OXFORD – At some point during every lecture on race in America, the speakers pause, take a deep breath, and say there’s a need for some “difficult conversations.”
OK. Let’s have one.
Let’s start here: Where are the cameras, the press conferences, the protest marches and the outrage when a black person robs, beats, rapes or kills another black person or, less frequently, a white person?
About 6,000 black youths take a one-way ride to their local cemeteries each year because another black youth decided to “pop a cap” on them. Justice Department figures report 94 percent of black people killed from 1976-2005 were killed by other black people; 6 percent by whites. Among whites during the same time, 86 percent of whites were killed by whites; 14 percent by blacks.
So why the furor over the verdict in Florida? Why doesn’t “intraracial” violence alarm the nation as much as “interracial violence?”
The answer requires talking about this stage on which Shakespeare says were are all players.
The longer-term history is this: White Americans routinely profile black Americans as an underclass. Had Trayvon Martin been a white kid in tennis togs, George Zimmerman would not have called authorities to report spotting a “suspect.” If you can’t accept that, stop reading. Nothing that follows will matter.
White Americans are the majority. Even in Mississippi, the state with the largest proportion of black citizens, blacks are outnumbered almost 2-1. (For the nation, the figures are 63 percent white; 17 percent Hispanic; 12 percent black and 8 percent other.) Not only are whites the larger group, they control a vastly larger proportion of the nation’s wealth. Toss in that few ancestors of black Americans came to this nation of their own free will and the status of whites as a numerical overclass is cemented.
When President Barack Obama talked about being stereotyped, of being followed by store security and hearing car doors lock as he passed, he was describing a reality that black Mississippians face. In the same way a physician who is female will often be called “nurse” in a hallway, black people – regardless of who they are and what they do – encounter “group identity” every day. Four black teens walking to Bible study, laughing and joking, will be avoided on the presumption they are up to no good. And just as Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on that bus in 1955 because she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” a lot of what white America has been hearing in the past few weeks is that more and more black people are weary of the presumption and the prejudice. Trayvon Martin was profiled. And he would be alive today if that had not occurred.
Now, some more recent history: A lot of the fear that young black men instill is cultivated. Some degree of the stereotyping is invited.
Rap is angry more often than not. Defiance. Clothing, postures, stares are often calculated to menace. It’s like a lot of black youths (and white copycats) are up in society’s face. “Hey, you don’t like me, you don’t value me – so my response is to not care what you think. Not only will I not care, I will prove to you I don’t care.”
For these youths, being antisocial is a lifestyle choice.
One more thing: Machismo.
Young people – especially young men – are driven to prove themselves, to establish and protect an identity. Football coaches can channel that energy in one direction. Drug dealers and gang leaders can channel it in another.
It is almost always erroneous to extrapolate the facts of a single case (Martin-Zimmerman) for application to society as whole. That’s what people have been trying to do for weeks now, most cherry-picking (or making up) facts to suit their own conclusions. There are senseless calls to “boycott Florida” until the state “improves,” as if a geographic area is culpable for the acts of individuals.
Instead of just deciding that black people are unreasonable, that their priorities are misplaced or that white people will never let go of their racist tendencies, a better approach would be to have difficult conversations – and they are indeed difficult because, as we’ve seen, everybody at the table owns a share of truth.
There’s plenty of blame to go around and there’s plenty of room for improvement. It won’t start, however, until the finger-pointing ends.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.