I can’t shake my despair over the Trayvon Martin verdict.
It’s not that I was surprised by it. After all, shootings and killings of young black men happen all the time in America, and cases similar to the Trayvon Martin killing have come with dull, thudding regularity in the years since my own young adulthood in the ’80s and ’90s. At 53 years old, I’ve too often been gravely disappointed after short periods of what appear to be racial healing in this country. They always are followed by yet another poignant example of how we have not healed at all.
Let’s take a quick look back at a few such examples: There was the highly questionable coma and heart-attack death of 25-year-old graffiti artist Michael Stewart after he was beat by police during an arrest on charges of spray-painting an NYC subway station wall (1983); the shooting of four black teens by NYC vigilante Bernhard Goetz in a crowded subway car (1984); the death of Michael Griffith, chased into a busy highway by a mob of white thugs in Howard Beach, Brooklyn (1986); the racial profiling and killing of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins by a mob of white thugs in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1989).
There was the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King (1991); the brutal sodomizing of Abner Louima while in NYPD custody (1997); the dragging death of James Byrd by a clan of young Texas racists (1998); the slaughter of African immigrant Amadou Diallo, shot 40 times by New York police for reaching into his pocket for a wallet (1999).
What we’ve learned from the Trayvon Martin case is that too many white Americans have what those of us in 12-step programs call a “built-in forgetter.” We don’t remember. Some of us are under the (selective?) illusion that racism doesn’t exist anymore. The scary thing about the current denial of racism is that, for the most part, it’s no longer out of shame. It seems to be a deliberate, knowing, almost Orwellian condition: “I am not racist” has come to mean “I am VERY racist.” In the United States today, we not only still live in a society in which many, many Americans hate black people, but we live in a society in which hating black people is OK. In fact, it’s not even racist.
How do we deal with this kind of mindset? When we see detestable things written on social media about our country’s first black president, it gets chalked up to opposition to his policies. But the language against this president is not merely critical — it’s demeaning to his race, sometimes implicit, oftentimes explicit. When confronted about this language, many of those who are using it recoil — they call the president himself a racist. It’s nonsense, it’s illogical, it’s downright insane. But there’s no arguing with it. There’s no learning. There’s no self-reflection.
While many people do speak out against this weird new strain of racism on social media, we don’t see nearly enough outcry in real life, on the streets, in our art and our music. If ever there was a time in America when we needed musicians and other artists getting out in the public eye, making art and participating in the kind of human rights activism we saw in past decades — from Phil Ochs, Odetta, Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron to Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine and Ani DiFranco — we need it from young people today. Instead, we laugh at the insidious racism of lazy-minded “comedians” like Tosh.0 and play video games involving the slaughter of prostitutes. “Oh, but Tosh ridicules everybody,” we say in defense. As if that makes it all right.
On the positive side, we have seen an upswing in demonstrations recently. Every Monday for the past several weeks in Raleigh, N.C., demonstrators of all ages have participated in civil disobedience against the state legislature’s horribly regressive agenda that includes some extreme voter suppression measures. And others are taking note. In a very critical editorial about the current crop of ultra-conservative N.C. lawmakers, The New York Times lauded the “thousands of North Carolina residents [who] have gathered at the State Capitol to protest the grotesque damage that a new Republican majority has been doing to a tradition of caring for the least fortunate.” And Stevie Wonder recently announced he will not perform in Florida — where the jury acquitted Trayvon Martin’s killer — until it repeals the so-called Stand Your Ground law. Sometimes we have to hit bottom as a society before we actually start taking meaningful action.
Are those of us who constantly point out the racism in our culture too serious? Do we need to lighten up? I’ve heard this from some of my friends. Others claim the powers we’re up against today are just too big — everything’s just a giant conspiracy, way too dark and menacing for us mere mortals to penetrate. Those folks say even President Obama is part of the conspiracy; they look to likeminded conspiracy-mongers such as Ron Paul to change things. Our problems, these folks say, are much bigger than racism. We need to dismantle the whole damn system, because everybody is fucked. It’s a nihilistic, defeatist worldview that has, itself, stoked racist fears. If the freedom fighters of previous generations had bought into such Great Conspiracy nonsense, this country would never have achieved the leaps and bounds, in terms of social justice, that we’ve made since the civil rights years. We’d have been squirming around in quicksand, pointing fingers every which way but at ourselves — like we are today.
As I noted on my Facebook page recently: before the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case came, I was under the personal illusion that the No. 1 human rights issue of this era was bigotry against the LGBT community. That issue is hugely important, as are issues of corporate power, religious terrorism and economic collapse. But my earlier assumption was wrong. The No. 1 human rights issue is still race. And that makes me profoundly sad.