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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24 thoughts on “Talkin’ Shit about Race: Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

  1. Jay,

    Thanks very much for acknowledging my point about what I was *not* saying. I really do not think that we are on opposite sides here. I am trying to figure out how liberals should respond to what I feel is a shift in the way race plays out in the national political debate.

    Just a few comments:

    You say of Sharpton, “Nothing removes his works from the “context” of demagogic bad actor exploiting longstanding and complex social conditions and places it in an altered context of the creation of a new social condition.” I think that the first half of this sentence gives an excellent description of Sharpton. And I do not think that I would go so far as to say that what we have is a new “social condition”. I might say a new political condition. Which returns to what I have been saying about the ability of Sharpton to pursue his provocations while building his political stature. This, I think, is new (on the African-American side, that is).

    I think that you have missed my comments about white racist Internet memes almost completely. I actually think that these are more threatening than anything coming from our side. Of course, political emphasis on crime has often been a racist dog-whistle, but it really remained a dog-whistle, with openly racist characterizations of crime by figures that received any respect remaining effectively taboo. The memes that I have seen lately openly treat essentially any case of black-on-white crime as a racial incident, even if there is absolutely nothing to indicate any racial motive to the crime. I think that this is a very dangerous escalation of racial rhetoric.

    As to your mention of black crime generally and black race riots since the mid-sixties (because I know nothing about black race riots before that): What is new is not that some blacks are “acting badly” but that someone like Sharpton can openly incite bad acts (in the case of Crown Heights, arguably, murder) and still be treated as a respectable leader, that he has at times been able to pressure political leaders to push his agenda (on the issues where he is being a demagogue, that is), and the focus on individual hot-button incidents, including at least one that was completely fabricated, one that was a traffic accident, and one which was ambiguous and where public pressure resulted in a political decision to prosecute. I think that this situation requires different responses than, say, black race riots either of the kind that broke out in the mid-sixties, or the more recent ones. What is required is more like how Indians need to react to the provocations of religious demagogues in the Hindu/Muslim conflict (where the Indian Muslims are, in fact, in a position somewhat similar to African-Americans, in that they are overwhelmingly poor and traditionally oppressed by the Hindu majority).

    I would say the same about the white-racist responses to the Zimmerman/Martin case. I think that they have been significantly worse than the dog-whistles that have been the dominant political expression of white resentment over the last forty years or so and require a different response.

    I only have vague ideas about how responses need to be different but I can say a few things. In the first place, I think that it is essential to respond to individual incidents individually, both the avoid scapegoating individual people for broad social problems, and to avoid the kind of escalating narratives of victimization and counter-victimization that inevitably follow excessive emphasis on hot-button incidents. I *really* think that it is essential to spot incidents that are either fabricated (like Tawana Brawley) or substantially irrelevant (like black-on-white crime that is not racially motivated) and to reject the demagoguery that produces and sustains the furor around them. And I think that it is essential not to treat racial demagogues as respectable figures.

    This is not to say that individual incidents are not legitimate subjects for public debate or that it is necessarily wrong that they come to stand for larger social questions, provided the incidents are real and relevant and we are not treating the people involved as scapegoats. For example, I thought that the Henry Louis Gates arrest incident was very well handled both by Obama and in the public discussion generally (although maybe the outrage was a little too subdued for my taste). Even the Rodney King case and the subsequent riots and the trials of the rioters did not leave the kind of bad taste in my mouth that the Zimmerman/Martin case did. It did not seem to me that anyone was using the riots to build their political stature, and the level of racist reaction from whites to, for example, the hung jury in the great bulk of the charges against the men who assaulted Reginald Denny was much weaker than what we saw in Zimmerman/Martin. I realize that this may be a strange reaction to riots that killed over fifty people, but I really think that the entire affair probably resulted in considerable improvement in police behavior. I can see virtually nothing good coming out of the Zimmerman/Martin affair, mostly because of the abysmal character of the public debate.

    1. Thanks, Rob. I’ll acknowledge, too, the many great leads you have given me, particularly on Glenn Greenwald – and the readership you drive this way. Whenever I note an older Greenwald post ticking up in readership, I know you’ve been active. 😉

  2. I am far from arguing the main points of this post – aside of two remarks that could be to some extent considered technical. One has to deal with some selective reading of history, where Democrats of yesterday were among the staunchest supporters of segregation and among the staunchest racists. But knowing about the left/right chasm in today’s US I am somehow not surprised.

    The second point is that I would still (and we had a brief chat about Mr Sharpton) never put his name in the same post that mentions MLK. I know that the following link may be difficult for you to watch, coming as it does from Fox, so please skip everything but direct recording of Sharpton’s histrionics.

    And believe you me, I didn’t learn to despise this person (?) while sitting on Reagan’s or Buckley’s knees. The fact that Sharpton is correct when complaining about the existing racism doesn’t make him any better than the racists he is decrying.

    1. Snoop, reminders of the Dixiecrats are an old conservative sleight of argument (not what you’re up to, I understand) to distract, which is why I focused most of my references on conservatism, not Republicanism. They are peculiarities of Civil War politics and old line GOP economics that produced for so long that schism of political tendency and party affiliation, but the Civil Rights movement, the Counter Culture and Nixon all played their roles in getting that straightened out.

      About Sharpton, in part thanks to you, I am increasingly persuaded by the evidence that he has not approached any adequate acknowledgment of and atonement for his past misbehavior. But you know, of course, that the argument here is pointedly not about Sharpton. It is very much about the kinds of people who use Sharpton to sully the legitimate causes with which he is associated, even as their forebears sullied the name and cause of King in his time. (That’s how they get in the same post.) I agree with your closing sentence, but I also turn it around: the fact that the racially offensive are correct when complaining about Sharpton doesn’t make them any less offensive than the man they are decrying.

      1. Of course I know that the post is not about Sharpton, that’s why I stressed that my comment is about two technical issues.

        As for the general subject – and apologies for sticking my big nose into other nation problems: I would much prefer that the racism issue was treated as it is – a bipartisan problem with every side contributing to it in history. Which bipartisan problem requires a bipartisan solution.

        As you know, we have a bit of our own, what with the great Mizrahi-Ashkenazi divide, and we have our own professional wounded hearts that will milk the historical iniquities forever, even when the ever rising mixed marriages will (or already have) eliminate the whole issue totally. So Mr Sharpton’s ways are not an unfamiliar phenomenon, far from it.

        1. “even when the ever rising mixed marriages will (or already have) eliminate the whole issue totally.”

          Oh, there’s a solution to please Limbaugh and Buchanan.

        2. Snoopy and Jay,

          I think that one thing we are wrestling with here is the nature of racial conflict in the US versus in Israel (and many other places). For Americans, the archetypal racial/ethnic conflict is slavery and Jim Crow (the enforced segregation and accompanying racial terrorism that followed the abolition of slavery). Both these evils were overwhelmingly one-sided. Whites enslaved blacks, not the other way around. Whites treated no-longer enslaved blacks as untouchables, not the other way around.

          On the other hand, for Israelis, and for people in many other countries, the archetypal racial/ethnic conflict is usually something less one-sided. If you want a neutral example, consider the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, where each side has done many horrible things to the other.

          One thing that I think is happening in the US is that our racial conflict is becoming somewhat (but only somewhat) more like the less one-sided racial conflicts in other countries. Although I find much to agree with in your essay, Jay, I am pretty much convinced that Zimmerman was not initially charged because the evidence that the police gathered in the immediate aftermath of the killing made it extremely unlikely that Zimmerman could be convicted. This is certainly the opinion of Alan Dershowitz, who believes that the decision to eventually prosecute was entirely political and completely unjustified (although he is extremely critical of Zimmerman’s behavior).

          In other words, I think that the conservatives have a point when they characterize the prosecution as politically motivated. At the same time, given their long history of using racism coded and blatant to gain power and advance their agenda, I find virtually everything you wrote in the latter part of your article entirely fair.

          Snoopy, we in the US are wrestling with some major demons from our past (and our present) here. Even if our racial conflict is becoming somewhat less one-sided, and we now have racial demagogues like Sharpton on the other side of the fence, the realities of racism in America are nothing like the Ashkenazi/Mizrachi divide in Israel, which is essentially a product of the timing of the waves of immigration that produced the Israeli Jewish population. Those kinds of conflicts tend diffuse over a couple of generations, as is indeed happening in Israel and happened in the US after the second world war with the “white ethnics” who immigrated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The black/white racial divide (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Anglo/Hispanic divide) is a much deeper and more difficult problem. Viewing it through the lens of Israeli ethnic conflicts just does not capture the reality, even if things are moving a little in that direction.

          1. Hi David,

            I think that I don’t have anything to disagree with in your comment. I am not a US citizen, but spent a few years in your country and, while I still don’t know enough about its history and its problems, I appreciate how much more serious the racial issues are in US.

            My use of that parallel (can’t call it really an analogy by any means) with the situation here was rather to reflect on a small group of people, whom I call “Professional Mizrahi” here – that in no way differ from the rabble-rousers in US (or any other place, for that matter). In short, people who learned to extract the worst of our ingrown fears and prejudices and transform the proceeds into fame, profit and further rabble rousing.

            While sometimes we tend to dismiss this kind of folks as a marginal phenomenon, the damage they do to society could be immense, but I really am not disposed to go into examples, esp. not in US.

            Suffice to say that, while they are being dismissed or treated by us too lightly, they are perfectly able to keep up the fires of racial conflict going. They don’t require huge investment in their activities, just some basic access to media – which is readily provided when they need it.

          2. Snoopy,

            Thanks for taking the time to respond. I think that your comment is very to the point. It is my impression that the kind of “professional” promoters of racial resentment to whom you refer are a much more characteristic feature of the kind of less one-sided conflict that you have in Israel than they are of the kind of one-sided conflict that we have mostly had in the US. Their appearance here (and I do not doubt that Sharpton in particular fits the pattern) is part of the evidence that our conflict is becoming somewhat less one-sided. So, for that matter, is the appearance of similar figures on the other side.

            We here need to learn to recognize these figures and the propaganda that they produce, something that I think people in countries like Israel are often better at doing. For example, in the aftermath of the Zimmerman/Martin trial, a number of internet memes have circulated here, characterizing various cases of black-on-white crime as somehow constituting counterexamples to the Zimmerman/Martin affair, even though there is either little or absolutely no evidence that race played any role at all in the decision by black criminals to target particular white victims. There is probably no clearer feature of racial demagoguery than the characterizing of each and every any example of conflict between members of the two races as racially motivated.

            Of course, we had many white racial demagogues during the heyday of racism in the country (the great bulk of our history, of course) but their style was significantly different — they were much less focused on images of victimization of whites by blacks and much more focused on open calls for maintaining and strengthening white supremacy. They acknowledged that whites were on top and openly aimed to keep things that way. Now, they adopt a narrative of white victimization.

            As you (both Snoopy and Jay) can tell, I am trying to work out my thoughts on these questions, so please feel free to disagree or offer counterpoints — I am definitely open to changing my mind and especially my emphases on many of these points.

          3. David, I don’t sign on to the one-sided/two-sided juxtaposition you offer, not for the U.S. Of course, any side, or actors on a side, in a historical or other division can behave opportunistically, exploitatively, or in bad faith. The justness or rightness of a cause doesn’t inherently ennoble all pursuits in behalf of that cause. A major theme of my writing on this blog, critical of the left to which I align myself, is the gross misdirection of the postcolonial critique. So while a Sharpton, just as more inflammatory figures closer to the period of the Civil Rights movement, may be morally indictable, the racial divide in this country, as I see it, is clearly still entirely one sided. As just one of so many examples, there are no Democratic state legislatures engaged in a massive interstate campaign, backed by privately funded legislative action committees – I reference particularly ALEC – to disenfranchise white voters via the transparent pretense of combating voter fraud that doesn’t exist. It is more sophisticated Jim Crow sixty years later, even with a black president and all those “advancements” we have made. That and so many activities like it will always contribute to influencing African-American perception of a Martin-Zimmerman case, Sharpton, or his like, or no Sharpton.

          4. Jay,

            Can you imagine anything like the Crown Heights riot, the Tawana Brawley case, or even the political pressure to prosecute Zimmerman before the civil rights revolution? These sorts of incidents were simply inconceivable before a certain point. Do they add up to anything like the systematic oppression and attempted disenfranchisement of African-Americans that continues to be a huge factor in race relations in the US? Certainly not. But they play a huge role in public consciousness among both blacks and whites.

            This is why it is essential to recognize the role of racial demagogues like Sharpton. Unlike the “black radicals” of the sixties, whose anger was directed at the larger pattern of oppression, Sharpton made his name on the Tawana Brawley fraud and on his incitement that contributed to the ultimately murderous Crown Heights riot, which was based on a traffic accident (albeit one that killed an African-American child). This is not to say that the violent extremism and accompanying pathologies like antisemitism of the radicals of the sixties were innocent. But the radicals of the time did not base their complaints primarily on hot-button incidents that were frauds or grotesque reactions to traffic accidents. Sharpton is a new phenomenon and one that requires new responses.

            I would say the same about the narrative of “white victimization” that has accompanied the Zimmerman trial. The internet memes that I described above certainly have important resemblances to lynching and the “legal lynchings” like the Scottsboro Boys case but there are very important differences, too. The most important is that these are *narratives*, not acts of official or unofficial violence. This requires a different response that engages directly with the narrative of supposed official indifference or impotence in the face of real or imagined black-on-white violence.

            In all of this, we are facing phenomena more like the ethnic/racial conflicts in, say, India, than in our own history or racism. Except for the Crown Heights riot, the provocations of the racial demagogues have not resulted in mass violence, but the potential is there and will eventually be realized if we do not learn to deal properly with the demagoguery.

            It is this potential that motivates my concern, along with the way that hot-button incidents that are either ambiguous, like the Martin/Zimmerman case, or fraudulent, like the Brawley case, divert attention from the underlying injustices that continue to poison race relations in the country.

          5. David, there are so many issues here, and so complex. I’ll try to be limited and narrow in this reply.

            I just do not see the comparability in the phenomena you highlight. The Tawana Brawley case was a fraud perpetrated by a foolish and disturbed young girl abetted by three demagogic opportunists. The fact that all of them in their bad faith exploited the legacy of American slavery and racism neither diminishes that legacy nor provides white America a single counterbalancing dram of weight on a racial injustice scale. Four individuals behaved badly. They behaved badly in a particular atmosphere. What was and is that atmosphere? One in which that historical legacy was being addressed by the broader society – a good weight on the balance – and in which significant sectors of white America hostilely resisted that address and/or proceeded to live in continuing resentment of the social actions and attentions to black America that were part of it. Eliminate that stew, of the legacy and the resistance to and resentment of the social policies aimed at correcting it, and what is left is four people acting badly.

            Crown Heights is more complex and much broader in its implications, and we have antisemitism in the mix. I can’t begin to respond to it all now. But if whites and even more so Jews who are cognizant of it get to remember, lament, and resent that one event for two decades and counting, especially Al Sharpton’s role, how long does black America get to live legitimately in the bad memory of centuries of slavery, one century of brutal Jim Crow, continuing racism and countless white Al Sharptons that were woven into the fabric of the country?

            You make a fair point about how Sharpton differs from Sixties black radicals, but among many issues regarding African-American leadership that raises is one I point to in the post. Yes, Sharpton has been an ugly and dangerous demagogue. But there are many who resented Jesse Jackson no less, and whatever his failures, they were not of a kind with Sharpton. Much of white America has never been able to stand any black leader in his time, including MLK. If like Obama, he was a black politician but pointedly not a civil rights leader, then only half the country would resent him, racially denigrate him, and call his one reference a year to his race an act of demagoguery. Who have we got? Tavis Smiley and Cornel West? Let them raise their profiles a tad more and watch the venom greet them.

            I hardly know how to end this comment, because the spokes are so many, in so many directions. Perhaps best to focus: Sharpton in this is a distraction. To speak of narratives, the narrative that Sharpton demagogically stoked black (and much white) resentment in the Trayvon Martin case and the outcry that the case symbolized a truth about the country, the narrative that the resentment would not have arisen, is not real, without Sharpton? That narrative is self-delusion.

          6. Jay,

            I think that you are fundamentally misinterpreting what I am saying. I do not for a moment believe that the actions of Sharpton et al somehow “cancel out” the moral evils of white racism, past or present. Nor do I believe that the there is somehow a balance between white and black racism overall. I thought that I had made enough comments in my previous posts about the evils of historic and current white racism to make this clear.

            In any case, the fact is that now, as opposed to the past, it is possible for blacks to sometimes do to whites what whites used to do to blacks all the time (and still do) — to take some real or fabricated incident with some racial element, to use it to persecute real individual people. and to receive significant support in doing so in the public domain. The last point is critical — blacks were always capable of individual acts of violence against whites, but I cannot think of a time before the eighties when they could get any significant public support for *any* action that victimized a white person in a racially loaded situation.

            This is, of course, exactly what Sharpton did in the Tawana Brawley case to the men he falsely accused. It is also, more tragically if less directly, what he did in the lead up to the Crown Heights riot. He has never paid any kind of price in public stature nor has he ever apologized for his behavior in either of these cases. Moreover, in the Crown Heights riot, one of the New York Times’ principal reporters on the events described a couple of years ago how the Times systematically deceived its readership by spinning his reports to suggest that there was some kind of symmetry between the African-Americans and the Haredim in the conflict, when in fact the conflict was pretty much a straightforward pogrom perpetrated on the Haredim by the African-Americans. The Times was simply unwilling to report this fact.

            I think that one thing I am objecting to is the insistence on viewing everything “in context”, rather than looking at individual incidents involving real, individual people. There is no way individual incidents of bad behavior by Sharpton or anyone else can cancel out either the horrible history of white racism, nor the current terrible situation of African-Americans. On the other hand, there is no way that the history of white racism nor its current manifestations can justify injustices inflicted on individuals. Some kind of collective compensation, which is partly what affirmative action is about, can make sense, but not persecuting individuals.

            And I repeat what I wrote earlier — this stuff is important. If something like the Tawana Brawley case had happened in India, the result would probably have been communal riots with scores of people killed (on both sides). We are nowhere near that situation here but the kind of irresponsible behavior of the New York Times, as well as the circulation of awful Internet memes about black-on-white crime that I mentioned earlier, pushes us in that direction. This is, on the African-American side, a new phenomenon that, in my experience, many white liberals try to ignore, or to “contextualize”. This is not a good strategy — we are going to need to police “our” side here, as well as complain about the provocations of our opponents.

          7. David,

            I was concerned soon after last responding to you that I had not carefully modulated my tone or focused my comments. You seemed in your own recent comments to have been describing possible social developments, not necessarily always offering your own views, and I did not intend my last comments to be descriptive of and responsive to you personally. I appreciate your readership and contributions and respect your ideas, and I’m sorry if it seems I was mischaracterizing your thoughts. I did not mean to suggest of you what you describe in your first paragraph above.

            That sincerely said, I find us no closer in our perspective on the significance of Al Sharpton and events with which he has been associated. Your attention to the word “contextualize” suggests it as a euphemistic cover for rationalization, and I agree it has that potential and is sometimes used that way. But I think that use not at all applicable to the contexts I speak of. Nothing you have said this time alters my view of what Sharpton represents as I offered it last time. Nothing removes his works from the “context” of demagogic bad actor exploiting longstanding and complex social conditions and places it in an altered context of the creation of a new social condition. You object to my characterizing the developments your attempt to describe as in any way altering the racial legacy or racial conditions, but I am hard pressed to understand it in any other terms.

            I am hard pressed to understand your presentation as doing something other than suggesting the two incidents you focus on, and the career of Sharpton, as presaging some altered dynamic in race relations from the pure white racism against blacks that has been the history. I fundamentally disagree with this analysis. Twenty plus years later, we do not see that Crown Height presaged its ugly like – particularly with regard to Jews – as a new, transformative stage in race relations. You offer various examples of craven behavior, including that of the NYT, and of course, we see the NYT conducting itself no less cravenly today with regard to Israel (or the Bush-era torture regime, for that matter). We will always find demagogues, the craven and weak willed; there will always be victims like Yankel Rosenbaum, whose fates should not be diminished by context, and for which perpetrators and instigators should always be held personally accountable. We have no disagreement there.

            But you say you see these events on the African-American side as new phenomenon – suggesting those changed conditions. I do not. What about all those urban riots, going back to Harlem in 1935, and in the Sixties across the nation and in Watts, in South Central in 1992? There has long been a social pattern of blacks acting out, acting badly, destroying in those riots the businesses of innocents, the lives of innocents. Every time I as a white boy growing up in NYC had to confront the danger and violence of black boys directed randomly at me, I had to reckon with the injustice of their anger, anomie, and social dysfunction targeting someone who bore no responsibility for those conditions whatsoever. What about all that black crime? And everyone is personally responsible for his wrong acts, with no social excuse. But there is a context, nonetheless. There are broader historical and social contexts, and there are more local, limited, and personal contexts. The only profound development I see in that broader context is the post civil rights era white resentment that seems so often, whatever its immediate cause, a manner also of finding alleviation from the weight of history and the intractability of the legacy. And every time so many white people act in so ugly a manner as I have seen and read them do regarding Trayvon Martin, whatever is in George Zimmerman’s psyche, it only confirms for many blacks, regardless of those unknown minutes in the dark, that the way they see things is right.

          8. Jay,

            Oops, I misunderstood how the flow works in the comments and my response appears at the top. Please feel free to move it to here (which I assume you can do).

          9. David, I’m sort of like the prime mover of this world. I got the blog going, but my powers are transferred to the free will of the inhabitants. (In other words, I have no idea how to move it other than to cut and paste.) It’s fine where it is. Another busy day today. Hope to have some final thoughts (from me) for you late in the day.

  3. OR…. Trayvon Martin could have been pissed off and ambushed George Zimmerman instead of going home like all the EVIDENCE points to. Just because it doesn’t fit your narrative doesn’t make it not true.

    1. I am unaware of any evidence of a Martin “ambush” – just Zimmerman’s uncorroborated claim of it. The fact that he is the only “witness” to the culminating events does not mean we have to credit anything he says. Someone who believes himself potentially in the wrong, with no other witnesses, is highly motivated to construct an account that exonerates him. For multiple reasons, I do not find Zimmerman’s account credible. Also, my not proving your scenario untrue (which I did not attempt to do) does not, conversely, make it true. That’s not the way it works. However, if Martin, feeling under threat did turn to confront Zimmerman, that would be a course of action that I believe is called in Florida “standing your ground.” I don’t believe the law requires you to have a gun to do it.

  4. This is a brilliantly argued piece. Thank you.

    I note the title is very similar to my post on the same topic, though with opposite (but not contradictory) positions set out. I was reacting to the bullshit coming from my liberal milieu, which has made many assumptions about the case that mirror those of the conservative bullshit. For example, the denigration of Zimmerman as a racist seems to me to spring from the same operation of the fallacies of composition and division you describe here.

    I’ve had a lot of shit in my comment thread, some racist, some anti-racist, from my post on the topic. I hope you don’t too…

    One other thing it made me think about: conservative “don’t make it racial” response is structurally very similar to the anti-Zionists’ “it’s an attack on Israel not antisemitic at all” response that David Hirsh analyses as “the Livingstone formulation”.

    1. Bob, I hope you’ll be pleased to know that this actually began as a comment to your post. I spent far too much time on it, for a blog comment, and I ended up going on too long and being unhappy with what I wrote. Time for my own post. Happy to acknowledge the origins here.

      I agree about “the Livingstone Formulation.” I am also struck by conservative sensitivity, Jewish and not, to antisemitism that accompanies a tendency to reject claims of anti-black racism. I’ve meant to write on it for a long time.

      1. Thanks for the acknowledgement.

        On the conservative sensitivity to antisemitism: this is interesting and important and I’d be keen to see your views. For example, to what extent is it in good faith and to what extent is it a kind of realpolitik? Or is it an act of inversion of liberal (and “anti-racist”) insensitivity to antisemitism, or a stick with which to beat the left and Muslims?

        Another thing I’d be interested in your views on some day, and something I’d like to write on if I ever have time, is the new conservative discovery of “Critical Race Theory” (see e.g. Breitbart, PJM) as the new source of panic, to add to other semi-fictional bogeymen such as Postmodernism, Critical Theory and Cultural Marxism.

        1. Bob, I’m short of any extraordinary insight in either case. Conservatives will seek any extremity of leftist thought with which to diminish the left as a whole and generate white middle class anxiety over racial matters. Critical race theory is the racial variant of the step too far to be found in anti-Western movement postcolonialism and offers the same basis for concern.

          I otherwise think the conservative – particularly American Jewish conservative – disjunction in perceptions of antisemitism and anti-black racism to be a product of fundamental human group chauvinism and its shaping lense.

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