For a year and a half now, millions of Americans have closely watched, been riveted to, on-the-ground factors, socio-cultural and legalistic issues surrounding Trayvon Martin's death. Although the book is not yet closed on further legal proceedings, last Saturday's "not guilty" verdict ends this sorry chapter. George Zimmerman is now a free man.
Last week I shared some opinions about the larger historical and cultural context in which Martin's death occurred. I did so because I have not been engrossed in diversionary curiosities about who hit whom; whose screams were heard; did the police act properly after Martin was killed; the makeup of the six-person jury; the defense and the prosecution; the witnesses; the judge; or even the outcome of the case.
It is not because I am unaware of these things. Rather, I have been preoccupied with one thought: how does an American boy walking a few blocks to a store to buy orange juice and Skittles end up dead? What reasonable explanation could there be?
What crime did he commit, what was there in his background, what aggression did he show to transform a Neighborhood Watch volunteer into judge, jury, and executioner? Is it because Trayvon was black?
As I have watched subsequent news reports and reviewed social media comments on the "not guilty" verdict, I am unsurprised that people appear to be widely divided on the subject. In high-profile cases where race is an issue, e.g., O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, and so on, such perception gaps are not uncommon. It's part of the "double-consciousness," or double vision, I referred to last week.
Whether we admit to it or not, race-based double vision is so deeply embedded in our culture, and so callously set against the African-American male that he has a marginal chance of either going to college or going to jail. More to the point, however, on the question of who killed Trayvon, we did. All of us.
Oh yes, George Zimmerman may have pulled the trigger, but he did so in a legal, historical and cultural context that has for years insisted that black men are dangerous and prone to criminality. That is why, in 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Scott v. Sandford that the "[black man] has no rights that a white man is bound to respect."
This decision flowed from long held beliefs that the African American was, and is, inherently inferior. These beliefs, or myths, have inflicted profound psychic damage on both blacks and whites down to this day. That is why, without getting into a litany of dreary statistics, many present-day researchers are referring to black males as "an endangered species." But that is nothing new.
A Swedish social scientist, in a voluminous 1944 study called "The American Dilemma: the Negro Problem and American Democracy," fairly accurately described the dire predicament of blacks in America and what to do about it. Surprise! He recommended better education, jobs, housing, health care, and other social and political interventions. The study was largely ignored by prideful blacks and squeamish whites.
In 1967, in the wake of a series of inner-city riots, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned an 11-member task force to study the problem and come up with solid recommendations for change. The report (known as "The Kerner Report" for its chairman, then-Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner) said: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."
The scathing report then warned of future "apartheid" in America and contained "get busy" recommendations that might have surprised old Gunnar Myrdal: jobs, housing, health care, and other public/private interventions.
Another surprise. In 1998, a former member of the commission, Fred R. Harris, co-authored a study finding that the racial divide had widened. America's inner-cities were worse off in ’98 than they were in ’67.
Because the Trayvon Martin tragedy has again focused national attention on race and the plight of the African American male, we are again called to begin doing something about it. If the truth be told, every day there are Trayvon Martin-like killings in cities across the nation, including this one.
Oh, friends! It is time out for ignorance and prejudice and hate and fear. The fight is not with one another; writ large, it is a fight for the future of all mankind. The call is clear. The time is now. The place to begin, right here.
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.