A few weeks ago, I was standing outside a posh bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with my friends of almost two decades. I made an offhanded comment about the ratio of blonde-haired-blue-eyed chicks to brown girls like me. It seemed like a zillion to one.
My pals, who are white, didn’t get why I was bringing this up. “No one cares about race except you,” one said.
I tried to explain my frustration with having to always choose between an all-black experience or being the “only one,” whether at work, in grad school or even out for a night in New York. I waited for a nod of sympathy; instead, my best friend threw her hands up and said: “How can we all be racist? Look at who is president!”
I didn’t have a response.
Right now the nation has embarked on a massive conversation about race surrounding the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. On Friday, President Obama weighed in. “I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out: How does something like this happen?” he said.
It’s an important conversation to have — but I fear it won’t lead anywhere. After all, we’ve seen plenty of these debates in recent years, invariably prompted by some tragedy or controversy. Think Troy Davis. Or Shirley Sherrod. Or Jeremiah Wright. Or Henry Louis Gates Jr. Or even Rodney King. We have big debates over racial prejudice and disparities in this country, and then nothing happens.
I thought things would be different by now. The Trayvon Martin story flared up exactly four years after Obama’s famous campaign speech on race in Philadelphia, a speech that made so many of us believe that Obama would launch a serious, enduring dialogue. But the election of the first black president hasn’t made it easier to talk about race in America. It’s made it harder.
Why harder? Because, according to the writer, whites believe that having a black president means that America has been to the mountaintop, and we don’t have to worry so much about race.
That may be it for some white people. I think that the reason few white people want to have this “important conversation” about race is because they know, or at least they fear, this conversation can only go one way: minorities telling white people how racist they are, and white people nodding in agreement. My guess is that very few white people would be willing to say what they really thought in such an Important Conversation, because they are afraid of being labeled a racist, and — if the Important Conversation — happened in a workplace setting, being tarred with the scarlet letter of R for Racist, and suffering professionally for it.
In my experience, it’s not that white people don’t think about race. It’s that they don’t think out loud around people who don’t already agree with them, or who at least won’t put them in the uncomfortable position of being denounced as a racist over something they’ve said. And so maybe they really do have racist beliefs that could be overcome through such an Important Conversation, but these conversations never happen because there is far too much riding on it to take that risk. Besides, they are not fools to believe that this would almost certainly be not a conversation, but a monologue, in which they are invited to consider all the ways they are racist, but their black interlocutors are not expected to show the same degree of introspection about the complexities of race in America.
I don’t know what the solution is. What would such an Important Conversation about Trayvon Martin’s murder look like? (And by the way, let me repeat again that I can’t believe George Zimmerman wasn’t arrested for what he did, because based on what we know, it looks to me like he’s guilty of murder in some degree.) Such an Important Conversation would have to include a discussion about the fear and suspicion whites and others have of young black males, a suspicion that leads them to expect the worst — and, in this case, to misjudge Trayvon Martin in a way that led to his killing. We would have to talk about the reality of what it’s like to raise a black son in America today, knowing that he will likely be feared in this way, and open himself up to extra scrutiny and suspicion, just because he is black and male.
But if this were a true conversation, we would also have to talk about why so many non-black people are so scared of young black males. According to FBI statistics, in 2010, 28 percent of those arrested were black — almost three times the black population. Of all those arrested (white, black, etc.), three out of four were male. Of all those arrested, 42 percent were 25 or under. (The FBI does not keep statistics on convictions, only arrests). While I don’t have the time to crunch the numbers to see which exact portion of those arrested are young black males, the general perception that young black males are disproportionately involved in crime is an accurate one. (That, for example, 9 out of 10 murders of black people are committed by other black people doesn’t negate this.) Moreover, young black men are identified with a hip-hop culture that valorizes thuggery and antisocial behavior. These facts, and the conclusions non-blacks draw from them — fair or not — ought to be part of an honest Important Conversation.
But they won’t be. That’s just the way it is. In the early 1990s, I lived in Washington, DC, which was undergoing an epidemic of murders and violent crime. A friend of mine, Kevin, a white guy who lived in my neighborhood, and his girlfriend were held down at gunpoint in his driveway and robbed by young black men. They moved out of the city the next week. No matter what your race, if you were going to be the victim of violent crime in DC, your assailant was all but guaranteed to be a young black man. If you didn’t realize that, and take common-sense, street-smart precautions at night, you were a fool who might lose his life. Did this require you to be suspicious of young black men dressed like thugs? You bet. Did that put you in the position of making a race-based judgment? Absolutely. Was this unfair to young black men who dressed a certain way, and who meant nobody harm? Sure it was. But there was way too much at stake simply walking home from the metro at night to think otherwise. Kevin and his girlfriend were not shot to death in a robbery that night, but they easily could have been. Nobody would have written stories about dead Kevin, just another victim of predatory black males in Washington, DC, no doubt because Kevin was probably not targeted because of his race, any more than black victims of predatory black males were targeted for their race. But for people who knew Kevin and what happened to him, it was impossible not to conclude that a good way to improve your chances of that happening to you was, when you saw young black men dressed like thugs coming down the street, to get the hell away from them. Better to be prejudiced than dead.
None of this, to my mind, justifies the way George Zimmerman reacted to Trayvon Martin. The problem is, if we’re going to have a broader Important Conversation about this stuff, it’s going to have to involve a discussion of social and cultural contexts in which people make these judgments about young black men, and race, more generally. Trayvon Martin was almost certainly a victim of irrational prejudice — and he paid for it with his life. If what appears to be the case turns out to be so, then I hope and expect Zimmerman to go to jail, and I would hope and expect the local police department, if they did a sloppy, racially prejudiced investigation, to pay some price too.
That said, we don’t see in our media discussions of victims of crimes committed disproportionately by young black males, nor do we hear much about the valorization of thuggery in hip-hop culture, and how these things affect perceptions of young black men in the non-black community. How can we know which prejudices are rational (that is, based on sound judgment of the facts) and which ones are irrational? Why does it matter, if it matters? These things are important to explore, but also pretty much impossible to.
I think it’s unfair to blame the president’s election for making it more difficult to have an Important Conversation about race in America. That conversation is not going to happen no matter who’s president. There’s nothing in it for white people. Don’t misunderstand me: I think a genuine conversation, in which both sides (all sides?) aired their grievances and their fears, in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance and even reconciliation, would be hugely important and beneficial. Black-Hispanic tension and prejudice is a big deal too, though one that doesn’t often get discussed in the media. I doubt there’s a single soul — white, black, brown or whatever — who doesn’t have some prejudice that he or she could stand to confront and dispel. But like I said at the beginning, non-liberal white people accurately sense that the Important Conversation is almost always going to involve them being told how racist they are, and being expected to agree and promise to do better. You can have these Conversations if you want, but they won’t be Important, because they’re not going to be honest. Think about it: a culture in which many media outlets won’t give the race of at-large violent crime suspects — this, even as they report sex, height, clothing description — because they don’t want to encourage stereotyping, is not a culture that is prepared to speak forthrightly about race and crime.
We have big debates over racial prejudice and disparities in this country, and then nothing happens.
So says Reniqua Allen, and she’s right. But she’s naive to expect otherwise. She should ask herself who, exactly, is having this “big debate,” and what it is they’re really debating.