It should’ve have taken the George Zimmerman acquittal to convince me that the myth of a post-racial America is just that: a myth.
A look at incarceration rates show that black men represent disproportionately high numbers of inmates in our criminal justice system. According to a 2007 Department of Justice report, “Black men comprised 41% of the more than 2 million men in custody, and black men age 20 to 29 comprised 15.5% of all men in custody on June 30, 2006…4.8% percent of all black men were in custody in midyear 2006, compared to about .7% of white men…Overall, black men were incarcerated at 6.5 times the rate of white men.” The report goes on to say that black men are between 5.7 and 8.5 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. And the controversial War on Drugs is the biggest culprit for these awful numbers as according to drugwarfacts.org, the leading reason for incarceration of black men is nonviolent drug offenses.
Trayvon Martin was a victim of racial profiling – the same kind of racial profiling that has police target young black men; the same kind of racial profiling that leads security guards to tail black people when they’re shopping; the same kind of racial profiling that prompts hiring managers to pass on black applicants for professional jobs; the same kind of racial profiling that causes school teachers to label their black students “problem kids.”
In the upcoming days we’ll get lots of Zimmerman apologists, who will hail this ruling as justice being done – they will point to Martin’s alleged drug use and will bring up unproven stories of Martin’s criminal activity as some kind of defense. None of these stories have been confirmed, but even if they were, it wouldn’t excuse what Zimmerman did: chasing down a kid in the night and shooting him after getting involved in a physical altercation.
When the trial started, I had a careful optimism of the outcome, namely because the defense attorney seemed to be self-destructive, opening his arguments with a knock-knock joke, and posting a photograph of him and his daughters enjoying ice cream cones after a day at the courts. Despite Zimmerman’s war chest, I really believed that there was a good chance a jury would see that Zimmerman brought on this tragedy by tailing an innocent kid and engaging with him, despite being told not to by the 911 operator.
The atrocity of the Zimmerman verdict is just the latest in a year of shameful racial discourse – whether it’s pop culture figures like Paula Deen using racist language, or the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the progression of the anti-black backlash is moving in parallel with the progression of racial equality – neither overtakes the other. The tragic absurdity of a time when young black men are gunned down by white men, while a black man is president cannot be lost among most Americans.
But then why the myth of a post-racial America? There’s currency in the myth – for both anti-racists and racists. For the former, a post-racial America means that all the hard work of the past 200 years hasn’t been in vain – that the election of a black president means that the mainstream society embraces multiculturalism and racial equality; for the latter, the myth of post-racial America means that the current work of civil rights activists is unnecessary and obsolete, and any laws created to protect racial minorities are superfluous and out-of-date.
But America isn’t post-racial. Because even though we have a black president, and unprecedented opportunities for black Americans, we are still stained by an ugly past that can make our present pretty ugly, too. Slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation are things of the past, but their effects and legacies are very much in the present.
Myths are often created to make sense of the unknown. But myths also are created to comfort – like myths of a lovely and comfortable afterlife. The post-racial myth for America has also been made to comfort the uncomfortable – unfortunately, as evidenced by the Zimmerman trial, the myth of a post-racial America does very little to comfort his family and friends.