social imagination and makes some outcomes more likely and others less is still deeply racist. And that’s why we have cases like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and Sean Bell.