Are We a Racist Country? Some Thoughts on Trayvon Martin and Bigotry in America

My first semester of college I signed up for a Sociology class, wherein the professor, a middle-aged white woman, viewed her students as a guaranteed audience for her political opinions.  I didn’t like her from the start, but after a couple of sessions, one of her comments incensed me into a public debate with her, which resulted in my dropping the class.  She had called the United States a “racist country”, an accusation that I found deeply and personally insulting at the time.  South Africa is a “racist country”, I thought, but not us.  Sure, we had individual racists (and they seemed to congregate in certain geographical areas) but those were personal problems, not societal problems.  The U.S. itself was not a racist country – not for the last 50 years – and I wouldn’t stand for some overly-political agitator saying it was.

It’s now a decade later and while I wouldn’t take it upon myself to label our nation as definitively “racist”, I wouldn’t staunchly refute the idea either.  I also know now that neither personal nor institutional racism is quarantined to any one region of the country – six months working in New York City schools hammered that point home for me. What I would say now is that as a human race, we have a problem with racism, and difference in general, and that the United States is in no way an exception to these problems that plague humanity.  On a personal level, I do not exempt myself, nor anyone else from this predicament.

I think back to that professor, and regardless of her personal motives, I believe now that there was something quite poignant and necessary about her statement.  It was an acknowledgment of the pain and hurt that many of our brothers and sisters still feel on a daily basis, despite the fact that the attacks have become so much more subtle and insidious over the last fifty years, and I believe that acknowledgment is crucial for our nation’s continued progress away from prejudice and bigotry.

For me, the Trayvon Martin case highlights again the need for acknowledgment, and the inability of our leaders, and a large portion of our society, to offer it. In reading about the case, it seems to me that the outrage that has ensued since the verdict was released is not so much about the facts of the trial (whether or not according to our laws as a society George Zimmerman did in fact murder Trayvon Martin in cold blood, or whether he genuinely felt his life was in danger when he pulled the trigger), rather it is an emotional response born out of a frustration that regardless of any other details, if Martin wasn’t a young black man, Zimmerman wouldn’t have found him suspicious, and Martin would likely still be alive.  Somewhere along the line, in the hearts and minds of many watching the proceedings, Zimmerman dropped out of the picture, and racism itself was put on trial. To be more precise, the existence of racism in contemporary America – a country where we now have a black president – was put on trial.  When Zimmerman was found “not guilty”, it was taken as another denial of all the pain and struggle that so many are still facing in their everyday lives.

In Twelve Step programs they say the first step in recovery is admitting there’s is a problem.  Prior to the 1960’s we had a doctrine called “separate but equal” that was considered morally just by many.  It wasn’t until Malcolm X, Dr. King, Rosa Parks and many more started making a ruckus, that we were forced to acknowledge a real problem.  “Separate but equal” was not equal – not even close.  Finally, segregation was abjured, and some years later we even instituted programs like affirmative action and wrote laws to protect African American citizens from being disenfranchised.  And then we patted ourselves on the back, washed our hands, and went home.  “Mission accomplished.” This is no longer a racist country, we told ourselves.  In fact we’re so sure now of our universal tolerance that a few weeks ago the laws written to protect minorities from being disenfranchised were repealed on the grounds that they are no longer necessary.

I think it’s time for us to reassess.  We have made headway, but we are not recovered from our inherent mistrust and discomfort with the “Other”, and our progress has been halted by our own denial.


(The image above is a section of “Pilate Washing His Hands” by Hendrick ter Brugghen, attributed by Wikimedia Commons)

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