The Racism In Our Minds

Yesterday President Obama gave a much commented on speech, spurred by the “Not Guilty” verdict the jury found in the case against George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. The Wall Street Journal was impressed:

Six days after a Florida jury acquitted a Hispanic man in the shooting death of an African-American teen, President Barack Obama made his first extensive comments on the case, speaking in personal terms about his own experience of being black in America.

” Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the president said in the remarks, made Friday during a surprise appearance in the White House press room. Mr. Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was shot and killed in Florida last year in a case that riveted millions of Americans and sparked debate over the state of race relations in the country.


But he tried to explain the lens through which black Americans may see the case, saying that their own experiences and the country’s history with race inform how many view what happened to Mr. Martin.

“There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars,” Mr. Obama said. “That happens to me—at least before I was a senator.”


On Friday, Mr. Obama noted that African-Americans are disproportionately victims as well as perpetrators of violence. And while he called for soul-searching on matters of race, he said he sees signs of improvement.

“Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to [daughters] Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are.”

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wasn’t nearly so impressed:

Could Obama have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago?

Perhaps. If so, then any of us could have been Trayvon Martin. And I could have been Trayvon Martin. Racial motives weren’t established at trial. And reportedly, the FBI still hasn’t found racial motives in George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic.

Race was established by the president of the United States, and by other political and media actors. It’s a cynical business, about money and power, about keeping divisions between American tribes. There are the black tribes that see Martin in the context of the old civil rights struggles and leverage, and white tribes that see Martin being used to pummel them with racial guilt.

The algebra of all of this is as old as some musty textbook in your uncle’s garage. We’ve seen it before. We’ve heard the lines, the formulations, the slogans, and some of us recite them the way we recite phrases from television commercials. We’re given just enough evidence and we’re told we must choose a side.


By saying he could have been Trayvon Martin, President Obama bypassed the evidence and established his own motive. Only a maestro could accomplish this.

“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul searching,” Obama said, and I hope he included himself in the search.

“There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race,” he continued. “I haven’t seen that to be particularly productive. When politicians try to organize conversations they end up being stilted and politicized, when folks are locked into the positions they already have.”

They get locked into positions with help from those who would ostensibly lead them away from ignorance and anger and fear. No one wins the game of tribes but the leaders.

To understand where I’m coming from I’ll need to pass on some anecdotes. The first is a conversation I had with a friend more than twenty years ago. We had invited a young couple for dinner at our home. They were, perhaps, the handsomest couple I’ve ever seen in terms of sheer physical beauty. He was black. She was Native American and Hispanic. I don’t remember the precise context but at one point my black friend said something that’s stuck with me. “What happens to you when you get on a bus? The exact same things may happen to you as happen to me but we won’t have the same experience.”

I suspect that every black kid in the country has had an experience with racism, whether actual dyed-in-the-wool racism, soft racism, or merely their own putting a racist spin on experiences I wouldn’t have interpreted through the lens of race. “She doesn’t want me because I’m black”. “They don’t like me because I’m black”. “I would have gotten a better grade if I hadn’t been black”. “I would have a job if I weren’t black”. From the standpoint of internalized experience does it make a difference whether those interpretations are true or not? I don’t think so.

Do I think that racism exists in the United States today? There’s no question of that in my mind. Do I think that every instance perceived as racism is actually racism? Absolutely not.

Here’s the second anecdote. My mom spent a good part of her life teaching poor black kids. Something she frequently said: “They believe the lie”.

Finally, one of my best friends in college was Hawaiian. When I was in grad school we roomed together for a while (more accurately: I slept on his couch for a month or so until I found an apartment of my own). Through him I met and befriended quite a number of Hawaiian kids at my alma mater. My friend had attended high school at Kamehameha and was, of course, native Hawaiian. Another friend, Lloyd, had attended Punahou, the school that would later be attended by the young Barry Obama. Lloyd was Japanese-American and his family was quite well-off.

In 1980 fewer than 1% of Hawaiian household had even one black member. There were very few African Americans in Hawaii, there was no black community there, Hawaii is extremely racially diverse, and Hawaii has no history of anti-black racism. I don’t believe that any of my Hawaiian friends had so much as seen an African American in person until they came to the mainland.

In Hawaii, Barack Obama was just one mixed race kid in a place where being of mixed race was not at all unusual. If he experienced racism, it was either when he came to the mainland or it was in his own head.

But that means that Barack Obama couldn’t have been the Trayvon Martin he’s imagining or, at least, he couldn’t have been in a sense different than I could have been.

I could never have been George Zimmerman. By the time I was George Zimmerman’s age I had taught judo and self defense for well over a decade and, not only was I strong in mind and body, defending myself by reading and avoiding trouble was ingrained in me as much as breathing. I have never felt the need to carry a firearm because I can defend myself with weapons that can’t be taken away from me.

But by the same token I could never have been Trayvon Martin. I would never have confronted George Zimmerman but even if I had once he was down I would have run away as fast as I could.

The facts as we know them of the Zimmerman-Martin case are that George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and that a jury acquitted him of any crime on the basis of self defense. Everything else is speculation. It’s the racism in our own minds and hearts.

8 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    I agree with everything you said, except this:

    In Hawaii, Barack Obama was just one mixed race kid in a place where being of mixed race was not at all unusual. If he experienced racism, it was either when he came to the mainland or it was in his own head.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of anti-semitism, despite the fact that I’ve never looked particularly Jewish, or belonged to the faith, or lived in an openly anti-semitic area. I can pass as gentile much better than Mr. Obama can pass for white.

    I think that you, being a rational human being, under-estimate the power of hate.

  • And I’ve been on the receiving end of anti-Catholicism. For well over a half century.

    Hawaii really is different, Michael. Or at least it was. I believe what my Hawaiian friends have told me.

  • TastyBits

    Any chance of having a rational discussion of racial issues is never going to happen, and therefore, making any progress is hopeless. There are so many aspects of this case that could be discussed, but that would not allow any political or monetary advantage.

    The debate has become about who is allowed to kill young black men. Had George Zimmerman been black, there would be no outrage. Had a black George Zimmerman killed Trayvon, his father, and his brother, it would be a non-story.

    When a white person is murdered, the issue is murder. When a black person is murdered, the issue is the murder weapon. When white people are murdered, the importance increases as the number of victims increases. When black people are murdered, the unimportance rarely changes.

    Zimmerman should have been arrested. When there is a dead body, somebody is getting arrested, at least in most places. It is the DA’s job to determine if charges should be brought, and it is the jury’s job to determine if Zimmerman is guilty. In many cases, a black man is assumed to be more suspect, and he would need to pass a higher bar to not be arrested.

    Something is wrong with Florida’s legal system. George Zimmerman and Casey Anthony were overcharged, but both got off because they had good lawyers. How many people have been convicted when overcharged because they had an overworked lawyer? Are there more black men affected?

    A black man with a wallet, screwdriver, or a bag of skittles is pre-judged to be more dangerous than a white man, and many black men will wind up dead because of this prejudice. Would a white young man have been assumed to be “up to no good”, and if not, why? “Because he’s white” is not an answer, or it is not an answer that will lead to any progress on racial issues.

    In general, a black man needs to prove that he is the equal of his white counterpart. A lot of this is subconscious, and it is not done because of racial hatred. It is ignorant racial bias, and it is far more ingrained than most imagine. They do not realize it, but many black folks have the same subconscious bias. It is subtle, but it is there. This is not the same as what is called “black self-hatred”.

    In the end, this is all moral masturbation. Each side experiences the orgasmic sensation of righteousness. Meanwhile, many more young black men will join Trayvon Martin, but there will be no national outcry for their deaths – just “another dead n*gger”.

  • Andy

    What you describe us well understood by cognitive science. Perception, especially in situations with significant ambiguity, are subject to cognitive models/templates. Perception itself is altered by expectations, situational context, and is unavoidably selective.

    Unfortunately, punditry is not compatible with the introspection necessary to really examine, much less question, one’s own mental models, assumptions and biases.

  • Doug Mataconis just remarked on another incident a decade ago when Barack Obama was mistaken for a waiter at a party. It’s an incident that could have a number of different interpretations. The person who made the mistake might have assumed that any black guy in a tux was a waiter. The person who made the mistake might have thought that anybody in a tux was a waiter. Or that Barack Obama was wearing a tux that made him look like a waiter. Or that anybody who was bustling between tables wearing a tux was a waiter.

    If you make the assumption that the mistake was made solely because of race and could only have been due to race, it might say more about you than it does about the guy who mistook the future president for a waiter.

    Race is not the only factor underpinning the interrelationships of blacks and whites in America. If you think so, it’s because you’re radicalized with respect to race and, believe me, not every American is radicalized with respect to race.

  • PD Shaw

    Over twenty years ago I read almost all of the court transcriptions of death row cases in Louisiana and Mississippi and typed summaries and outlines. The death penalty appellate defender’s office had just got some computers, wordperfect 5.1, and the thought was that word-processing would help reveal patterns. One of the most pronounced patterns of race I found was in a voir dire, where one of the things prosecutors seek to determine is whether a potential juror could impose the death penalty. The pattern:

    Black juror: Ask if he/she is religious; a few follow-ups; ask if he/she has any moral concerns about the death penalty; could you impose the death penalty?

    White juror: Ask if he/she supports the rule of law; ask if the judge instructed you on the law, could you follow those instructions; ask if the jury instructions include a sentencing option for death, if you could consider it in light of those instructions?

    The questions were never the same, but I could tell the race of an the potential juror by the questions and the basic religious versus law dichotomy. The lawyers said it was a nice spot, but the defense attorney had not exercised all his challenges, so we’ll just wait to see if the pattern emerges again.

    I found that repulsive and deeply cynical. The easy answer is it was racist, but that case actually involved a Latino. The “religious” element might have had some independent significance, as I heard more than a few times, blacks got too much religion. Religious blacks were pushed off the jury, law-and-order whites instructed on duty. It was somewhat cynical beyond just race. Some prosecutors will do anything.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave, with all due respect, you just don’t know what you’re talking about on race. Hawaii is different? They don’t have TV and movies? They don’t have hordes of tourists and immigrants from the American south (and north?) They don’t read history books?

    You write extensively about the influence your personal, family history has had in your life, and by extension on the more general impact of your culture. How do you not get that all that same past history follows minorities around?

    I was born a Jew, raised a Lutheran. I never cared about being Jewish. In fact until 1967 I don’t think I considered it a thing in my life, despite Jewish grandparents. But once you start to learn what’s been done to “your” people, and once you hear a few, “Dirty Jew!” epithets thrown around you wise up pretty fast.

    Jews raised in lilly-white American suburbs a million miles from the ghettoes of Europe or the concentration camps still carry a deep-seated paranoia. We will never see the world quite the way a white kid with Swiss heritage does. We will never feel as secure.

    And a black man raised wherever, even Hawaii, is sure as hell aware of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, sneers about IQ and on and on and on. And he has sure as hell heard the word nigger thrown around.

    Dave, with all due respect again, you don’t even understand what it is like to be a white woman in society. You’re in remarkably little danger of being raped, whereas women clue into that pretty quickly, even wealthy, safe women.

    You are simply wrong about this. You don’t get the vulnerabilities. You are born to privilege – a white male in a society dominated since forever by white males. You don’t get it, because sometimes you have to “be” it in order to understand.

  • You may be right. I won’t debate you because it’s undebateable. You believe what you believe. I can only explain what I think and the evidence that has lead me to think it. It is always possible for me to be wrong, even catastrophically wrong.

    Maybe my friends were lying. Maybe they were mistaken. Maybe I misunderstood what they told me. I can’t know.

    I do think you should reflect on the contradictions inherent in your own beliefs. You believe that human behavior is unpredictable but you also believe that it can be completely determined by books, movies, and television and that you know what people half a century away in time and thousands of miles away in space believed and thought.

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