On the Trayvon Martin Verdict and the “National Conversation”

photo credit: Boston Herald

photo credit: Boston Herald

A few thoughts in the wake of Tisha B’Av yesterday…

According to Jewish tradition the Second Temple was destroyed because of the Jewish people’s sinat chinam – or “baseless hatred.”  On Tisha B’Av we affirm that isn’t enough to simply mark our collective tragedies and mourn our collective losses. We must honestly own the ways our own prejudices and intolerance have contributed to these losses.

I was particularly mindful of this spiritual insight this year, as Tisha B’Av followed directly on the heels of the Trayvon Martin verdict and the communal soul-searching it sparked on racism in America. Indeed, more than once over the past several days we’ve heard politicians and pundits call for yet another “national conversation on race.”  Witness Attorney General Eric Holder’s post-verdict remarks:

Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised. We must not – as we have too often in the past – let this opportunity pass.

This isn’t the first time, of course, that we’ve heard the call for such a conversation. I distinctly remember President Bill Clinton making just such a call back in 1997.  It was actually considered fairly controversial at the time  – sad to say we haven’t made much headway in the conversation over the past 17 years.

I don’t mean to be facetious about this. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m not sure anyone really knows what something as monumental as a “national conversation” would actually look like, particularly on a subject as profoundly charged as race.  Though I hesitate to say so, in some ways I think this call does more harm than good. While I do believe in the importance of dialogue, I can’t help but think that the constant call for communal conversation on race mostly serves to help us to feel better while we dodge the deeper infrastructural realities of racism in America.

While we regularly call for “conversation,” for instance, hard facts such as these continue to go chronically unaddressed:

- Prison sentences of black men are nearly 20% longer than those of white men convicted of similar crimes;

- While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned;

- While people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, they have higher rate of arrests;

- Voter laws that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting  disproportionately impact men of color.

And the list of shameful statistics goes on and on…

This litany, quite frankly, is nothing short of institutional sinat chinam. And at the end of the day, its going to take much more than dialogue it we’re going to take down the patently unjust and racist laws that oppress people of color in our country.  In this regard, I’d claim national conversation is only truly valuable inasmuch as it leads to real socio-political transformation and change.

So where do we start?  Why not with the “Stand Your Ground” laws, one of which egregiously allowed a man go free after stalking and shooting an unarmed African-American teenager?  It’s critically important that we know that history of laws such this, many of which have been long been pushed through legislatures by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and have subsequently been spreading across the country:

Ostensibly a network of state legislators, ALEC is a shadowy, $7 million-a-year organization funded by powerful corporate interests like the Koch brothers, Big Oil, and Big Tobacco.  The NRA has been a longtime financial supporter and served as the corporate co-chair of the ALEC Criminal Justice Task Force, voting with legislators on “model” bills.  Through ALEC, special interests groups like the NRA push their dream legislation through state legislatures. Wal-Mart was corporate co-chair of ALEC task
force approving FL’s “Shoot First” bill as a “model” for other states. The NRA was the next co-chair of that ALEC committee.

According to PR Watch’s Brendan Fischer, ALEC’s influence has has been behind other racially discriminatory legislation as well:

ALEC’s connections to those issues are not limited to Stand Your Ground. The group was instrumental in pushing “three strikes” and “truth in sentencing” laws that in recent decades have helped the U.S. incarcerate more human beings than any other country, with people of color making up 60 percent of those incarcerated. At the same time ALEC was pushing laws to put more people in prison for more time, they were advancing legislation to warehouse them in for-profit prisons, which would benefit contemporaneous ALEC members like the Corrections Corporation of America.ALEC has also played a key role in the spread of restrictive voter ID legislation that would make it harder to vote for as many as ten million people nationwide — largely people of color and students — who do not have the state-issued identification cards the laws require.

If you’d like to engage in action as well as conversation, you can click here to sign a petition urging Attorney General Holder to “review the application of Stand Your Ground laws nationwide and the importance of their repeal.”

And if you live in or around Chicago, I encourage you to join me and other activists of conscience at the ALEC Exposed Protest Rally, which will take place outside ALEC’s 40th Anniversary Conference on Thursday, August 8 at 12 noon.

I hope I’ll see you there.


11 Comments on “On the Trayvon Martin Verdict and the “National Conversation””

  1. MFC says:

    I agree with you that “having a conversation” in the current, almost cliché sense of the term would be difficult and likely unproductive. At the same time I believe your own comments help illustrate why this is. In order to have this conversation you’d have to drop the immediately prescriptive solution and the automatic resort to the term “racism,” both of which are present in the phrase “the patently unjust and racist laws that oppress people of color in this country.” I would be happy to hear you out on your hypothesis provided you state it as such. Then you’d have to be willing to hear out other people’s theories and evidence, which might have to do with family breakdown, poor educational achievement levels, the gun habit in various American subcultures, and the possible psychological backlash of excessively programmatic efforts for people labeled from birth as disadvantaged.

    If anyone perceives a mixed ideological stew in what I’ve teed up, so much the better – I often perceive ideological isolation whenever the tired “to have a conversation” trope comes up. I can’t speak to the data point about the length of sentences (enlighten me), while one suspects that the point about drug selling and drug use is explained by the correlation of different narcotics with different degrees of criminality. But it seems to come as a surprise to people on the political left that conservatives mention the yawning gaps in arrests and prison population by race about as often as liberals do and express the same disgust that this is still true in America today. Just look at conservative websites in the wake of the Martin-Zimmerman trial for many of these citations.

    BTW I do remember when Clinton first proposed this idea of a national conversation on race, and then how the project seemed to fizzle out. If there was an explanation for that at the time, it may have had to do with the relative complacency of 1997 America. I imagine that you and I could agree that such complacency was not very well warranted.

  2. reicreate says:

    If Zimmerman had not carried a gun, and Travon had been white there would be no problem.

  3. Mike Okrent says:

    If travon martin had had a gun and was being harassed by George Zimmerman and shot him, would stand your ground been applied so broadly? How about the woman in FLA who fired warning shots to scare away her abusive husband – no stand your ground there

  4. The day of the verdict I was talking with the awe inspiring Rev Rosemary Bray Mcnatt, an African American Unitarian minister, Yale graduate, gay rights activist (though she is straight) and product of the welfare system and the Chicago ghetto.Her advice: we must realize that we can be privileged and marginalized at the same time. As an African American woman who grew up in poverty, she is marginalized; but as a straight, married, mother, she realizes that she is also privileged. In the same way that she recognizes, and rejects her privilege as a straight married mother, she urges others to recognize and reject the privilege they get for being white or male.

    I rarely encounter individual racist acts, but I see daily examples of how past racism continues to perpetuate privilege. The Chicago bike rental program is a great example. Using completely objective, non-racially based criteria, the powers that be somehow situated this program primarily in white neighborhoods. In our own Evanston community, we see resources for schools, libraries, arts, and healthy food going disproportionately to white neighborhoods.

    I think one of those “conversations” we should be having is on why this is, and how much the privileged are prepared to give up to change it.

  5. Brad's Opinion in a poem says:

    Trayvon Martin guilty of misbehaving
    didn’t deserve to die.
    George Zimmerman
    guilty of killing a fellow human
    Yet, breaks no law
    How shall Zimmerman be punished?
    His feeling of guilt will never thaw
    The want of guns not diminished.
    The thorn in our collective paw.

  6. i_like_ike52 says:

    Why is it shocking that non-white people (I don’t know what “people of color” means and why it is now politically correct to use that phrase-after all, I am of the white color) make up 60% of the prison population? Maybe it is because they commit 60% of the crimes? Why do you assume that this must be due to “institutionalized racism” which American society has been working hard and succeeding at eradicating in the last six decades-even leading to the election of a black President? Maybe it is due to a collapse in morality? Maybe it is due to the nihilistic garbage that is in the entertainment media? Maybe it is due to the spread of the idea that “what is right is what you can get away with”-a philosophy a former President played to the hilt? Maybe it is due to religious leaders changing the traditional view of religion as teaching morality and building character to merely finding “inner peace” and vieweing G-d as “the celestial butler (Dennis Prager’s term) whose only role in the world is to help out people who want something but who otherwise can be ignored? Perhaps it is due to an attitude summed up by Israeli President Shimon Peres who said “we used to believe in various ideologies, but today everyone’s main interests are money and internet”?

    I can assure you-a “person of color” who sincerely believes in the idea that “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not kill” will NOT end up being incarcerated. Guaranteed!

    • Brad's Opinion not in a poem says:

      The population in prisons is mostly due to drug crimes. If you are can afford good legal representation you have a much better chance of not winding up in prison. If you are black you are more likely to be arrested than if you are white. Murder & theft are not the majority of charges filed against black people.

      • i_like_ike52 says:

        I just read a statistic that says blacks make up 13% of the population but commit more than 50% of the murders. You cant merely dismiss that as being due to “institutionalized racism” leading to letting whites off but not blacks.. Also , your comment about drug charges assumes that whites and non-whites do drug crimes in the same proportions and only the blacks get stuch with the crime, which is not at all obvious.
        I’ll tell you why non-whites have a much higher crime rate….because 60% of Hispanic children and 80% of black children are born to single mothers. These children are growing up without disciplline and the boys have no father figure to guide them. Remember the “Big Brother” program? It was felt then that boys needed a strong masculine figure to help guide them as they row up. Today that idea has been thrown in the junk heap. Men are disparaged in modern culture, the New York Times writes an article saying that single mothers are “just as good as raising children as families with both a mother and father” which is nonsensen and even modern religious leaders are more interested in making their followers “feel good about themselves” than in teaching values and personal resposibility.
        Add to this the modern welfare state which allows people to break up families and say “donh’t worry, Uncle Same will pick up the tab”! There is your cause for the crisis facing the non-white population, not imaginary “institutionalized racism” and it is for the religious leaders to provide a new direction for their people and not merely to push various political agendas or feel moral pablum to a bored audience.

  7. MFC says:

    When I see a thread go in this direction, I’m reminded of an interview with Walter Williams some years ago. It may or may not have been on Charlie Rose, but it was on some program like that – an extended interview, no crazy cable news graphics or other distractions. Professor Williams is one of a small group of prominent non-office-holding black conservatives, along with Thomas Sowell and, more recently, Shelby Steele (for example, see Steele’s screed against the civil rights leadership in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal). In this interview, Williams was going on at considerable length about about the poor performance overall of African American students and citing many of the same factors as Ike, albeit more artfully. Then, as if to realize how he must have sounded, you could see Williams catch himself up and pause. Then he continued: “By the way, white kids’ scores are nothing to write home about either.”

    I hope the point is clear. Rabbi Rosen says he’s doubtful of the efficacy of a national conversation and I agree. He would want that only if it’s monumental in scope, and I agree too. Obviously though I think we have a somewhat different picture in mind. My take is that we would have to simultaneously hold in mind 1) the sovereignty of the individual, no one should be stereotyped; 2) our national culture has its serious faults, and that does affect everyone, and perhaps hardest of all 3) we also have influential subcultures and their characteristics and results may be, contrary to our egalitarian desires, not necessarily equivalent and subject to value judgments. We would then have to agree that the “hard truths” that we each believe to hold based on 1, 2 or 3 may have to yield in conversation to somebody else’s “hard truths” and that we will not label the other person’s input with a nasty name until we have taken a breath and considered whether it also might be actually true or not. Could we do that? I don’t know, but one can hope.

  8. Dan Solomon says:

    In the 1920′s my Grandmother applied for a job. During the interview they asked her if she was Jewish. She walked out of the interview. In the 1940′s my Uncle Bert got a job. On the first day he showed up for work that asked if he was Jewish. When he said he was the job disappeared. Despite this my Grandmother and Uncle Bert led successful lives. This was due to the fact that even though there were obstacles there were also opportunities and when the opportunities arose they were able to take advantage of them.

    In light of this family history the question I ask is this – is there sufficient opportunity that a person of ordinary intelligence and ability should be able to make it irregardless of race despite the fact that there is a certain amount of racism. I believe there is.

    This doesn’t mean there isn’t an obstacle of racism which should be addressed. However it is my perception that a lot of obstacles are self-inflicted. For example if a young man joins a gang and gets involved in criminal activity his chance of leading a successful life goes down. If a woman has babies out of wedlock at a young age her chance of success goes down. These are self-inflicted obstacles that are a result of internal cultural issues. If these unproductive behaviors are avoided the chance of leading a successful life increases.

  9. […] ‘Obama’s Response to Trayvon Martin Case Belies Failure to Challenge “New Jim Crow”’. Rabbi Brandt is also noteworthy, in his, “Thoughts on Trayvon Martin and inadequacy of a ‘national […]


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