Brown Study

Brown Study

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

It was probably inevitable that my stay in the United States should coincide with another of the volcanic eruptions of fury and outrage over the one issue that continues to divide this country: race. This time it was the verdict in a Florida court that acquitted George Zimmerman of the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin on the ground of self-defence. Both sides of the argument quickly staked out their territory. For the black community, or at least the vocal part of it, Martin was another innocent victim of a twisted system of justice that allows a white man to gun down a black youth and walk free. Those who opposed that view claimed the verdict of the jury should be respected, whether you agreed with it or not.

But the reason race is such an explosive issue and may well never be resolved is that it is not as simple as either side maintains. Each has enough raw material to mount an argument and each has its own extremists who are only too keen to fan the flames as a means of promoting their own agenda. On the one hand, Martin lived in the gated community where the shooting occurred, he was doing nothing more sinister than buying sweets from a local shop, he was unarmed and was minding his own business where he was accosted by Zimmerman, a self-appointed vigilante looking for trouble who did not have to go to the extreme of gunning down an unarmed youth as he did. On the other hand, Martin was wearing a hoodie, the get-up of the young black criminal, he threw a punch at Zimmerman that connected and it could reasonably be said that he put Zimmerman in fear of his life.

From there on, the argument picked up the side issues that are always there, waiting to be promoted with a touch of extremism; on the one hand Martin was yet another victim of racial profiling that says the black must always be guilty and the white always innocent, that blacks are continually obliged to explain themselves simply because they are black and that when an issue comes to a head they can never get justice. On the other hand, as people had to be reminded, Zimmerman was not a white man but Hispanic, a member of another minority group, which shows that blacks are confecting a simplistic black/white conspiracy where none exists; in any event it is a well-known fact that a lot of property crimes are committed by young black men, just like Martin.


Unfortunately, some extremists on the black side made it sound as if whenever a black is the victim and the alleged offender is white, there must be a guilty verdict or justice has not been done; guilty means justice, acquittal means injustice. And that, probably, comes close to the root of the problem.

Clearly, if a society is to operate under the rule of law, court decisions can be argued against, but they must be respected or we return to the rule of the lynch mob. That was the position President Obama first took when the verdict was announced, and no doubt his advisers thought it was enough. But the explosive and deep-seated nature of this problem made it very clear that it was not enough. So, to his credit, the President took his private counsel and decided that although he had kept far away from the issue of race during most of his presidency, there was now an over-riding need to show leadership and promote a wider perspective on the issue to see if he could encourage a change of heart on both sides.

I must admit I was ready to criticise what I expected would be a piece of special pleading for the purist black position when the President made a surprise visit to the press room at the White House and ruminated about the whole issue. But I must also say that he struck a chord, at least with me. At the outset he defended the conduct of the trial and the verdict that acquitted Zimmerman and reminded everyone that there was such a thing as reasonable doubt.

But he then explained the African-American community looked at the issue of crime and punishment through a set of experiences and a history that is always present because it was so violent. He did not excuse black crime or deny there was a lot of it: it must have taken a lot of guts for a black President to concede that blacks are ‘disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence’. But blacks, he argued, see this state of affairs through their history and they inevitably think that if a white male teen had been involved in the same kind of confrontation as Trayvon Martin, the result might well have been different.

So, what do we do, he asked, to change their perspective and make young blacks more a part of responsible society? As it is an area of state and local law, we could see if the police role can be made more effective by reducing potential racial bias. That involves facing up to whether those laws actually encourage the kinds of confrontations and tragedies that we saw in Florida, rather than diminishing them. To weld society together we should encourage and respect young black men and talk about the issue of race to encourage ‘the better angels of our nature’.

So, although I was confronted as soon as I arrived in the US by this tragic example of what I thought was the insoluble issue of race, I think now that the President has a balanced, responsible and persuasive case that might yet alleviate it. I hope it does.

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