Because I teach about race in American history, I understand that it is a difficult topic for many people to discuss. Therefore, I support President Obama’s attempt to have a frank discussion about race and the tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin. He was commended by liberals who felt his July 19 statement was “a word fitly spoken,” but I was unable to join in their enthusiastic praise. I was disappointed and, at best, ambivalent.
On July 19, the President reiterated what he said in his July 14 statement and expanded on thoughts he expressed after the shooting and in 2012. Relating that he is no stranger to the public reactions of whites who assume black criminality was important, even powerful. He could see himself in Trayvon Martin.
For some reason, however, Pres. Obama qualified his discussion of Martin by offering a conservative argument about black violence and crime. He stated that young black men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” although he explained that, in part, this was due to “a very difficult history” of racial disparities and injustice. He continued by arguing the half-truth of so-called “black-on-black” violence, stating “somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.” It is a specious argument. First, Martin did not meet his death at the hands of a peer; it was at the hands of George Zimmerman. Not by another black person. Not in a black community. Second, to embrace the fiction of “black-on-black crime” is to embrace the myth of black pathology. Department of Justice statistics show that between 1980 and 2008, 93% of black victims were killed by black assailants. Similarly, 84% of white victims were killed by other whites. Strangely, no one has bothered to address the “white-on-white” crime epidemic. The problem, Edward Wyckoff Williams writes on theroot.com, is that “African-American media and policymakers have been equally complicit in promoting a ‘black-on-black crime’ anecdote, thinking that it could help address some of the community’s problems; but what it has actually done is provide support for racial profiling and promote the disproportionate policing of black criminality as ‘legitimate’ and ‘acceptable.'”
Finally, Pres. Obama returned to the well-worn admonishment that people should not turn to violence. (See last week’s post, Keep Calm.) He stated, “I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.” By addressing the potential (and perhaps imminent) threat of black violence, the President justifies irrational fears and reifies damaging stereotypes about African Americans.
In the end, this case was not about black-on-black or white-on-white crime, nor was it about statistics. It was about a continuation of separate and unequal justice. It was about a “stand-your-ground” law that allowed a man with a gun to argue self-defense in the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Let’s not forget that.