Monday, July 22, 2013


I don’t want to write about Trayvon Martin; I really don’t. First of all, I wasn’t there when it happened and I didn’t take notes on the trial, so I have no particular expertise to offer, and secondly just about everybody else is already writing, talking or shouting about the case. Most of all, I know that whatever I say, somebody will object to it. But people keep asking me what I think, and failing to answer can be construed as cowardice, so here goes.

Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have gotten killed; I think that’s one thing we can all agree on. The case is a tragedy any way you look at it. But nobody’s arguing about that. The arguments are about whether or not justice was done and what if anything the case proves about American society.

I tend to think that no single court case proves much of anything about American society; you need to look at big sample sizes to draw conclusions. But I was challenged on that recently by someone who thought it was obvious that the case was one more piece of evidence that white prejudice continues to hamper the prospects of African-Americans, and that if I questioned the significance of the case I must be in denial or perhaps harboring some of that prejudice.

I still don’t think one court case is enough to hang big generalizations on, but I understand that a high-profile case is enough to hang a narrative on, and narratives are very powerful. Furthermore, they’re necessary; they help societies organize their thinking about problems and they can contribute to their solutions. But it’s also true that narratives can be manipulated and they can be inaccurate; if they get too entrenched they can help us shut out new information and experiences.

Just to be clear, I don’t question that a young black man bears a burden of suspicion in everyday life that a young white man doesn’t. That is not entirely due to white perfidy; a lot of violent crime is committed by young black men and it’s rational to notice. But based on fact or not (and of course not all of it is), that burden of suspicion is undiscriminating and tiresome (or worse) to black Americans. I don’t have any trouble believing that what happened to Trayvon Martin was a result of that reflex of suspicion. What I question is the rush to claim the outcome of the case (or any single case) as proof of favored narratives.

It’s possible that George Zimmerman went after Trayvon Martin out of pure racial animosity. There’s a lot of it around. It’s possible that he provoked the whole thing with malice aforethought. But it’s also possible he was just being officious and overly zealous in his role as watchman and that he panicked and overreacted when Martin got mad. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know George Zimmerman, so I don’t know which of those is the case, and I marvel at the confidence of those who claim they do.

If this case makes me want to question anything, it’s the Stand Your Ground laws that several states, including Florida, have passed in recent years. I support the right to self-defense, but it has to be subject to legal constraints, and it seems to me that Stand Your Ground weakens those constraints. I oppose attempts to ban private ownership of guns, but I’m a big fan of training and licensing. Panic and overreaction can get real ugly real fast when you have a gun in your hand. So given that the unarmed kid got killed, it’s hard to say justice was done.

But I think some of the narratives that are being peddled are false. I don’t think the Trayvon Martin case proves that young black men are routinely in danger from angry white men; I think they are far more routinely in danger from other young black men. I don’t think the Trayvon Martin case proves that the judicial system is biased against blacks; I think it proves that prosecutorial overreach is a good way to lose a case. And before you accuse me of naivety, let me say that I think there are other cases that better illustrate systemic unfairness to African-Americans, such as the disparity in sentencing for drug crimes.

The main thing this case proves to me is that emotions run high when racial injustice is invoked. And that’s a pity, because emotion clouds vision. I’d love it if we could all sit down and discuss the complex aftereffects of slavery and Jim Crow dispassionately, but that’s not going to happen. The best I can do is state what I think and let people take their shots.

So here’s what I think: The United States has a hideous history of slavery, segregation and lynching. But it also has a history of abolitionist agitation, freedom marches, federal intervention against segregation, lively opposition to discrimination and collective soul-searching. The record, in short, is mixed, like human society. A narrative that recounted only the afflictions suffered by black people without noting the legal, social, educational and economic progress of the African-American community over the past decades would be incomplete.

In short, I’m an optimist when it comes to race relations in the United States. Why don’t I just get on board along with all the right-thinking people and support the narrative of implacable, endless racism? First because I think it’s false, and secondly because I think that the worst thing that could happen to the African American community would be succumb to despair. Tell people that there is no hope of progress and they will withdraw into fortified ethnic camps. Tell them that in spite of setbacks and derailments they live in a society that is capable of responding to their legitimate grievances and they will buy into that society. And that’s what we need.

That doesn’t mean I’m in denial or willfully ignorant of the problems that remain. It means I’m aware of what’s possible in imperfectible human societies. I look around the world and see ethnic conflicts turning lethal in countries that don’t have our mechanisms for noisy debate, messy political fixes and slow but inexorable cultural and institutional change. Our racial conflicts have deep roots, but so does our vocation for reform.

If you’re Trayvon Martin’s parents, you’re not ready to hear that, and who can blame you? But it’s true. There is a risk that high-profile heater cases like Trayvon Martin’s can distract us from the big picture. And the big picture is that African Americans have made heroic gains in the face of opposition that lessens with each generation. That’s a narrative I believe will survive a painful and contentious criminal case in Florida.

Sam Reaves

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