Fear of Talking About Race

I don’t normally comment on American domestic issues, since my specialty is foreign affairs, and I’m currently in China.

But from Shanghai, where I’m now ensconced, I’ve been watching from a distance the reaction in the U.S. to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. I tried to refrain, but decided it was time to jump in with my two cents.

What strikes me most from afar is how uncomfortable Americans are in openly discussing race, in a criminal case, and a news story, that from the beginning has been all about race.

On one side, Zimmerman’s defenders say this case was never about race, and they accuse civil rights activists and others of injecting a racial dimension.  Then we see the courtroom analysts and media experts getting tongue-tied trying to describe how “many believe” Martin was targeted for his race -- as if there was a question mark -- and about how Zimmerman’s heritage, as half Hispanic, somehow mitigates any racial edge.  And then there was the bizarre spectacle of the judge allowing the prosecuting attorneys to say Martin was “profiled,” but not “racially profiled.”

It seems like political correctness run amok.

To be clear, I would never say Zimmerman was acting out of any racial animus the night he stalked Martin, quarreled with him, and shot him in the chest; no one can know what’s in Zimmerman’s heart.  And his friends and family say he’s not a racist, so I take them at their word.

But you don’t have to believe Zimmerman was a hardcore, card-carrying racist to also believe that he profiled Martin because he was a young black teenager wearing a hoodie on a drizzly night, in an area that supposedly had suffered a string of recent break-ins.

Put another way, if Martin were a young white teenager in a hoodie, he may not have attracted Zimmerman’s attention.  Or, if Martin were the same Trayvon, but walking home talking to his friend on the phone and wearing a blue blazer, chinos and topsiders while carrying an umbrella, he probably also would have made it home to watch the basketball game, and Zimmerman would likely have stayed in his car.  

Whether Americans -- who Eric Holder righty called “cowards” when it comes to talking about the race issue -- want to admit it or not, we racially profile all the time.  We do it subtly and sub-consciously sometimes, overtly at other times.  And we don’t like to think of ourselves as racists for doing so.  Policemen do it all the time when they stop and frisk the people most likely carrying drugs or weapons.  I profile every time I am at the airport, and deciding who to stand behind in the security line -- meaning (like George Clooney in the movie “Up In The Air”) I choose the business travelers in suits who look like they can whip out their laptops and remove their shoes in a New York minute while the more infrequent travelers are still fumbling for their boarding passes.  I also can tell who not to stand behind because they cry out for extra airport scrutiny.  Am I being politically incorrect or a racist?  No, I’m usually just in a hurry to catch my flight, so I’m being practical.

I just read the recent, controversial column by my former Washington Post colleague and friend Richard Cohen and while he was being typically provocative at some points, and maybe needlessly so, I thought he made a valid argument:  while discussing cases like this one, we have to acknowledge, as he said, the “painful complexity of the problem” and the widespread fear of crime being committed by young black males.  We overlook that argument at our peril.

I speak as someone who has been racially profiled.  I learned the lesson when I was about 9 or 10 years old, browsing through the book rack at a department store in the then-all-white suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, while my mom was Christmas shopping.  My mother was furious when I was stopped by the store detective who assumed I was shoplifting; it was just that it was winter in Michigan, and I had a big coat with gloves, a scarf and a knit cap shoved in the side pockets. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was my earliest experience at being fit into a mold.  I learned from then on, keep your coat unzipped in stores, keep your hands out of your pockets, if you don’t want to be harassed by the store guards.  Did I blame the store detectives? No, they were just doing their job.  I blamed the young men who looked like me who were doing most of the shoplifting, and thus made me an object of suspicion.

And as ugly as it is, I have also been the one doing the profiling -- you had to know how, to survive growing up in Detroit in the 1970s.  When you saw a group of young men hanging out on a street corner, you knew it was better to cross the street or circle the block to get home.  And when I first moved to Washington, DC, as a summer intern in 1978, working the late night shift and bicycling home well after midnight to Adams Morgan, I learned fast to avoid going up 18th Street, if I saw a gathering of young men on the corner at U Street; better to go up Connecticut Avenue, the long way around, and avoid trouble.  That’s common sense and survival instincts.

These are all things we need to be able to talk about openly.  And it doesn’t help when someone who broaches uncomfortable truths is hit with the hurtful allegation of racism -- just as Richard Cohen wrongly was for his column.

How can we have this needed conversation about race, when anyone who ventures out of the prescribed lanes of discussion is immediately labelled a racist?  Do we really want to have this conversation, or do we want to circumscribe ahead of time what people are allowed to say, and what must stay unsaid?

My view, from watching the sad reaction to the Zimmerman verdict, is we don’t really want to have the conversation about race, crime and justice, because we fear it might veer into too many inconvenient truths.  So it’s easier to say we want a conversation without actually engaging in it.

We really are a nation of cowards.
 

Comments

Dude, really great post. Keep them coming. Also loved the Detroit piece in the WP this past week.

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