In the days since a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, there has been an outpouring of reactions across the Internet and in the streets. Race, as it did in the commentary surrounding the trial, has played a major role in working through the outrage, grief and even guilt that many have felt.
Emotional accounts from columnists, celebrities and prominent officials alike have explored what the verdict means to them, as black men and fathers of black boys and men (with Questlove of the Roots putting it most bluntly). Mothers of black boys and men have expressed fear that their sons could be next. And, white privilege is being dealt with out in the open by sites such as Feministing and a new Tumblr, “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.”
And then there is this:
America does not have a racism problem. It has a problem obsessing about racism. The obsession isn’t black or white, it comes out of the ranks of academics and activists who use it to disrupt society while profiting from the havoc. The Trayvon Martin case is only one of countless cases dug up and deployed by the racism industry to maintain this perpetual consciousness of grievance at the expense of social harmony.
Those are the words of David Greenfield, writing for FrontPage Magazine. He, and others on the right, have been using the Zimmerman trial to accuse the media and the left of race-baiting. To Greenfield, the story has become “a toxic sinkhole of politically correct outrage and racial guilt.” However, those who actually study the impact of race and racism on state policy beg to differ.
A recently updated study from the Urban Institute shows that the racial divide is clear and present in cases such as Zimmerman’s. That is, homicides involving a white shooter and a black victim are much more likely to be deemed self-defense than when the scenario is reversed. This is true in states without “Stand Your Ground” laws where 29.3 percent of white-on-black homicides are judged justifiable and only 2.9 percent of black-on-white shootings are. In “Stand Your Ground” states, 35.9 percent of white-on-black shootings are found to be justifiable, while a mere 3.4 percent of black-on-white homicides are ruled the same.
It’s no surprise that Greenfield, a fellow at David Horowitz’s Freedom Center, would willfully ignore such analysis. But it’s important to note that Greenfield isn’t alone in his thinking. In a widely criticized Washington Post column, Richard Cohen minimized the impact of race in the Zimmerman case and says he “can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize.” He then criticizes politicians and others who have worn the uniform — hoodies — in solidarity with Martin.
[T]he least we can do is talk honestly about the problem. It does no one any good to merely cite the number of stop-and-frisks involving black males without citing the murder statistics as well. Citing the former and not the latter is an Orwellian exercise in political correctness.
The disproportionate rates of crimes among black individuals cannot be set aside. But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in The Atlantic, the problem with Cohen’s analysis is that it calls for the “annihilation of the black individual” by tying the vast majority of black people who do not commit violent crimes to the small minority who do.
Further, Cohen ignores statistics that show that racial profiling doesn’t work.
Black and Latino individuals are most often the target of racial profiling, so much so that the number of young black men stopped in New York City is actually higher than the number of young black men who live there. But, nine out of 10 of those “stopped and frisked” by police in New York have been completely innocent, according to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice is still on trial and its surveillance of Muslim communities is the subject of at least two lawsuits. Still, NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, a strong proponent of profiling blacks, browns and Muslims (and someone who says, hey, maybe we’re not profiling enough), is being considered to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
Racial profiling that is allowed — and promoted — at every level of law enforcement sends a message to private individuals that similar behavior is acceptable. This is especially dangerous when individuals feel emboldened by self-defense laws that are stacked against people of color.
The Zimmerman verdict cannot be disassociated from these factors. We cannot consider race only when it’s convenient for associating entire communities with criminality. Centuries of race-based policies have created this context and need to be thoughtfully addressed. Failing to recognize that could continue to have deadly consequences.