A Couple of Thoughts about Zimmerman, Martin, and Obama
The hard right was predictably livid about Obama’s remarks on the Zimmerman case, but even quite conservative people found what he said unremarkable. No wonder about that. The President never deviated very far from commonsense. Obama remarked that his black listeners understood from experience the animus they face in dealing with the police or even just getting a taxi, but I found myself wondering why any of this should be news to whites either. After all, black people hear door locks clicking as they walk past parked cars, but we’re doing the clicking. White people remain afraid of black people. This is news? A black Zimmerman would have gotten away with assassinating a white Martin? Really?
So long as we make sure to keep the discussion focused on subjective attitudes, no one can refute the proposition that prejudice has declined in this country. As we read in the Bible, “No one knows what is in man but the spirit of man which is in him.” I doubt if St. Paul was trying to craft a universal dodge for bad behavior by making this remark, but it certainly works efficiently when used for that purpose. If we look at what people do and ignore their assertions about the state of their souls, it seems pretty clear that we routinely overestimate to what extent racial attitudes have changed. That’s especially true in the South where decent people have learned to loudly deny their own racism. You have to wonder how long even this linguistic piety would survive if their side manages to win the culture war—look at how quickly several states rushed to enact new Jim Crow laws once the Supreme Court let them. After the Civil War, Dixie never went through a process comparable to denazification, and black citizens and the nation's honor continues to pay the price for that. In a species as lacking in genetic diversity as ours, the races themselves are largely cultural artifacts; but racism, the tendency to hate other groups on the basis of visible differences, is apparently quite natural and dealing with it takes a great deal more effort than we’ve been willing to expend, at least so far.
Of course, as many of the reactions to the Zimmerman affair demonstrate, the problem isn't just a Southern thing. Thus many people all across the country have pointed to high black crime rates to justify the racial profiling beneath Zimmerman’s behavior. I guess the reasoning is that if you don’t want to be at increased risk from cops and vigilantes, you should do something about the behavior of your kind as if Trayvon Martin participated in some sort of collective guilt in the same way some theologians speak of everyone participating in the sin of Adam. The essentialism of this kind of thinking isn’t the only thing problematic about it. If it isn't the legacy of hundreds of years of oppression and economic deprivation that accounts for the problem of black crime, the conclusion must be that the explanation is the intrinsic viciousness of negritude itself, the curse of Ham. What else? Appealing to some notion of metaphysical free will certainly doesn’t help. If men are all radically free and circumstances don’t matter, roughly the same proportion of every group should opt for the same choices by sheer chance like an honest coin or balls drawn from an urn. That’s nonsense of course, but I guess it’s too useful a form of nonsense to be dispensed with.
In fact, no one who has bothered to learn American history is surprised at how difficult it is for a despised minority to make headway against the continuing and often institutionalized hatred of the majority. The crime rates in inner cities are utterly unmysterious, granted the lack of social and cultural capital of the inhabitants, the lousy schools, the inadequate policing, the bad health care, and all the rest. You can and many do blithely recommend that black people ought to be saints or heroes, though I don't notice a great deal of superhuman effort coming from the other side. Of course exceptional individuals do surmount the obstacles, but no group of human beings is made up of exceptions. Which is why racism will be over, if it ever is over, with the end of the marked disparity of fortune between the races and not before.