In the most recent yearly accounting, there were 16,259 homicides in the U.S.1 That comes out to more than 44 homicides a day. Even if George Zimmerman had been found guilty of murder for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, that homicide would have been just one among very many. Most homicides barely make the local news. Why should this one be a national tragedy? Why has this case become an icon of American race relations? One reason: most Americans believe in pervasive racism, and the mainstream media capitalizes on this belief to generate revenue.
Let’s review. George Zimmerman was a Neighborhood Watch coordinator in a multi-racial neighborhood. His neighborhood had suffered from a number of burglaries, break-ins, and at least one shooting in the past year. Most of the perpetrators of these crimes escaped justice. Zimmerman had called the police to mention suspicious activity a number of times before he called about Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon Martin, for his part, had been suspended from school for drug use, petty theft, and vandalism. He was under his third disciplinary suspension of the year (in February?) at the time of his death. Zimmerman trailed Martin almost all the way to Martin’s then place of residence, at which point there was a confrontation. Martin fractured Zimmerman’s nose and smashed his head into the concrete. Zimmerman eventually got his gun and shot Martin, who died.
As soon as it was reported that Zimmerman had been released without charges, the mainstream media, and mainstream America, went ballistic. They were all sure that racism and racial profiling were the obvious culprits here. The media was so sure in fact, that they wanted to make sure even the facts didn’t get in the way of their conclusion. In their initial coverage of the shooting, they posted a years-old picture of Trayvon Martin that made him look like a harmless baby-faced little boy. CNN had a feature in a “state-of-the-art” audio forensics booth that stated that Zimmerman had used a racial slur during his phone call with police. (They later back-tracked from this assertion.) NBC News edited the dispatch call to make it seem like Zimmerman was racially profiling Martin. They later fake-apologized for this. Zimmerman was and is called “white” in news report after news report.
What should have been a local bit of news became a national “tragedy.” Even Barack Obama weighed in: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Whatever that means.
But all of this race-baiting obscures the facts. For one, Trayvon Martin evidently was a petty criminal. Two, Zimmerman’s neighborhood had many black people in it (about 20%). It would not have been that unusual for Zimmerman to see a black person in the neighborhood, so why would he have called about Martin unless Martin really was doing something that looked suspicious? Zimmerman had called the police to report suspicious activity seven times since he was appointed coordinator for the Neighborhood Watch. Not once had he given racial characteristics without first being prompted by the dispatcher. The call about Martin was no different. And then there’s the fact that Martin brutally attacked Zimmerman, breaking his nose and bashing his head into the concrete.
All of this indicates that the jury was right: Zimmerman was not guilty of murder. And he wasn’t racially motivated. He was an overzealous neighborhood watch coordinator who didn’t want to see another criminal threat to his neighborhood “get away” (as he mentioned in his call to the police). What happened could have been avoided. It was a terrible mistake. But the jury, and reality, seem to be speaking loud and clear: George Zimmerman is not a racist.
America, on the other hand, believes itself to be full of racism. We believe this so firmly that we have actually willed it to be the case. We are so ready to believe in the abiding power of racial tension and hatred. White people feel awkward around black people lest we be accused of racism, and black people assume that white people really are trying to keep them down. It is commonly accepted that white people are privileged because of their color, and black people are disadvantaged because of theirs. And no amount of contravening evidence seems to make any difference. “Sure, we have a black president… but the Trayvon Martin shooting just proves that we haven’t really gotten anywhere.”
Let’s be clear. Your typical KKK-style racism is pretty much dead, or at least relegated to complete irrelevance. But racially-defined prejudices are not dead in the least. The media makes sure of that. Racial prejudices are being reinforced every day. And we can’t get enough of it apparently. Murder, homicide, genocide, violence? These aren’t enough to draw our attention. We don’t seem to care at all that black people are killing each other more than they are being killed by other races. That’s just violence. But give a racial motivation to these things, and it’s news. I expect that a whole lot of violence and destruction will be going on all over the country for no other reason than that a huge population of our society believes in racism. They believe it cannot die. And this belief may be the only thing keeping it alive.
- 2010 was the most recent year I could find for which exhaustive statistics were released. [↩]