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Column: Trayvon Martin’s tragic death shows that race still divides America

It makes me feel guilty when we talk about race, and I suspect that’s how most white Americans feel, writes Larry Donnelly, who says there is still a way to go yet before racism no longer has a stronghold in America.

Larry Donnelly

THE TRAGIC DEATH of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the recent acquittal of the man who shot and killed him, George Zimmerman, have sparked outrage in the African American community in the US.  Protest marches and rallies have been held in cities and towns across the country. President Obama himself has spoken from the heart about the case, noting that Trayvon Martin “could have been me 35 years ago.”

While admitting that race isn’t as divisive in 2013 as it was when he was a young man, the president simultaneously denied that the US is the post-racial society that people around the world hoped his election would usher in. President Obama also invited all Americans to do some soul searching on the issue of race. I’ve taken him up on his invitation, and the search is complex.

Before sharing my personal reflections on the broader issue of race, two points are worth making to contextualise the Zimmerman case.

The verdict

The first is about the law. Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, an expert criminal lawyer, has argued forcefully and convincingly that the jury reached the only verdict it could have. Given that there was a physical altercation between Zimmerman and Martin in which Zimmerman was injured, given that it is uncertain who started the altercation and given that forensic evidence suggests that Martin was on top during the altercation, Dershowitz claims that the jury could not have convicted Zimmerman of murder and that this was a classic case of self-defence.  Moreover, though not directly relevant to this case, Florida has a “stand your ground” law, which allows an individual to use reasonable force, including lethal force, to defend himself without any requirement that he retreat.

The second relates to the reaction to the Zimmerman case.  There is a clear split along racial lines. President Obama has said that “the African American community is looking at this through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”  Indeed, a Washington Post poll reveals that 9 in 10 African Americans believe Martin’s shooting was unjustified and 78 per cent believe that the incident raises important issues for discussion. Conversely, just 3 in 10 white Americans believe the shooting was unjustified; 60 per cent think race is now getting too much attention; and only 28 per cent want to talk about or consider race further.  While African American leaders from the president to community organisers have been outspoken about the Zimmerman case, white political leaders have been far more reticent.  One Republican congressman advised those aggrieved to “get over it.”

The ill-fated attempt to remedy segregation in Boston

I understand why so many white Americans are uncomfortable with race. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it in the days since the jury reached its verdict in the Zimmerman case. It’s a difficult topic.

Like most Americans, my thinking on race is based on my own life experience. I grew up on the southern outskirts of Boston, a city with its own troubled racial history.  The images broadcast around the world of white Bostonians mouthing racial slurs and even physically attacking African Americans in the chaos that ensued from court-ordered forced busing to desegregate Boston’s public schools in the mid-1970s are horrifying to this day.  Although forced busing was a disastrous and woefully misguided attempt to remedy segregation in an unequal school system, it exposed and enlarged a racist underbelly that undeniably existed.

Busing accelerated “white flight” from the city and many parents (like my own), seeking stability and better opportunities for their children, left the city neighbourhoods they loved and moved to close-in suburbs.  Those who stayed were then left in an environment of uncertainty.  Their children’s educational path was no longer assured and a lot of their long time friends and neighbours were gone.  Thus, many white Bostonians, both those who stayed and those who left, were embittered and espoused bigoted views that I became accustomed to hearing at a very young age.

Subtly rolling up windows and locking car windows

More subtle, but no less offensive, was the practice of rolling up the windows and locking the car doors that, I’m afraid, just about all of us followed when driving through predominantly African American Boston neighbourhoods. Notwithstanding the sad fact that these neighbourhoods have a high incidence of violent crime, I can only imagine how it made the vast majority of law abiding African Americans, especially young people, feel when they saw me rolling up my window and locking my car door.  It makes me feel guilty, and I suspect that’s how most white Americans feel when we start talking about race.

Things have changed considerably since I was a child, however.  The close-in suburbs and nearly all of the city neighbourhoods are far more integrated than they once were. The world hasn’t ended. Additionally, there is a mayoral election this year in Boston and there are a number of viable African American candidates.  Even more assuring is the not inconsiderable support that some of the white candidates enjoy in the African American community. There has been real progress in my home city. There’s still a way to go yet.

I think this is what President Obama was getting at the other week when he assailed not only Trayvon Martin’s tragic death, but also the alarmingly high crime rate among African Americans and the extraordinary level of “black on black” violence. There needs to be more open and honest discussions of race in America.  It’s an essential step towards, in the president’s words again, “becoming a more perfect union – not a perfect union, but a more perfect union”.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist for IrishCentral.com. For more articles by Larry for TheJournal.ie click here.

Juror in Trayvon Martin case says she ‘owes his parents an apology’>

Thousands gather for ‘Justice for Trayvon’ rallies across US>

Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago’>

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