Has the killing of Trayvon Martin given the lie to the idea of a “post-racial” America? Is it proof of a submerged white racism we choose to ignore? Those heat-of-the-moment inferences may yet be falsified. George Zimmerman, the officious vigilante with a gun, didn’t identify the unarmed Martin by his color until asked by the police dispatcher. And even use of the categories white, black, and Hispanic is questionable: Zimmerman himself is an ethnic jigsaw. Ramped up by cable news, op-ed pundits, and the ranting echo chamber of the blogosphere, we seem to be at one of those flash points like the O.J. verdict, or the arrest of a black Harvard professor innocently trying to enter his own home.
With so many assumptions masquerading as truth in the Stand Your Ground killing in Florida (which has suffered a tripling of “justifiable homicides” since 2006), we offer evidence, context, and commentary. The hard evidence is on current racial attitudes. The commentary, drawn from personal experiences, is from Walter Mosley and Paul Theroux, who writes, “If I had a son, he’d look like George Zimmerman.” Context is provided by a vivid piece of firsthand reporting by Tony Dokoupil of a less publicized case in Mississippi, where Deryl Dedmon, a local teenager, was accused of murdering a black man while on a nocturnal expedition—violent, nihilistic hijinks in which Dedmon and a posse of friends sought out indigent black people as prey. In this instance, the victim, James Anderson, was beaten, then run over by a truck and left to die in an impoverished part of west Jackson. The killing recalled the state’s past: Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Mississippi Burning. What’s most unsettling about Dedmon’s crime isn’t just its brutal depravity, but the fact that the kids involved (and I choose the word “kids” deliberately) don’t consider themselves racist. “It’s heritage, not hate,” one of the other boys present tells Dokoupil. The story lays bare a bleak subtext of American life more chilling than the stereotypes, and it’s rooted, as is so much of black crime, in an ignorance and poverty we take for granted. After all, 93 percent of black victims are murdered by other blacks.
The evidence on what people think comes from a poll we commissioned by Douglas E. Schoen LLC, analyzed by Andrew Romano and Allison Samuels. The results are startlingly different from the Pew Research Center survey in January 2010. Just over one year after President Obama’s historic election, black optimism was soaring, with African-Americans offering markedly positive assessments about the state of black progress in America, race relations, local community satisfaction, and expectations for future black progress.
The Newsweek/Daily Beast survey—posted in full on The Daily Beast—finds that both whites and blacks agree that racial stereotyping still occurs in America, and emphatic majorities of both whites and blacks believe America is divided on the basis of race. A majority of whites and blacks agree, too, that there is discrimination, with 53 percent of whites and 88 percent of blacks saying that American society discriminates on the basis of race or ethnicity. But Schoen’s data show the deeper divide exists not where the two groups agree, but where they disagree. Indeed, blacks and whites have fundamentally different perspectives when it comes to the depth of discrimination black people face. While a clear majority of whites (65 percent) say blacks have achieved or will soon achieve racial equality, nearly half of blacks (47 percent) believe they won’t achieve it in their lifetime or will never achieve it.
America faces a racial fracture whose severity is not sufficiently recognized. It is not the country we thought it would be when America elected its first black president. That is the stark truth. Let us be depressed about it.