April 18, 2012

Stop avoiding those conversations about race

Predictably, the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case has prompted a good percentage of Americans to once again retreat to their racial corners. When they meet to box, the fight is often old-fashioned, bad and unclean. Unfortunately, most of the public conversation on this (as usual) is driven by preachers, pundits, professional protesters, unemployed local “activists” and fools who are often neither interested in nor capable of placing the issue of race in proper historical or contemporary socio-political context. This is unhealthy.

To be sure, there are extreme factions on both sides. The New Black Panther Party, for instance, actually issued a bounty on George Zimmerman. The actions of this small fringe group stuck in the racialized imaginations of demagogues like Sean Hannity to the point that they seem to think they are more important than the fact that young Martin is actually dead.

Conversely, white neo-Nazis and their ilk have reared their heads as well. There are reports of these groups threatening to patrol (or actually patrolling) white neighborhoods. The white supremacist mentality has seemingly extended to college campuses. Emotions at Ohio State University are still simmering after someone spray-painted “Long Live Zimmerman” on the school’s black cultural center.

Hate group activity should surprise no one given their numbers have grown steadily over the last decade. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) counted 1,018 hate groups, the highest number to date. SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok points out that “hate groups and the so-called malicious patriot groups” have grown even more radically in the last three years. 

In Montgomery, Ala., SPLC reported there were 149 malicious groups in 2008. In 2011, that number had grown to 1,274, a 755 percent increase in three years. Ironically (or not), these years coincide with Barack Obama’s first three years as president. This disturbing trend holds around the country. Considering a 2010 poll found that 14 percent of Americans — and 24 percent of Republicans — actually believed Barack Obama could be the anti-Christ, this may make sense to some people. I’m not President Obama’s biggest fan, but almost a quarter of Republicans think he’s the devil?! It would be naïve to believe race doesn’t play some role in that.

For all our progress, we still have a long way to go. The stress and strain of American racial, class, gender and religious cleavages are simply pushing many people over the edge. We respect human life about as much as the sociopath Joffrey Baratheon on “Game of Thrones.” Combine these with the fact that every other person we encounter these days seems to be packing a pistol makes for dangerous times. The Martin case isn’t the only one that proves this.

We don’t have to look further than the last few weeks to see how insane things are: In Tulsa, Okla., Jack England and Alvin Watts went on a random shooting spree apparently spurred by racial animus — wounding five blacks and killing three. Beyond the boundaries of race, Oikos University student One Goh went on a shooting rampage and killed six students and a staff member at the Oakland, Calif.-based college. I could go on.

Unfortunately, in this orgy of racial anger and violence we forget a few things. Most blacks don’t believe all whites are racist, wannabe slave owners. Most whites don’t believe all blacks are violent gangsters and welfare queens. For all our ills, most of us are not George Zimmermans. Whether he was motivated by race or not, the majority of us are not going to pursue someone who has done nothing and shoot them dead. Most of us are not going to kill people at our school or job because we are dissatisfied. Most of us are not joining the Aryan Nation or the New Black Panther Party. Most of us are impacted by race, but are not racist.

I know talking about race can be uncomfortable. Why do you think President Obama so fanatically avoids the issue (even though he made a surprisingly strong statement in this case)? Like it or not, race and racism are real. Far beyond Trayvon Martin, reasonable people had better get off the sidelines, band together with like-minded brothers and sisters across lines of race, and converse about this with balance and care. It’s a conversation we cannot leave in the hands of opportunists and fools. Sadly, we haven’t done a good job of it thus far. 

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