In January 2009 much of the nation watched with a kind of stunned jubilation as the first black president was sworn into office.
In the intoxication of that moment, some suggested the U.S. had finally moved beyond the racial quagmire that has defined its history and circumscribed its democracy. In a country where violent disfranchisement was still within living memory, the fact that 69 million voters -- of all racial backgrounds -- voted for a presidential candidate of African descent validated faith in the national creed of equality.
Less than two months later, it seemed ill-mannered to note that Oscar Grant, an unarmed black 22-year-old was shot and killed by transit police in Oakland, California. There had been little time to speak a few years earlier on behalf of Sean Bell, an unarmed black 23-year-old fatally shot by New York City police officers on the eve of his wedding or on the verdict exonerating the police, delivered in April 2008, slightly more than a month before Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination the previous year.
This week again we are faced with a situation seemingly out of place in this new America. There is a great deal left to be said about the circumstances under which Trayvon Martin died and why the man who killed him was exonerated. But we can’t say this is an anomaly.
A cursory glance at the history of race in the U.S. shows that the moments of great advancement are accompanied by terrible setbacks, a social equivalent of the boom-bust cycle in economics. In the spring of 2007, as Obama’s campaign showed the first fragile possibilities of success, enthusiasm among blacks evolved in tandem with a seldom-voiced understanding that his election wouldn’t resolve the question of race, only complicate it.
We should have remembered the precedent of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, which were blunted by black codes that all but nullified black freedom in the South. Likewise, the 15th Amendment, which ensured the right to vote for black men, inspired a wave of mass violence that eradicated the gains of black suffrage in a period when more than 3,000 lynchings occurred. The advances of the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection for all citizens, were all but invalidated by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which essentially held that a nation could be simultaneously racist and democratic.
In the 20th century, black soldiers who experienced equality fighting abroad during World War I were regularly lynched while still in their uniforms upon returning home. The hard-won victories of the civil-rights movement inspired a social and political backlash intended to dim its potential for permanent social change.
These setbacks weren’t the product of a conspiracy. They didn’t need to be. While conspiracies are the work of small cabals of identifiable villains, social backlash is the product of a broad movement of like-minded individuals. For this reason, it would be difficult to view today’s disproportionate black unemployment and the court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act as contradictions in the Obama era. By the most objective perspective, they’re exactly what should have been expected.
At its most fundamental level, the verdict delivered this weekend in the Martin case is only the work of six jurors who found the defense’s arguments more credible or, at least, those of the prosecution insufficient. Given the instructions the jury received, the ruling may be entirely consistent with the laws of the state of Florida. In the post-verdict news conferences, the defense and prosecution both emphasized that the case shouldn’t become a broader metaphor. The case and its verdict weren’t, they took pains to point out, about race.
Yet nothing furthers the suspicion of racial motivation like vehement denials that it is part of the equation. Were the roles reversed and George Zimmerman had been followed by an unidentified black man with a pistol in his belt, it would be easy for us to believe he feared for his life and justify his decision to take a swing at his pursuer. It is impossible to separate the growing prevalence of laws such as Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” measure from the racial implications of the crimes that inspire them.
A sad paradox has been overlooked in the rush of the defense and its varied supporters to transform Martin into a menace who somehow deserved the bullet that pierced his heart: His father’s fiancée probably moved into that gated community for the same reasons her white neighbors did, to find a safe place to live and raise a family.
Thus the conundrum that confronts millions of young black men: the dual fears of crime and of those in society who can only see them as the embodiment of it.
To the extent there is a lesson from the events in Sanford, Florida, it is that the U.S. is at once a country that can twice elect a black president and one in which the most reductive stereotypes can drive public policy. It tells us the presumption of innocence applies to a defendant in a courtroom but not to a black teenager walking home in the rain. In short, it tells us absolutely nothing we didn’t already know.
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