Like many people in America, and especially in the African-American community, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the Trayvon Martin case to begin, which it is scheduled to do on June 10th. Legally speaking, this is a very complex case that centers around Florida’s stand your ground law which essentially encourages unnecessary killings, and the issue of who had the right of self-defense: the unarmed boy, Martin, or the armed man, George Zimmerman, who followed Martin and killed him after some sort of altercation between the two broke out. If this presentation of facts seems biased to you, you are exactly who I wrote this for because your view of this case is, pun intended, being colored by something other than common sense. That there is a racial component to this case is an undeniable fact that I will address with one simple statement: Had Martin been white, there is no doubt that this situation would have played out differently: be it Martin not being shot in the first place, or the police and prosecutors treating the matter, and Zimmerman, in a substantially different way from the start.
Regardless, I am not here to argue about what is, at the end of the day, an unprovable contention. What I do want to talk about is how this case has exposed the need to update what it means to be a racist in this day and age. I say this because while reading an endless number of Internet articles about the Martin case, and then, for some inexplicable reason, feeling the need to read the comments that followed, I was more than stunned by the level of what can only be called self-denial many of the online posters were exhibiting with regards to whether or not their comments were racist.
I read countless comments – including some by friends – that, in one sentence made an insulting, degrading comment about Black people as a whole, and, in the next, had the author preemptively proclaiming to not be a racist. Even better, some said that Black people were being racist by calling them racists. Some of the more ridiculous comments claimed that Martin’s suspension from school and a thuggish looking online photo proved Zimmerman was right to feel threatened by the boy who was minding his own business, and as though Zimmerman could have known any of those things about Trayvon before he killed him. But more often, the troublesome comments tried to use statistical disparities in America’s incarceration rate to explain why Zimmerman was justified in seeing Martin as a threat instead of what he actually was, an unarmed boy walking home.
However, the Martin case isn’t the only place in modern society where we can see overt racism being denied. One hilarious example occurred just this year in Washington, DC at the annual convention of a conservative political organization, CPAC. It held a workshop for clueless racists…I mean attendees, called, I shit you not, “Are You Tired of Being Called a Racist When You Know You Aren’t One: How to Trump the Race Card.” Predictably enough, the discussion was derailed when one member in the audience said something extremely racially offensive. This, of course, goes hand-in-hand with some elements of the Tea Party movement, Birtherism and the general level of unprecedented disrespect and obstructionism that President Obama has faced as the nations’ first Black president, all of which are consistently said to have nothing to do with race.
In trying to understand how so many people could be so truly clueless about where their comments and beliefs fall on the scale of insightful to racist, I have come to the conclusion that many of these people are sincere – albeit horribly incorrect – when they claim not to be racist. This is because, in part, we have progressed so much as a society insofar as racism is concerned that it’s easy for a person to look at America’s history and feel significantly more enlightened than Americans of generations past.
Evidence of this progress can be seen in the fact that no one wants to be labeled a racist. In fact, I would go so far as to say that one of the worst things a person can call someone else in America is a racist. It is the quickest way to shut down a conversation and to force someone to go on the defensive, which leads to my second benchmark of progress: the often panned claim of “I have a Black friend.”
While I have often mocked people who have made use of the ‘Black friend defense’ while attempting to ameliorate a racist statement or action, I now think this too might be genuine proof, in their eyes, that they are not racist. They’re able to incorrectly feel this way because we, as a society, haven’t updated our understanding of what racism is. This leaves many still referencing the 1960’s, Burning Mississippi, definition of an all-out hatred of Black people. By that definition, very few people are still racist and simply considering a Black person a friend is proof they aren’t a 1960’s style racist. But a person today measuring themself against the 1960’s understanding of racism would be a like a 1960’s segregationist measuring themself against an 1860’s slave owner and concluding they aren’t racist because they don’t have slaves.
So yes, while having the ability to see a handful of Black people in your personal life as individuals is a mark of progress, it by no means renders you incapable of being racist. And while you might feel society has moved the goalpost on you in that you don’t long for the days of Jim-crow, and don’t burn crosses, wear a hood, or use the N-word – even when you’re really mad at a Black person – doesn’t mean everything you say is race neutral. That most people are no longer blatantly racist doesn’t mean racism has gone away. It means it has become more subtle, harder to clearly point out and, as a result, easier to deny.
However, the underlying idea behind what racism is remains the same. It’s the inability or unwillingness to see EVERY person of a particular racial group as an individual, each one deserving to be treated and judged on the content of their own character and not lumped together and treated as one monolithic group responsible for the actions of every individual of that group.
So, while Zimmerman might not have used a racial slur while talking on the phone and stalking Martin, he didn’t need to for it to still be a racist act. All he needed to do was not see a 17-year-old boy walking home with a bag of candy in hand, but instead see the scary caricature of a Black thug with his hoodie up. The police didn’t need to have the racist motivation of letting someone get away with killing a Black person for their lazy investigation to be racially tainted. All they needed to do was not see the dead boy they found as someone’s precious child who was deserving of justice just like anyone else, but simply see him as statistic, another dead Black kid. Likewise, for a comment to be racist it doesn’t need to have the N-word in it or explicitly call people of another racial group lesser than. It only needs to assume people of a racial group are all the same and that the color of their skin is the main indicator of who they are, even if that comment’s author doesn’t intend for that comment to apply to his friends.
Sidebar: When the trial starts you’ll notice Zimmerman has gained something like 100 pounds. It is also interesting to note that his defense lawyers dropped the pre-trail hearing on the stand your ground law which could have prevented the case from even going to trial if they had won. However, they will still be able to invoke that defense at a later time, even after the trial starts. From a legal standpoint, it is not clear to me why they would wait unless they’re hoping to not make the law itself an issue as I think this case could very well provide grounds to strike down the law as a whole.