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SPOTLIGHT
[var top_story_head]

Closer look at race and criminality

Published on -5/9/2012, 8:44 AM

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I don’t care about George Zimmerman’s MySpace page.

Granted, it was gratifying to read recently in the Miami Herald about his crude animus toward Mexicans (“soft a-- wannabe thugs”) and his reference to a former girlfriend as an “ex-hoe.” Given the way white supremacists and other Zimmerman supporters have exaggerated and manufactured evidence to paint Zimmerman’s unarmed 17-year-old victim, Trayvon Martin, as a thug who somehow deserved shooting, this unflattering portrait offers the same satisfaction one feels any time the goose is basted with sauce that was prepared for the gander.

But ultimately, Zimmerman’s online profile is as irrelevant as Trayvon’s to any real understanding of the social dynamics that were at play the night the boy was shot to death. Worse, our fixation on this ephemera, the need on the one hand to make Trayvon some dark gangsta straight from Central Casting and on the other to find a Klan hood in the back of Zimmerman’s closet, suggests a shallow, even naive, understanding of the role race seems to have played in this tragedy.

The pertinent fact is that Zimmerman found Trayvon suspicious because, as he told the 911 dispatcher, the boy was walking slowly and looking around. That might be the behavior of a boy who was turned around in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Or of a boy enjoying a cellphone conversation with a girl and not overly eager to return to where his sweet nothings might be overheard by his dad.

That no such alternate possibilities seem to have occurred to Zimmerman for even an instant suggests the degree to which we as a people have grown comfortable with the belief that black is crime and crime is black. Nor are African-Americans immune to the effects of that invidious formulation.

Indeed, the dirty little secret of the Martin killing is that Zimmerman could easily have been black. True, a black Zimmerman probably would not have been sent home by prosecutors who declined to press charges — whiteness still has its privileges — but otherwise, yes. It is entirely possible.

Why not? Blacks watch the same TV news as anyone else. We internalize the same message. We drink the same poison.

Why else do you think black folk flinch when the mug shot goes up on television, hoping the face will not be brown — as if we bore some communal responsibility for the suspect’s misdeeds? Why else do you think so much of our music is a song of violence and crime? Why else, when I ask an auditorium full of black kids how frequently the individual who murders a white person is black, do they figure it at 75 percent? Why else are they shocked to hear it’s only 13?

At some subterranean level, we — African-Americans — still believe the garbage of innate criminality we have so assiduously been fed, and struggle with hating ourselves, as America long ago taught us to do. We struggle with it, yet we know better from firsthand, man-in-the-mirror experience. So how much harder is the struggle for white folks?

This is why I grow impatient with those — black, white and otherwise — who think the salient social issue here is George Zimmerman’s character. It is not. Nor is it Trayvon’s.

It is, rather, that ours is a nation so obscenely comfortable in conflating black with crime that a civilian carrying no badge of authority nevertheless feels it his right to require that an American boy walking lawfully upon a public street justify his presence there. And it is the knowledge that at least some black men would have done the same.

To make this about Zimmerman is to absolve the rest of us for maintaining a society that, in ways both overt and covert, still makes criminality a function of skin. Trayvon Martin was killed by a stereotype. George Zimmerman is just the guy who fired the gun.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist
for the Miami Herald.
lpitts@miamiherald.com
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