“The whole world was watching this case to see if everybody can get equal justice, not just certain people,” Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for Mr. Martin’s family, said on Sunday.
—The New York Times
I’m not so sure the whole world was watching. The rest of the world is quite preoccupied with countless other events careening toward criticality — civil war in the Middle East, bankruptcy all over Europe, riots in Brazil, the global bond market, a mystery epidemic in India, etc — and if they are watching, they must be mystified by what they see.
What the Zimmerman trial showed me was a nation stuck in tired narratives about its racial predicament, and confusion about what the predicament even is. It doesn’t help that we stopped even pretending that something called common culture matters or even exists. By common culture I mean shared values and behavioral norms. The “multiculturalism” offered in place of it — at least among so-called progressives — hasn’t worked out too well either. On one side of the street you have Slate podcasters foolishly wringing their hands over “the N-word” while over on the other side Kanye West is making millions shouting “nigga, nigga, nigga.” We pretend to want to have a national conversation about race, but the truth is that it makes us too uncomfortable, so we retreat into platitudes and sentimentality.
CNN covered the trial and its aftermath relentlessly — I saw a lot of it recovering from a Friday surgery — and the narrative there was a largely sentimental one about “a child” gunned down. Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon repeatedly omitted to mention that the six-foot-tall child was beating the smaller gunman’s head into the pavement in the minutes before he shot. Apparently the jury did notice this part of the story.
The most uncomfortable part of the botched conversation is about behavior in general and the behavior of young black men in particular. The visible social failure is too gross and its implications are too scary, namely that we have more and more an oppositional culture saturated in violence that will never accommodate itself to any kind of a common culture. At this point that culture of young black men is oppositional to virtually every other group in America, white, Asian, Hispanic, et cetera, and the only response to it from the jittery “others” is a set of excuses for black opposition and failure.
One excuse is that America’s drug laws have turned young black men into “political prisoners” in the world’s largest prison gulag. I’m sure that our drug laws are stupid and counter-productive, but I’m also sure that most of the young men caught in its web were doing something anti-social besides just holding, using, and selling.
There are ways of understanding historically how we got to the current situation but they may not offer much consolation. The Civil Rights victories of 1964 and 1965 — the public accommodations act and voting rights act — created tremendous anxiety among African Americans about how they would fit into a desegregated society, so the rise of black separatism at exactly that moment of legislative triumph was not an accident. It offered a segment of the black population the choice of opting out of the new disposition of things. Opting out had consequences, and over several generations since then, the cohort of poorer black Americans has grown only more oppositional, antagonistic, and economically dysfunctional — with the sanction of America’s non-black “diversity” cheerleaders, who remain adamant in their own opposition to the idea of common culture.
The economic challenges of the long emergency, with its desperate competition for the common resources of daily life — money, food, fuel — are liable to provoke new layers of desperate behavior, and new layers of opposition, antagonism, misunderstanding, tragedy, and failure. Do you argue that there are no “jobs” for young black men and nothing to absorb their energies? Increasingly there will be no “jobs” for anybody, except perhaps in local small scale farming. And these days that probably lacks the appeal of becoming a hip-hop star shouting “nigga, nigga, nigga.”
What we “learned” from the Trayvon Martin case, so far, is exactly nothing.