Congratulations Black America…you’ve just gotten your very own “O.J.” moment! And why should we be shocked? George Zimmerman’s acquittal of murder charges in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin yesterday in a Florida courtroom resonated with many white suburbanites and gated-community types. Such individuals—rightfully or not—harbor fears of creeping “thuggery” from the inner-city areas that they see as chronically infected with socioeconomic pathologies and dysfunctions that they would rather not see in their own well-manicured backyards.
As expected, early opinions about the verdict have come along racial-ethnic lines. Most of those who supported Zimmerman are white, while the majority of those feeling sympathetic toward the death of Martin are black. The verdict speaks to two ongoing issues in our culture: race and guns.
The verdict reflects the fact that America has never truly came to any substantive resolution with regard to its racial past. We see this in the different perspectives that whites and blacks have on many issues, not just the outlook on the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman. Blacks were surprised by the verdict; it’s not a stretch to think that whites were not. Black parents did not see a stranger in Trayvon Martin, they saw their own potential sons being gunned down. This is why riots broke out in the wake of the 1992 verdict in the videotaped beating of Rodney King in California. The acquittal of four white policemen—caught red-handed on tape—beating an unarmed and apparently unthreatening black male resonated with many with the black community; they saw themselves being beaten. This ability that identify and sympathize with the Trayvon Martins and Rodney Kings among black Americans is due to the reality that more than a few African-Americans have either experienced or personally know of someone who have had similar experiences with regard to race. Each of these (relatively) recent high-profile racially-charged incidents were, in turn, based on the century’s long patterns of all-white juries acquitting whites—authority or laymen—of crimes against blacks. This is what President Obama meant with his remark, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” What’s sad is the fact that this has to be explained to whites in this country; the president’s remarks were more in line with the resonance such incidents have in the collective black memory and mindset than the political response that many whites felt the president’s remark were.
The assumption by whites that the president’s remarks to the Trayvon Martin shooting was a political statement rather than a statement of personal interest reveals that America has two histories—one white and one black. This duality of perception comes to bear anything such racially-charged incidents arise in the news. During these times, the effects of not coming to terms with the past usually finds blacks and whites talking at and not to one another. The white conservative stance tends to be one based absolution, which minimizes the reality of racial and ethnic privilege, and downplays the propensity for insensitivity to our historical racial past (and present). The white liberal stance is usually an attempt to express sympathy on a weak understanding of the black experience. Am I saying that all whites cannot be sympathetic or understanding of what it’s like to be black in the context of America’s racial history? Of course not; I’m sure there are many. What I speak of are valid generalities that our disparate perspectives support. We see this whenever blacks demand some level of recompense for racial slights that align with historical patterns, such as lawsuits or reparations. Whites tend to see such demands are a handout. These same whites, whom like most Americans of any ethnic, cultural or economic persuasion, have a poor sense (and interest) in history that keeps them seeing any validity in black claims that their actions might fit a pattern of racial insensitivity. And why not? The past is the past…unless it exalts one’s place of self-importance. Americans are quite fond of remembering Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the rag-tag American military over the British superpower in the Revolution, and the triumph of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders of the Spanish Army. But our history of formerly all-black towns and counties purged or sacked (Tulsa in 1921, Rosewood in 1923) by white mobs, mass lynchings, and race-based laws are not allowed to be the bad taken with the good in American history. Insomuch as the black experience, many whites have then somewhat valid (if not ethnocentric) point that blacks have not taken advantage of the socioeconomic and political environment of self-determination that relative freedom in America affords. Large cities with large numbers of African-Americans are plagued with issues across the socioeconomic scale, from high percentages of public school dropout rates, high crime rates, high unemployment, to high incidents of single-parenthood, incarceration rates, etc. In many instances, whether or not such conditions are exacerbated by legislative policy, the majority of these pathologies can alleviated by personal responsibility. But when blacks view issues of race tied incidents such as the Trayvon Martin shooting and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, they tend to see these socioeconomic pathologies as either perpetuated by the forces of racism and bias, or by absolute design of "The Man." Blacks see that the police drug-tested Trayvon after the incident, and not George Zimmerman. Blacks wonder why whites who live in relatively safe—very much so in comparison to many areas that blacks reside—gated communities feel the need to carry guns under a “stand your ground” law? Whites point to the Second Amendment and being “prudent” as a justification to carry arms against would-be “criminals” such as Trayvon Martin and the underneath-the-surface fear of rioting in the wake of the verdict. Blacks see whites as being paranoid in carrying guns when many of them don’t in areas with actual (as opposed to perceived) threats to life and property. Blacks see in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict, more of the same old institutional biases and advantages of racial privilege from America's legacy of unresolved racial attitudes. And Whites ask themselves, "Why can't they pull themselves up like everybody else does?"
These different perspectives speak to the American infatuation with guns. Many of us are too quick to see guns as the solution to crime, fear, the need for personal protection under all circumstances, and as an expression of a “God-given right.” Many law-abiding black Americans are more fatalistic than whites in terms accepting one’s fate, and dealing with reality. This is one of the ways by which many are able to live in virtual war-zones, not to say that they do not have fears about death, dying, and being victimized by crimes. It’s just reality to black Americans. Many law-abiding white Americans tend to adopt the mantra of preparation and anticipation. We see this in not only the various variation of “stand your ground” laws, but the increasing legislation around the country enabling the carrying of guns in school, on college campuses, in churches, and even in bars. What makes one wake up in the morning and decide to carry a gun in much the same way as one would presume to carry a pocketbook? It’s surely not the same thing that makes one get up in the morning knowing they are taking their chances in a high-crime, high poverty area.
Gun sales soared when President Obama was elected back in 2008, and again after his re-election last year, driven mostly by a thinking fear that our precious gun might be "taken away by the government." Gun sales continue to soar, even as we are seeing a train of high-profile mass shootings. Owning a gun for “protection” is both pathology and a delusion. What such a justification ignores is that for many citizens (law abiding or otherwise), the firing lethal weapons is legitimate entertainment. Our love of shoot-‘em-up movies, rabid defense of the Second Amendment, violent video games, and fear of urban crime testifies to an immersion in a culture of gun fascination. It’s no wonder that individuals on the edge are so quick to take up arms and shoot up malls, schools, and even churches. Zimmerman represents this pathological fetish with weapons that we attempt to write off as a means of “self-defense.”
Why? Because most neighborhood watch volunteers don’t carry weapons—even those who bravely volunteer in areas of higher crime and threat levels than Zimmerman’s neighborhood (See: Zimmerman's 911 Transcripts). For whatever reasons, Americans don’t seem ready to let go of either negative attitudes or its pathological reliance on guns for a feeling of emotional and personal security. And until such a thing happens, there will continue to be Trayvon Martins, George Zimmermans, and the two Americas divided by perceptions they represent.