The rightwing backlash against Trayvon Martin

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For a brief and wondrous moment, America engaged in something akin to a lucid and thoughtful conversation on race, a dialogue sparked by the tragic and unjust killing of Trayvon Martin. Across lines of color, class and political ideology, commentators and ordinary citizens weighed in on the stereotypes and prejudices that may have prompted so-called neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman to follow Martin, a teenager, around a gated community outside Orlando.

Republicans and Democrats, liberals and libertarians, wealthy and working class joined in criticizing the police for the ineptitude or bias or both that characterized the immediate aftermath, leaving Zimmerman a free man with no charges against him. GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum initially skirted the subject of race but acknowledged a criminal justice travesty that demanded further investigation.

That national unity didn’t last long. It was quickly consumed by an ugly backlash against the idea that racism lingers, that racial bigotry has not been eradicated. The backlash has taken the form of a campaign of character assassination against Martin — as if the young man’s family has not suffered enough.

From leaked reports about his school suspensions to a misidentified photo allegedly showing him in a gangsta pose, the forces of dissension, denial and, let’s face it, racial discrimination have stopped at nothing to try to paint Martin as undeserving of sympathy. In National Review Online, conservative academic Victor Davis Hanson wrote: “Martin is emerging not quite as a model pre-teen, Skittle-eating student with a slight truancy problem, but as a 6 foot 2 inch teen with troubled Twitter allusions to criminal activity, an obscene n-word Twitter ID, and suspensions entailing possible drug use and theft.”

His mother, too, has been vilified in some quarters for seeking to copyright two phrases — “Justice for Trayvon” and “I Am Trayvon” — and accused of trying to profit from her son’s death. She has responded, quite sensibly, that she is trying to protect his memory from exploitation, but that has hardly silenced the critics. Meanwhile, Gingrich and Santorum have claimed that Obama injected race into the case.

I’ve seen this trajectory before. I remember it from the days and weeks that followed Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans when it made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Monday, August 29, 2005. By mid-week, with marooned residents desperately trying to escape rising floodwaters, Americans were riveted to their televisions. Commentators across the political spectrum denounced the administration of George W. Bush for its ineptitude.

But by week’s end, the tenor of the conversation was beginning to shift, with conservatives looking to defend Bush and deflect blame onto the residents, many of whom were black. Those members of the commentariat talked incessantly of lawlessness and looting among residents, of a supposed laziness and dependence on federal largess that had caused poorer denizens to await their “welfare checks” rather than leave town. The national conversation about the failure of government to respond adequately to a largely black city was over; the new conversation was polarizing, divisive and marked by old prejudices.

For what it’s worth, I’m an unabashed optimist on the subject of race in America. Having grown up in Alabama during the era when little black girls were blown up at church and George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to keep out black students, I’ve lived to see a black man elected president. I’m convinced that the country will continue to proceed, however haltingly, along a path to full equality.

But I also know that there are those among us whose interests lie in pretending that we have already arrived, that there is no need to trek any further, that all the old wrongs have been righted. They have now stooped so low as to defame a dead teenager who, no matter how many times he was suspended from school, was doing nothing wrong as he headed back home from a convenience store.

Their campaign of character assassination, however, doesn’t change history or present circumstances. If anything, they have reminded many of us just how much work remains before America lives up to its creed of justice and equality for all.

 

Comments

  1. rob says:

    How is it character assassination if it is true? i believed most of the stuff the liberal media said at first— it sounded too much like a crazy white guy who had a thing against black people. And then it kept on going. And the rest of the media- the media that doesn’t take talking points from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson dug a little. It was revealed that he DIDN”T live there. On a Sunday night, he should have been going to sleep in Miami Beach, where he lives, but he was suspended from school. And the picture, well that was from 5 years ago. Where I used to live, inner city middle school kids would beat up college students. High school kids were not allowed to go out to eat for lunch because they robbed too many restaurants during their lunch break. And when you googled Miami Beach and murder immediately after the Trayvon murder, three other murders not nationally reported, come up. And Sanford, a suburb, had been experiencing more crime lately.
    A new picture starts to emerge. Trayvon was starting to head down a bad path. His murderer, Zimmerman, was armed, and was a “neighborhood watch” person, he shouldn’t have killed this kid. It’s tragic. But, it might not have been the story so many were fed. The kid had a twitter handle with the n-word in it, was trying to look like a thug with gold teeth- a Wakka Flakka wanna be, who allegedly swung on a bus driver, smoked pot, and was suspended from a very poor performing school in the bad part of Miami. Nobody believes the 5 year old photos of Trayvon anymore. I think we need to ask, can we take a second look at this case as a nation, or has everybody made up their mind, and can’t just everybody, white, black, latino, tone down the violence and the rhetoric?
    Calls for rioting, retribution, and retaliation won’t bring the peace that America needs.

    • ctucker says:

      Please tell me how Trayvon Martin’s school suspensions change the story that happened that night. How do you know Martin was “headed down a bad path?” He had no criminal record.

  2. Jack Myrick says:

    I am a 68 y. o. white male, and I am having a difficult time understanding why Trayvon Martin’s killing by George Zimmerman is a race issue. PBO, the media, celebrities and yourself are trying to convict Zimmerman without a trial. Why not let the judicial system work? I think that Trayvon Martin’s killing has turned into a political issue.

    I live in Birmingham, AL. A race issue to me is 100 +/- young black people are killed each year by another 100 +/- young black people. PBO, the media, celebrities and yourself, are no shows when it comes to resolving what I think is a major race issue; i.e., blacks killing blacks. And black on black killings is a race issue in every major city. Why not put forth some energy into resolving this tragedy?

    • ctucker says:

      You clearly haven’t been reading my work. I’ve written about black-on-black crime many times. That has nothing to do with the Trayvon Martin case. If you are having trouble understanding why his case is a “race issue,” go back and listen to the 9-1-1 tape. The young man was profiled by Zimmerman because he was black. And the judicial system would not have done anything if not for a public outcry.

  3. greg says:

    Obviosuly,
    the above 2 readers have never been pulled in the south for DWB: (google it) nor have seen their nephews nor relaltives falsely accused for crimes which they were later found innocent. And what further perplexes me is that they comment on here as if they have a valid point of reference. The bottom line is that a young black man was gunned down and the shooter has not even been arrested. And any person, that thinks had the shooter been black and the victim white (the same circumstances would exist is a fool).

    • rob says:

      DWB? Most African-Americans who are speeding readily admit that they were speeding. I have many friends who are African-American, who have never been pulled over for speeding. You think it was because they weren’t speeding? (Yes.) I have been pulled over speeding, and by an African-American policeman. It wasn’t because I was white. It was because I was speeding. And I paid it, I didn’t fight it. So was that a case of dww? After all, other people were speeding too? As for being falsely accused, I am sorry, but the vast majority of crimes by percentage today are committed by young African-American males. So, if you look like the perp a little, happen to be in the area, and something just happened, I am sorry, but you might be brought in for questioning. Neeeeeexxxxxxxxxxt.

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