The Political Animal

Talkin’ Shit about Race: Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

Martin Luther King, Jr. every conservative’s favorite Negro,when he wasn’t.

Had I served on George Zimmerman’s jury I believe I would have voted to convict him of manslaughter. I form this belief independent of Trayvon Martin’s race or any conviction about Zimmerman’s racial animus or suspicions. I would have voted to convict George Zimmerman of manslaughter had Trayvon Martin been white.

Had Trayvon Martin been white, I would still think George Zimmerman culpable for his death. We do not need to demonize Zimmerman to do it, nor do we need to rehabilitate him in order to reject unsupportable claims about a depraved mind based on racial suspicion.

In the record of George Zimmerman’s 43 calls to police over an 8 year period what I read is the  neighborhood watch volunteer as prickly, neighborhood busy body, the overzealous wannabe as nuisance and, finally, armed danger to those around him, attentive to and calling about every matter that did not fit his personal sense of community decorum and order.

Any good dramatist could construct the edifice of the plot, weave together the inciting personal and social forces: the obsessive personal traits assuming a citizen law-enforcement mentality and joined to an aggressive and regressive gun culture to lead to the inevitable tragic event.

That Zimmerman’s perceptions were skewed – repeatedly – we know again from the events of that night. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself. A seventeen-year-old boy with every right to be where he was and doing what he was, who was doing nothing wrong, but walking, instead, home from the store, whose own behavior was less suspicious than that that of the man who killed him, ended up dead.

What shall we say, that fate was the hunter?

I could argue facts of the case and the recklessness of Zimmerman’s behavior – a man whose own trial defense included testimony of his inability to physically defend himself recklessly stalking a stranger in the darkness with only a loaded gun on him to offer that self-defense if needed.

What I wish to argue, rather, is the role of perception in the response to this case.

Zimmerman says in the 911 call, “Yep, he’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is.”

Zimmerman didn’t know what Martin’s “deal” was?

Martin’s deal was that someone (with a gun, it turned out) was following him in the rain, in that darkness, but Zimmerman was explicitly unable to see things from the perspective of the person he was following, to consider how Zimmerman must appear to him.

What appears?

Perceptions begin to determine appearance (rather than appearance perceptions) immediately after the killing. Had Martin been white, rather than the typically dressed black boy that many later were eager to characterize as a “thug,” would Zimmerman have been booked that night? Had Zimmerman been black (with, especially, Martin white),  would he have been booked? In either reverse case, would juror B37 not so completely have accepted as fact Zimmernan’s completely uncorroborated and legally-perfect exculpatory account of the fatal encounter?

Since the verdict, and the renewed furor in much of the black community, and among many non-blacks too, about the role of race in American law enforcement, we have heard, too, the rage on the right about racial demagoguery, about those who are “making it racial.” Now, the soft liberal New Republic is comfortable publishing articles no different from The National Review.

Recall that making the case “racial” begins with Zimmerman not having been charged until a public outcry. Then, in contrast, the Florida state attorney’s office, as prosecutors stated after the verdict, found the case against Zimmerman obvious. Perception.

African-Americans believe that the racial character of the case began, if not with the killing itself, at the very least with just that failure to charge. Predominantly white conservatives believe it is that accusation, along with claims that Zimmerman acted from racial animus, that racialized the case.


Perception is not illusion. If so many black people in the U.S. find this issue to represent a matter of race, then, again, res ipsa loquitur, it is a matter of race, even if the matter of race – its being “racial” – is only a matter of perception. What accounts for the perception? If a segment of the white population, if politically conservative whites, do not simply disagree, but passionately, angrily object to labeling this case and many others like it a matter of race, what does that mean? What accounts for that passion? What accounts for the anger?

Expressions like “it’s not racial” and “stop making it racial” are not arguments against a claim, but a denial of any grounds for making it. These are not the same. Such expressions blindly pretend to refute the claim within artificially restricted parameters – George Zimmerman’s state of mind – while ignoring, even denying the reality of the greater historical, psychological, and sociological grounds for the perception.

No, you’re not angry. You’re angry over nothing. It’s nothing. It’s you.

That is the ignorant and spiteful conservative response. It’s you.

It’s you because your “self-appointed” leaders are demagogues. It’s you because black America is socially dysfunctional. It’s you because black-on-black crime far exceeds white-on-black crime: to make a national cause of one white-on-black shooting in Florida in light of what happens in Chicago every day, black-on-black, is to gin up a false issue and a different kind of false cause.

Why would African-Americans gin up a false cause? Every possible answer to the question is an act of bad faith or a form of racism.

As some foolish apologists argue, Islamist terrorists don’t hate “America” or the American people. Noooo. Nice American people. They hate the American government.

So many on the right will pretend that American conservatism as a historical political force has not disdained African-Americans. Noooo. Nice African-Americans. It is Jesse Jackson conservatives despise. Al Sharpton.

Brush past that straw-man and one finds millions of African-Americans who believe, as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have claimed – whatever one thinks of those two individuals – that racism is still manifest in their daily lives. If one concedes sincerely or for the sake of argument that Zimmerman himself held no racial prejudice, does that mean that African-American men and women all across the country, for decades, have hallucinated the suspicious and watchful eye, the gratuitous, prejudicial profiling of police?

That would be an extraordinary claim, requiring its own accounting; however, the more common conservative reply, blunt or euphemistic, is that the profiling is, in fact, warranted. African-Americans, particularly young males, deserve to be a generally suspect class. Many of the angry white conservative responses to the Martin-Zimmerman case amount to that claim, and thus the racial malice of blaming and even dehumanizing the victim.

Conservatives seek to bolster this argument, and protect it from the charge of racism, by pointing to crime figures and behavior and thus to premise the profiling on criminal context and not race. Proper criminal and other profiling will include relevant contextual characteristics in the profile. If a crime is reported and eyewitness accounts indicate a black perpetrator, then race is sensibly included in the profiling of potential suspects. Identify too broad a criminal context, however – uncommitted and only potential crimes – and the consequent policing is improper.

Of the most pervasive and highly publicized profiling regime in the nation, New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the defenses amount to just that declaration that young African-Americans males deserve to be a generally suspect class. Kelly’s most recent of frequent defenses of the policy (no doubt, because his name is in the air as a possible next Secretary of Homeland Security) recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal. One presumes that under the circumstances Kelly was making his best brief case. He begins,

Since 2002, the New York Police Department has taken tens of thousands of weapons off the street through proactive policing strategies. The effect this has had on the murder rate is staggering. In the 11 years before Mayor Michael Bloombergtook office, there were 13,212 murders in New York City. During the 11 years of his administration, there have been 5,849. That’s 7,383 lives saved—and if history is a guide, they are largely the lives of young men of color.

In this remarkably distorted presentation, Kelly ignores that New York City’s annual crime and murder rates have been falling steadily (with some year-to-year hiccups) for 23 years, since the latter peaked at over 2600 murders in 1990. The dramatic decline began fully 11 years before Bloomberg took office. Of course, because those years offer the start of the downward trend, the comparative cumulative numbers between the first and second decades will weigh heavily toward the former. However, with some variation, depending on start and end years of a comparison, the rate of decline in the pre-Bloomberg years is dramatically greater – over 63% compared to 14.85 % from 2002-2011. Extend the latter period of calculation to include the striking one-year reduction to only 414 homicides in 2012, and the decrease, at 54%, is still lower than during the years before stop and frisk.

Argues Kelly,

Racial profiling is a disingenuous charge at best and an incendiary one at worst, particularly in the wake of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. The effect is to obscure the rock-solid legal and constitutional foundation underpinning the police department’s tactics and the painstaking analysis that determines how we employ them.

In 2003, when the NYPD recognized that 96% of the individuals who were shot and 90% of those murdered were black and Hispanic, we concentrated our officers in those minority neighborhoods that had experienced spikes in crime.

Remarkably again, Kelly has actually substantiated by this defense the charge of racial profiling.

What we intend by the pejorative racial profiling is an inappropriate form of conceptual class profiling – profiling and suspicion of a person purely or irrelevantly on the basis of membership in an identifiable class, e.g. young men of dark skin tone. Logically, it entails a continuum of the opposing logical fallacies of composition and then division. First, the attributes of some young black men – forms of criminal activity – are ascribed by generalization to the composite whole that is the class of all young black men. Then, those behaviors are attributed, by division of the whole, back to each individual member of the class of young black men regardless of any actual suspicion in specific instances of criminal activity by specific individuals.

Rather, than respond to the law-enforcement demands of a particular crime, or the crime prevention call to profile behavior, Kelly has identified a suspect class – partially obscured by the policing characterization of crime-ridden “neighborhoods” – and made all the members of that class suspect. The class here being one of race, we have purely racial profiling. Yet the only significant attempt in Kelly’s WSJ op-ed statistically to substantiate the policy is the bogus effort cited above, which actually does not even bother to make the connection to stop-and-frisk procedures.. What is more, according the New York Civil Liberties Union,

While violent crimes fell 29 percent in New York City from 2001 to 2010, other large cities experienced larger violent crime declines without relying on stop and frisk abuses: 59 percent in Los Angeles, 56 percent in New Orleans, 49 percent in Dallas, and 37 percent in Baltimore.

As with the pre stop-and-frisk regime in NYC, there is no evidence of its determinative procedural effectiveness. While the NYCLU quotes Kelly as stating, “There’s no denying that stops take guns off the street and save lives police statistics reveal,

Guns are found in less than 0.2 percent of stops. That is an unbelievably poor yield rate for such an intrusive, wasteful and humiliating police action. Yet, stop-and-frisk has increased more than 600 percent under Bloomberg and Kelly.

To clarify, despite that explosion in stop-and-frisk actions,

stop-and-frisk has not reduced the number of people who fall victim to shootings. In 2002, there were 1,892 victims of gunfire and 97,296 stops. In 2011, there were still 1,821 victims of gunfire but a record 685,724 stops. [Emphasis added]

The numbers get even worse.

During the just-concluded trial on the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program, the city argued that officers’ disproportionate targeting of black and Latino New Yorkers was not due to racial profiling but because each stopped individual was doing something suspicious at the time. The data, however, tells a different story: weapons and drugs were more often found on white New Yorkers during stops than on minorities, according to the Public Advocate’s analysis of the NYPD’s 2012 statistics.

White New Yorkers make up a small minority of stop-and-frisks, which were 84 percent black and Latino residents. Despite this much higher number of minorities deemed suspicious by police, the likelihood that stopping an African American would find a weapon was half the likelihood of finding one on a white person.

• The likelihood a stop of an African American New Yorker yielded a weapon was half that of white New Yorkers stopped.

Does this astonishing revelation mean that more white people are carrying weapons than are black people? In New York City, not very likely. What it means is that when white people are stopped and frisked it is more often and likely on the basis of profiling actual behavior in context, which will lead in turn to greater numbers of suspect outcomes.

This has been the activity of the municipal police force in the nation’s largest and one of its most liberal cities. It is only a current variation, adorned in the finery of modern policing theory, of official and unofficial treatment of the African-American population post-Reconstruction. We may argue that claims of racism are nothing at all: bogus, ginned up, demagoguery.

We may argue that they are the product of perception only – a chimera.

We may also seek the empirical causes of perception and test for their actuality. In response, we may deny the evidence, or we may justify the treatment of the suspect population in the behavior or nature of that population. That is the essence of racism. “It’s not racist if it’s true.”

Is this a sorry conclusion for conservatives to reach, that the fault, dear brothers, is not in your stars, but in yourselves? Has American conservatism, after decades and more of sympathetic support and policy prescriptions for the troubled economy and sociology of African-America, simply lost its patience? Has the love, previously overflowing, run out? Did conservatives get the charges of racism before, but now, at last, have seen them go too far, come too fast and easily? Now that the nation has its first black president, and conservatives have welcomed him in grateful recovery from the disease that plagued us, has it become time, at last, only now, to draw a line in history between cause and effect?

Have matters, for conservatives, now simply devolved beyond all previously supportive toleration?

Do we see the conditions anywhere for such loss of patience and sympathy?

As even the most outspoken conservative commentators attest, the victims of black crime are overwhelmingly black. Unlike the period, particularly of the late 1960s into the 1980s, when it seemed the nation’s oldest and great urban centers were all deteriorating in late industrial decay, and their white middle class populations fleeing before an onslaught of poor, largely minority crime, these cities (Detroit excepted and despite the 2008 Great Recession) are full with physical and cultural renascence in a halcyon era of markedly diminished crime. No literal invasion of a dangerous black underclass threatens any longer to rob the white population of its physical safety and its property values, Sanford, Florida notwithstanding.

There is, however, a first black president with his first black attorney general and a national population heading for a non-Hispanic white minority in thirty years that has conservative America anxious, angry, and desperate. Pat Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower is a litany of such expressions.

Those who believe the rise to power of an Obama rainbow coalition of peoples of color means the whites who helped to engineer it will steer it are deluding themselves. The whites may discover what it is like to ride in the back of the bus.

Rush Limbaugh reacts to a Pew Hispanic Center study:

And the warning is: You are on the wrong side of history. And you are on the wrong side of demographics. You better do what the coming majority wants right now, or you’re gonna suffer the consequences. There is an implied threat in this story. You’re getting older. You’re white and you’re dying off. Pretty soon you’re gonna find out what it’s been like to not be you. That’s the implication of the story.

Now Limbaugh is concerned, too, about denying white guilt for slavery.

So maybe it is anxiety about the future (and, frankly, having had it up to here with black people complaining and seeking special treatment) and not any longstanding social antipathy and political animus. Maybe these anxious, angry expressions show conservatives responding simply to the facts of one Florida shooting and to the conditions of the day and are not rather – who would wish to contemplate the possibility – a very cause of that perception amongst black people that conservatives deny.

Maybe it is untrue that it is not merely Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton that conservatives do not like among black civil rights leaders, and that conservatives have never failed to revile any national African-American leader in his time. Maybe it is untrue that Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Republicans scurry to embrace today and abuse as a political weapon against his descendants, was scorned, belittled and mistrusted in his time. Maybe it is untrue that when the national holiday to honor King finally passed Congress in 1983, the man who become the 2008 GOP presidential nominee voted against it, or that one of the three demigods of modern American conservatism, Barry Goldwater, voted against it. Or that Ron Paul voted against it. Or that 77 of the 90 votes against the bill in the House were cast by Republicans, and that 18 of the 22 votes opposing the bill in the Senate were cast by Republicans.

Maybe it is not so that a second demigod, Ronald Reagan, chose to make his first speech after being nominated for the presidency in 1980 at the Neshoba County Fair, only a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights activists James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in a cause so much identified with the federal power to limit a state’s right to enact discriminatory laws, and that in that speech Reagan declared,

I believe in state’s rights;… And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

Maybe it is not so that despite long-standing and transparent conservative denials of the implications of their words and policies, the late and infamous Lee Atwater ultimately revealed in an interview the truth of the Reagan campaign’s “Southern strategy”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busingstates’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.

Perhaps if we look back in time, we will not discover that the first demigod of American conservatism, William Buckley, once wrote in 1957 of the Civil Rights Movement, in a National Review editorial, and while seeing remarkably into the future,

The central question that emerges … is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race . It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists . The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage . The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own.

Perhaps – perhaps it is not so that if we look back in time over the history of the American republic we will always observe those elements that stand for conservatism invariably out of sympathy with black America, always distorting the reality and diminishing the power of racial history, always rejecting the white role in it, always pointing its rhetorical index at the black population instead, oft claiming in philosophical fancy and rhetorical flight to stand for black Americans, but never in any cause on any political battle line standing with black Americans.

Or maybe it is so that American conservatives have forever and always been talking shit about race, and black Americans and no small number of white and other Americans can smell it, with their eyes closed, even on the short way down.


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