Ariel Chesler wonders “Why does it take death and tragedy for us to have these conversations about race in this country?”
Everyone is talking about race and laws and justice since the verdict in the matter of George Zimmerman. This is a good thing. But, I wonder: Why does it take death and tragedy for us to have these conversations about race in this country?
Why is it not enough to look at the disproportionate numbers of black men in our prisons or the disproportionate numbers of black men who are stopped and frisked on our streets? How about the fact that more black men are charged with drug crimes despite the fact that they use drugs at the same rate as whites? What about the harsher sentences given to black defendants or the disproportionate number of black defendants given the death penalty?
We could look at discrimination in hiring or loans. Or, we could look at the many recent attempts to disenfranchise minority voters or the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Voting Rights Act. What about the inane belief held by some that because Barack Obama is our president we live in a Post-racial America?
What about the white privilege of not being harassed or suspected of wrongdoing in our daily lives? President Obama was so courageous and candid in his remarks on that topic and regarding what it is like to be a black man in America, and his humbling honesty has been met with accusations of race-baiting. Maybe that is why these conversations about race don’t happen.
My fellow Americans: look at our segregated lives. Think of your neighborhood, your schools, your places of work, your Facebook friends. How diverse are these places? How many people who have a skin color different than yours are you intimately connected with? How sad is it that we have very few opportunities to reach across the gulf of race and culture?
We (and I mean white folks) may believe we know black people because we listen to black music, but this is feel-good falsity. Indeed, to paraphrase the British critic Charles Shaar Murray, we care far more about black music and culture than black people. This is certainly due in part to our segregated spaces.
But we cannot overlook that our present relationship with black men and black masculinity in this country is based on myths that are centuries old. On the one hand, we all want a piece of the mythical black masculinity (i.e. sexual and physical prowess) that has now been bottled and commodified and sold to us through hip hop culture. All American men seek to emulate this particular brand of masculinity, even though the real power lies in the economic and political prowess which black men are rarely permitted to possess.
On the other hand, we are taught to fear black men who are “dangerous” and violent.” That lesson has been internalized even by great civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson who, when fearful of being robbed on the streets, admitted relief when the footsteps behind him were those of a white person.
So, if we are having this conversation, let’s be honest: We are all internalize racism, just as we internalize sexism. We are all indoctrinated to fear and devalue black people. And, in particular we are taught to fear the danger of black men, whether they are Trayvon Martin or Barack Obama. There are no accidents when it comes to racism and no such thing as an accidental racist. We live in a society where racism is both institutionalized and internalized so that discrimination on the basis of race persists on both a small and large scale. This is our American problem.
Given that as the backdrop, please let’s talk about the rates of violence in the black community, about black-on-black crime and about the rates at which black men are involved in crimes. These are real things. But, let’s not do so without an understanding of the history of racism in this country, of the unfair application of our laws, and of how the myths we created about black men play a role.
Of course, one trial cannot solve these deeply ingrained beliefs, but it has shed light on the importance of our laws, our judges, our prosecutors, and our juries. Yet, when we talk about American Justice or the “legal system” we must not paint with broad strokes. The laws in Florida are very different from the laws in New York. So, in our collective rage we must not condemn all judges and courts across this land.
We do need to work on abolishing self-defense laws like the “Stand Your Ground” laws that do not require a person to retreat before firing a deadly weapon. We need to elect prosecutors who are competent and fair and will complete their tasks by, among other things, preparing their witnesses and presenting evidence including delving into the issue of racism if necessary. The prosecutors did not do so in the Zimmerman matter. And, we need to make sure that we elect judges who will provide juries with fair and complete jury instructions. Here, the jury was not instructed that under Florida law Zimmerman could not claim self-defense if he was an initial aggressor.
So while we must be precise when we speak about laws and justice and the details of a particular trial, when we talk about institutionalized racism and internalized racism we may paint broadly. I am not saying we should declare the entire justice system racist or assume that every verdict is suspect; sometimes the evidence isn’t there or mistakes are made. However, I am hoping that we can avoid more tragedies and more deaths by recognizing how these myths about race and masculinity—these social constructs—literally color everything around us.
photo: tyreseus / flickr