By Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, March 27, 2012
Last month, a 17-year-old black kid named Trayvon Martin was shot dead in a gated Florida community by a self-styled neighbourhood vigilante. The teenager, who was unarmed, had gone to the convenience store to buy some candy. Astonishingly, the police didn’t bother to arrest the shooter, a 28-year-old white Hispanic named George Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman – who, by some accounts, chased the teenager down the street – said he’d acted in self-defence.
Trayvon’s death was an outrage. But nobody paid much attention until Jesse Jackson took it up. Now the case has reignited all the bitter old debates about racism in America.
To many people, Trayvon’s death is the modern-day version of a lynching. It’s proof, if any more is needed, that racism is alive and well. Jesse Jackson called him a “martyr.” Black leaders are comparing him to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Al Sharpton accused the Sanford, Fla., police department of a “reckless disregard for black lives.”
Even Barack Obama weighed in. How could he not? He refused to address the issue of lingering racism head-on. But he did frame the issue as a parent. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” he said last week. “I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen.”
It would be naive to think race played no part in Trayvon’s death. As every black American knows, racial stereotyping is a fact of life, and young black males in hoodies live under a constant cloud of suspicion. But the real villain isn’t racism in America. It’s Florida’s noxious Stand Your Ground law – aided and abetted by an incompetent local police department that did nothing.
The Stand Your Ground law is a product of America’s crazy gun culture. It allows anyone to shoot anyone else in “self-defence” if they feel threatened. Critics call it a licence to kill under a variety of suspect circumstances. More than 20 states now have such laws, which have been used to justify killings ranging from drug dealers’ turf wars to lethal incidents of road rage. Since the law was introduced in Florida, the rate of justifiable homicides has tripled. Former Miami police chief John Timoney calls it a “recipe for disaster.”
But when it comes to racial politics, the Stand Your Ground law is irrelevant. Black Americans and white Americans experience two different versions of reality. In one version, black men are stopped, frisked, shot and jailed in overwhelming disproportion to their numbers. “It’s a feeling of being degraded,” said former New York governor David Paterson, the first black to hold that job; he says he’s been stopped three times by police. In the other version, the face of crime in America is overwhelmingly black on black. In New York City, according to a New York Times op-ed based on reports filed by victims in 2009, blacks made up 23 per cent of the population but accounted for 80 per cent of the gun crimes.
The racism that infects the very soul of the United States hit me one day back in 1999, three years after I arrived as a vicar in a rural Colorado mission of the Episcopal church. In a seemingly offhand comment, I was reminded by a lawyer-member of the congregation, a white female in her fifties, "If you had arrived here with a black wife, you would not have been given the job as vicar!"
Just the Christmas season prior to this tiny bomb, I was approached by one of the members of the congregation with a question: "Would my niece's boyfriend from Denver be welcome at Christmas services this year? You might like to know that he is black!"
"Why, of course, he would be welcome, and might I ask, why did you consider it necessary to ask that question!" I replied quickly and without reservation.
"Oh, I was just wondering," came her lame response.
Apparently, the boyfriend did not feel welcome enough because he did not attend any of the services, during my stay in the tiny mining town mission on the western slope of the Continental Divide.
This was a town in which the half-ton trucks bore signs on their rear bumpers that read:
This vehicle insured by Smith and Wesson!...
and a rack of rifles hung, loaded in the cab window, suchb was the strength of the NRA (National Rifle Association) the main lobbying agency behind the "Stand Your Ground" law that infects over two dozen states statute books.
As an "alien" and so named by all locals, since I came from Canada, I felt the racism that is rampant and directed to those "aliens" who are not native born. Let's not forget that the U.S. continues to forbid anyone not born in their borders to become president, so parochial are the country's attitudes, even in the 21st century.