2012-04-19 / Letters
Race is very much a topic of discussion
I found James G. Fitzmaurice’s recent letter to the editor (“The Trayvon Martin Shooting: A Time to Reflect”) profoundly saddening in a number of ways. First, Mr. Fitzmaurice is attempting to make the murder of a 17-year-old boy a platform for his discomforts with critical racial discourse. More broadly, it is troubling that he uses the event as a way to attack his concept of multiculturalism. These goals can only distract from this boy’s untimely death and the real issues pertaining to it. The lessons he urges us to learn from this “teachable moment” are regressive in nature.
Curiously, Mr. Fitzmaurice’s discussions of “prejudice” seem to be confined to opinions of George Zimmerman. People like Spike Lee and members of the New Black Panther Party have nothing to do with the Martin family. They are independent actors, just like Mr. Zimmerman’s defenders. These include Quran-burning pastor Terry Jones, who held a rally in his honor, and unknown actors who spray-painted “Long live Zimmerman” on the side of Ohio State University’s cultural center.
They also include white supremacists and sympathetic reporters and editors who have spit onMr. Martin’s corpse through the hacking and publication of his private emails, as well as incorrectly identified pictures of him, all meant to implicitly demonstrate that he deserved a vigilante execution for alleged transgressions that only extend as far as using marijuana.
Unfortunately, many people of color in this country (not “colored” people) have ample reason to believe that justice will not be served in cases involving them or people who look like them. There is a centuries-long history of American judicial hostility toward nonwhite people when accused of crimes and indifference toward them when they are the victims of crimes.
In the situation in question, this was exactly the case. The local police declined to prosecute or even arrest Mr. Zimmerman and that would have been that, were it not for the tenacity of Mr. Martin’s parents, who refused to accept the narrative being forced upon them that their son’s death was justified and excusable. Thankfully, the special prosecutor, only appointed to the case due to intense public pressure, will now see that Mr. Zimmerman has his day in court and allow for a jury of his peers to decide his guilt, as opposed to himself or the police.
I am happy to hear that Mr. Fitzmaurice’s family and teachers taught and practiced a philosophy opposed to prejudice, but this was certainly not the case for most white people in this country, no matter the time he is referencing, especially 40 years ago.
It is objectively false to claim that there was ever a point where the country enjoyed an absence of racism or discrimination. For just one example, consider the significant popular support arch segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace enjoyed nationally, especially in the urban North, during his 1972 bid for the presidency, exactly 40 years ago. I doubt that any African American citizens who lived through the 1950s and 1960s would agree with Mr. Fitzmaurice on this point.
Mr. Fitzmaurice’s assertion that racial and ethnic minorities have created the racial divisions in this country is demonstrably untrue. White Europeans created, maintained and reinforced these divisions when they began colonizing the world and enslaving Africans some 500 years ago.
Since 1619, our land’s colonists and then our country’s founders embraced and fostered this racial caste system chiefly through the institution of slavery that lasted for nearly 250 years, cementing these enslaved people and their descendants as non-citizens who had virtually no legal rights and could not vote, among many indignities foisted upon a people brought here against their will.
Following the Civil War, this was largely true for another hundred years, until after the federal destruction of Jim Crow in 1965. How could we possibly expect millions of people who have been systematically excluded politically, socially, educationally and economically for hundreds of years to suddenly be on equal footing simply because of an absence of discriminatory laws?
There are reams of sound historical, economic, psychological and social science studies proving the opposite, that African Americans still suffer greatly from racial discrimination and its legacy, whether we speak of imprisonment, financial wealth or physical well-being. White racism has undermined race relations, not those people seeking to validate their heritage.
Sadly, despite the constant claims to the contrary, we do not live in a post-racial society. Racial and ethnic discrimination are alive and well in America today, whether or not we choose to see it. Racism is much more complex than its most crude manifestations, such as lynching (which still takes place, as recent examples in Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma have demonstrated), separate public accommodations or laws prohibiting people of certain ethnicities from owning land.
It is in the ways that African Americans consistently receive harsher sentences when convicted of the same crimes as white people. It is in the ways that so many politicians and public commentators are able to successfully harness anti-Mexican immigrant sentiment, just as they did 100 years ago with the Chinese, and 70 years ago with the Japanese.
It is in the ways that Americans, even many African Americans, tend to have a mental image of “the criminal” as being a young black man, and the product that follows, the young black man wearing the appropriate clothing being viewed as likely to commit crimes.
All Americans have learned racism. What we choose to do with it, both as individuals and as a society, is what matters. These are facts of modern life that we all must face and reckon with if we hope to move forward. Ignoring them or simply proclaiming them non-issues will not make them go away.
Christopher Hayes Freehold Township
Christopher Hayes is completing his Ph.D. in U.S. history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.