The Aftermath of the George Zimmerman Case, Part 3: The Weight of HistoryBy Jonathan Cohen
Sixty years ago the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier wrote a book "Black Bourgeoisie" in which he was very critical of the black press for greatly exaggerating the accomplishments of the black middle class. In many ways it was a cruel book because so much of the reality he exposed was a reality imposed on blacks by centuries of pervasive prejudice and discrimination. But his unsparing honesty was driven by the belief that self-deception is self-destructive and hindered blacks' progress in accumulating wealth and in confronting the wider society with their very legitimate grievances. He was particularly critical of the black press of whom he said
Frazier, a black sociologist at Howard University and the first black president of the American Sociological Society published the first edition of his book in France in 1957 and it was later translated into English and a second edition was published in 1962. Much of the book is dated as the size and importance of the black middle-class has dramatically increased over the past 50 years. Blacks have become an integral part of all areas of American life up to and including the presidency of the United States. Yet the perception of exclusion remains. Forty years after the publication of "Black Bourgeoisie," Ellis Cose published "The Rage of a Privileged Class" that was a look at the black middle-class. In it he details the frustrations of black professionals who in spite of their greatly improved status in American society still felt marginalized.
In spite of the passage of the civil rights laws of the 1960's and progress made by blacks over the last 50 years, events such as the Zimmerman trial reveal to what extent we are still two separate societies. The explanation that would be given by most black commentators is the persistence of racism. The basis of disparate impact law is the notion that if imbalances exist in the numbers of minorities in an occupation, the starting assumption is that the reason is racial prejudice. By analogy, if a white Hispanic shoots an unarmed black teenager, the reason is racial animus and the burden of proof is on the white to prove otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.
But maybe this picture is wrong. Perhaps the sources of higher crime rates for blacks, greater percentage of out of wedlock births, numbers incarcerated, lower graduation rates at all levels, poorer scores on standardized measures of academic achievement are not the result of institutional racism. What if whites have little ability to affect these problems, particularly if blacks claim a monopoly on the allocation of funds to solve them? For example, if blacks insist on black teachers in black schools, there is not a whole lot whites can do about improving educational outcomes.
Eric Holder says he wants an honest discussion about race. Really? Carefully orchestrated discussions that are called "difficult dialogues" are little more than lecturing people on scripts that make sure that minorities will not hear anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. But taking him at his word, it might be helpful to look back at some history.
A good place to start is the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, a watershed moment for the civil rights movement and indeed for the whole 350 year struggle for equal rights for blacks in America. Equality before the law with equal access to all the privileges of the society from being able to vote to an end to discrimination in employment, education and housing were finally established as matters of law. Though it took a few months to pass the 1965 voting rights act, and there were still some acts of resistance, the handwriting for Jim Crow was on the wall for everyone to see.
The events of that day were summed up by Martin Luther King whose words "How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice" captured the optimism of the day. But as it brought one era to an end, an entirely new set of challenges opened up. There was another speech that day by Whitney Young who said that with the barriers to participation and jobs being removed, he hoped that blacks would take part in the training programs offered by groups such as the Urban League to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that were finally being offered to them.
There were always two problems facing black people. There were the societal barriers of prejudice and discrimination. But there was also the lack of training and education needed to take advantage of opportunities when they would finally become available. Certainly, the terrible history of discrimination was the major cause of the educational gap between blacks and whites. But assessing blame could not rectify the problem. This was a terribly difficult problem that was in many ways more challenging than dismantling segregation. But there was much good will at the time and a realization on the part of many whites that they had a responsibility to help alleviate the gap.
The year 1965 was also a year of departure for the civil rights organizations. Having accomplished its greatest goal, the dismantling of legal segregation, it was faced with the task of how to move forward to advance race relations and help advance the situation of black people in America. What is not usually acknowledged or remembered, let alone understood, is what happened next. Black separatism suddenly became respectable. Freed from the pressures of pleasing whites to simply survive, black identity movements began to thrive. Blacks stopped wearing their hair to look as much like white people as possible as Afros replaced straightened hair. And politically, blacks decided they had to define their own organizations starting with the civil rights organizations that had always been coalitions with sympathetic whites.
The first organization to purge whites was the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In December, 1965, in a narrow vote, they decided to become a group for blacks only. SNCC, the student organization that had supplied so many of the people whose courage made the civil rights movement possible and whose creed was described by the small buttons that featured simply a black and white hand, had in the space of a year become a segregated organization. Malcolm X, who had been previously quite unpopular among blacks while they needed white support to end segregation, suddenly became something of a hero and role model. While blacks had always admired his willingness to show his anger towards whites when others had withheld it for fear of retaliation, they did not buy the vision of a completely separate world. Now black identity was front and center, particularly for young blacks.
Colleges and universities that had recruited few black students suddenly began serious efforts to recruit and train them. Admissions offices suddenly looked to programs like Upward Bound that gave summer training to black high school students as a feeder for increasing black enrollments. By the late sixties and early seventies, the black population at many universities had become a significant presence. The more political of these students were focused on questions of identity rather than traditional civil rights. Their organizations were for blacks only and though they worked sometimes with white groups they stressed the importance of self-definition and this meant not including whites. Many black students self-segregated themselves quite self-consciously.
This was not difficult to understand. For many of the newly arrived black students, this was their first experience living in a mostly white environment. They brought the insecurities imposed on them by hundreds of years of second class citizenship. They often arrived from schools with weaker educational requirements and poorer academic training. Between their own often inadequate preparation and their anxieties about being accepted by the majority of students, they naturally found comfort in socializing with other black students.
For white activists whose lives had been deeply affected by involvement in the civil rights movement, this rejection was responded to in several ways. For those whose involvement was in community oriented projects, such as volunteering to tutor black students from economically impoverished backgrounds, they honored the admonition of black students to work in their own community and the tutoring projects were abandoned. While this may have been a loss for those students who benefited from the tutoring, it set a tone for how whites were supposed to respond to their own concerns for black poverty. In particular, it meant ceasing to do the one thing where they really had something to offer.
For some of the more radical whites, it meant giving political and moral support to the most militant black political groups and encouraging the most militant political actions. It meant unconditional support for all sets of demands made by black student organizations that were engaged in sit-ins. It meant rallies and other support for the Black Panther Party. In particular it meant spending considerable efforts to support efforts to free Huey Newton who was in jail for shooting two policemen; supporting a group of Panthers who were on trial for murdering an alleged informer in New Haven; supporting a group of Panthers in New York who were charged with plans to blow up monuments in New York. In many cases the charges were real. In the case of Huey Newton, they helped him get released from prison to go out and commit more murders as well as many other crimes.
But the biggest single thing that characterized the white response to identity politics was the absolute deference to black leadership in all matters involving race. While many black people involved in community based activities did not want to see the disappearance of whites, they were outshouted by the voices of identity politics and an important source of help for poor families was eliminated. This meant that a personal connection with the lives and the reality of those blacks who were most in need of support was severed and henceforth, politically conscious whites would filter their understanding of black problems through the lens of those black leaders who had their own agendas and ambitions.
The traditional integration-oriented civil rights organizations, primarily the NAACP, focused their efforts on school integration. This turned out to be a disaster as it amounted to forced busing of black kids into white schools and white kids into black neighborhoods. The result was that whites in the major cities of the north and Midwest either abandoned the cities or abandoned the public school system, leaving the public schools almost entirely black or in some cases Hispanic.
On the college and university level, the various black student organizations manifested their politics in a wave of sit-in demonstrations that were characterized by occupying university offices and refusing to leave until a set of non-negotiable demands were met. The occupations created a dilemma for school administrators and faculty who had become very invested in increasing the number of black students on campus. Their hope was that the students, many engaged in a white institution for the first time, would in time get over their insecurities, emulate the better prepared white peers, and by the end of four or if necessary five years, walk out of college with a degree and an education that made them able to compete on an equal basis with those same white peers. The white administrators were definitely not inclined to create a physical confrontation that could lead to violence, arrests and possibly the sabotaging of their efforts to increase black enrollments. For schools that were located near ghetto areas, there was also a fear of damaging community relations thereby creating a hostile environment for its students and faculty. As a result they mostly caved in to student demands. Aside from the demand for amnesty, the most common demand was for the creation of some kind of black studies program. This was something the administrators could accede to and it gave them a face saving way to back down in the face of student intimidation. They could claim that the schools were agreeing to the student's demands because they were historically justified, while in reality, they had caved in simply out of fear. Cowardice was covered up by saying it was all social justice.
The new departments created by the sit-ins were given considerable leeway to create their own scholarship and programs. From an academic perspective they were very different from traditional departments. Their mission was not simply to teach black history. They were there to make blacks feel better about themselves. There was always a therapeutic component to these original departments, an example that its many imitators would follow in the ensuing years. Women's studies, Latino studies, and queer studies, created to satisfy a demand for social justice, had political agendas that were central to their being from the beginning. This meant ignoring any voice that questioned the assumption that persecution at the hands of the majority was central to the group's identity. Majority favoritism, manifested in the form of white supremacy, patriarchal hierarchy or homophobia, was responsible for any failures that existed within these groups. If blacks committed crimes at a higher rate than whites it was because of racism that left them no alternative. If the percentage of out of wedlock births was increasing, it was because black men could not get jobs to support a family. If women didn't go into science, it was because male patriarchy discouraged them and told them only men could understand mathematics. Though there may be great value in the study of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, the identity group programs are filtered through an ideology of racial, gender, and class based oppression.
Since racism and sexism were assumed to be the cause of any deficiency in skills, only whites confronting their prejudices and unconscious biases could overcome the deficiencies. Responsibility for improving the educational performance of black youth fell on whites. This never made sense. Anyone involved in teaching knows that it is impossible to teach people who are not invested in the learning process. The deficiencies in English and math skills of black high school graduates were real. For purposes of closing the educational gap between whites and blacks, there was little whites could do unless the students were sufficiently motivated to do the extra work to overcome their lack of academic preparation.
From the perspective of colleges, the ability to educate black students in numbers anything like their proportion in the general population could only be done if their K-12 education was improved. But there were few things colleges and universities could do about that. And complicating matters was the push to have primarily black teachers in schools that had predominantly black student bodies. Teaching jobs were a ticket to the middle class, so to many blacks it didn't make sense to have white teachers in their schools, even if some of the white teachers could be very effective at preparing the black students for college. The argument was made that only black teachers could understand and reach the black kids. This was a self-serving argument made by those that viewed teaching as an economic opportunity for the black community and for whom the educational considerations were secondary.
What evolved as the strategy for black advancement was the collection of measures that are generally gathered under the heading of affirmative action; Initially an extension of the civil rights movement, focused on integrating residential housing, places of employment and education at all levels, it evolved into a series of goals and quotas that were enforced by a combination of legal arguments, consent decrees, set asides, compliance officers and no shortage of rationalizations.
The civil rights movement was an inter-racial movement that was the culmination of hundreds of years of struggle to eliminate laws and practices that reduced black people in America to second class citizens. Its goals were always framed in terms of the country living up to its belief that all people are created equal. It was natural that in the wake of the passage of the civil rights law of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965 that groups interested in helping blacks would continue to frame their struggle in terms of integrating society. Through education and training combined with continued anti-discrimination efforts aimed at ending de facto barriers to black progress, the economic condition and social status of blacks would be brought more in line with that of whites. Central to these efforts was the belief in color-blindness as the key to improving the lives of blacks. This view ran counter to the growing trend towards identity as the center of black activism. To be certain there was something paternalistic and more than a bit condescending in the belief that the secret to black success was to be found in the imitation of white people. When the movement towards black identity combined with the resistance of many whites to residential and educational integration, the ideal of a color-blind society lost its appeal for those seeking to improve the lives of blacks.
With the change of focus, goals and quotas replaced equal opportunity as the key to improving the economic well-being of blacks. It was reasoned that given the centuries of disadvantage for blacks, it was unfair to expect them to turn around and compete on an equal basis with whites just because there were now laws barring discrimination. It was necessary to take affirmative action to help blacks succeed in the areas of education and employment. This began with concerted efforts to recruit black college students and for employers to make efforts to hire at least some black workers. These efforts produced a good deal of success and enabled many blacks to succeed in careers that they would never have been able to do without the larger society consciously making it a priority to recruit them. In fact the black middle-class has grown tremendously in both numbers and accomplishment in the past fifty years, in no small measure due to the active efforts to expand it.
In spite of the improvements, the educational gap in the average educational achievement of blacks and whites, as measured by a vast array of testing instruments, has not significantly narrowed. Student achievement as measured by SAT scores as well as a variety of standardized tests of reading and math skills show a persistent performance gap between black and white students. These differences also show up in occupational testing such as that used by police and fire departments to determine promotions. As a result, many of the court cases concerning affirmative action have been fought over whether the disparate racial impact produced by the use of such tests constitutes illegal discrimination. The main contentious element of affirmative action has been the insistence on replacing standardized testing procedures applied in a color-blind manner to both blacks and whites by a system of racial goals and quotas. And where racial goals and quotas are applied to hiring decisions, the same is demanded of procedures in the workplace that determine salary and promotion decisions.
Setting goals and quotas for hiring based on race separates pools of job applicants into two groups; one white and the other black. The same split occurs when such goals are used in college admissions. While test results were in many cases abandoned for comparing white and black applicants, they continued to be used in distinguishing between applicants within their racial groups. But it is inescapable that the gap in the average educational achievement of blacks and whites has not been closed. So In essence, affirmative action became the demand that black applicants for jobs or admission to colleges and graduate schools be judged by standards that were both different and lower than the standards applied to the whites with whom they were competing. This was not an unintended consequence of affirmative action, it was the central purpose. As payback for past injustices, which were indeed quite horrible, they were to be given admission to colleges where they were on average at a competitive disadvantage with their white peers. Likewise in the workforce, they were hired in positions for which their paper qualifications were lower than those of the whites with whom they worked. There is certainly some poetic justice in such policies but they do not change the underlying fact of a large gap in educational achievement between whites and blacks. (For an eloquent explanation of how affirmative action is a Faustian bargain for blacks see chapter 7 of Shelby Steele's book "The Content of Our Character.")
Certainly affirmative action produced some very good results. It greatly increased the size of the black middle-class and opened up vast opportunities that had been denied to them. But much of this could have been accomplished without affirmative action, simply by increased efforts at recruitment and strict enforcement of laws against discrimination. And when the academic profile of entering black students at universities lagged behind their white peers, it contributed to their isolation.
While black students in majority white colleges are today less isolated than their predecessors, the schools often promote the importance of racial, ethnic or gender identity. The isolation of black students is facilitated by faculty who offer programs in which students study their identity and student affairs personnel who offer extra-curricular activities and services around the topic of identity. Almost universally, such activities promote grievance as central to identity. The faculty and staff who sustain these activities have an obvious interest in their perpetuation that is independent of what is either true or in the long term interest of students. If, say, black students comfortably engage with the other students socially and more importantly as study partners, then there would be no need for such special personnel.
The result of this process of affirmative action is a great increase in the size and status of the black middle-class but in many cases without a strong sense of belonging. And how could it be otherwise? If the path to a law firm or the staff of a hospital for blacks is fundamentally different from what it is for whites, it is much more difficult for blacks to lose their sense of isolation. In a society where whites have traditionally been the leaders in law, medicine and academics, it is not surprising that the frustrations that Ellis Cose found among black professionals would persist. If less achievement is expected of blacks to attain the same goals as whites, it will always leave them with a sense of unease about their own abilities and their acceptance by others.
Continued insecurity among blacks about their full acceptance in American society explains much of what underlies their reaction to the Zimmerman verdict. The evidence from the trial definitely pointed to acquittal on the basis of self-defense. It was a tragedy but it wasn't murder. It was a bizarre set of circumstances that led to an unfortunate confrontation. But Trayvon Martin was clearly beating the hell out of George Zimmerman, had gotten him into a defenseless position, and continued to pummel him in spite of a minute of desperate cries for help. Seeing no escape, nobody coming to help him, and in imminent danger of severe injury, he took the only defense remaining to him and shot Trayvon Martin. It was about as clear a case of self-defense as one could imagine. The fact that so few black commentators and pundits could admit that Zimmerman had a plausible case of self-defense is troubling. Polling results showed a significant difference in how blacks and whites felt about the Zimmerman trial and its verdict but that doesn't mean their views are simply differences of opinion. Compelling evidence was presented at the trial and by any objective standard the case for acquittal was far stronger than the case for conviction. The refusal to see that seems to be a form of self-deception, a troubling one that suggests we haven't gotten completely past the world of make believe that Franklin Frazier described in his book.
To be fair, there were many white commentators, academics and pundits eager to condemn the verdict as well. Many of these appear regularly on the major networks as well as CNN and MSNBC. They follow a pattern that is familiar to anyone who is honest about discussions of race in contemporary higher education; the deference white faculty and administrators pay to their black colleagues in discussions concerning matters of race. Even when whites disagree, they are unusually apologetic in doing so. This pattern was overwhelming in the coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting and especially so during the trial. The white commentators were unwilling to say that the verdict was correct because Zimmerman was innocent. They talked about the difficulty of showing proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and though some would bring up the issue of the Stand Your Ground Law, they were unable to say that Zimmerman had a right to defend himself.
On the Fox News weekly program on media bias, panelists were asked their reaction to Oprah's quote comparing Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till. Judith Miller responded that she liked that Oprah spoke from the heart how she as a black person felt about the verdict and was especially pleased that Oprah added that we should all look at how far we have come since that time. With all due respect, this is an absurd reaction. Oprah's statement "for me, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, same thing" makes no sense. Whatever emotional comfort Oprah took from the comparison, it is so far from reality that she needs to be publicly corrected. It is a measure of how deeply whites are committed to showing deference to blacks on matters of race that a reporter as courageous as Judith Miller couldn't simply say that the comparison was crazy. What was even more revealing was Miller's fawning over Oprah's acknowledgement that indeed life for blacks has improved in sixty years, with its implication of partial absolution for whites. Rituals of white contrition and black forgiveness poison race relations rather than improve them. It is contributing to the world of make believe that Frazier described sixty years ago only with the new twist that white journalists and scholars have joined in the charade.
Charles Blow, the New York Times opinion page columnist, has been featured by CNN for his commentary on the Zimmerman verdict. Blow is an intelligent black man who speaks with an air of great authority, but what he says is wrong. He is telling audiences that he doesn't know what to tell his sons to avoid being the target of violent racist white vigilantes. He wonders how fast they should walk to avoid becoming a victim. The answer is easy. He needs to tell his son that to avoid getting hurt, he should refrain from assaulting someone just because he thinks they are looking at him funny or he thinks they might make a pass at him. Furthermore, it might not be a good idea to sit on top of someone, pounding his head into the cement and repeatedly punching him in the face even though the terrified screams of the person being beaten indicate that he is in fear for his life. And he should not ignore the warning from a third party witness to stop the beating or he will call the police.
Blow should tell his son that he should follow this advice because it is how civilized people behave. But if that doesn't convince him, he should tell him that he shouldn't beat the hell out of someone who is screaming for help because his victim might have a gun. And furthermore, after being informed that the police are going to be called, he should stop the beating because he can be prosecuted for assault and conceivably be shot by the police if he is seen sitting on top of someone raining down blows martial arts style.
Until the white commentators are able to respond to Charles Blow in this frank manner, race relations will continue to be strained. Eric Holder is right that we could benefit from an honest discussion about race. However, the honest response to Charles Blow that is outlined above is probably not the honest discussion he is thinking about.
The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy but the media account of the shooting and its aftermath was largely a fairy tale. George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense. There never was a legitimate reason to have a trial. The Sanford Police investigating the case would have at most recommended charging Zimmerman with manslaughter but even for that they knew they needed more evidence. The local district attorney refused to bring charges to a grand jury because he felt he didn't have enough evidence to obtain a conviction.
Instead of accepting the judgment of those most familiar with the evidence, the state of Florida appointed a special prosecutor, Angela Corey, who chose to charge Zimmerman with second degree murder, a charge that was so unfounded that she couldn't risk presenting the evidence to a grand jury. The prosecution was a response to a mob that was inflamed by a dishonest story concocted by the national media, a mob that included the New Black Panther Party with its $10,000 reward for the arrest of George Zimmerman, demonstrations in Sanford Florida demanding Zimmerman be charged with murder, the intrusion of the US Department of Justice with support for the demonstrations and an extensive effort to find evidence to brand Zimmerman as a bigot, and encouraged by the efforts of the attorney general and the statement of the President of the United States who proclaimed "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."
As a result, the lead detective who actually wanted to bring a charge of manslaughter to a grand jury was demoted because he wasn't gung-ho enough for prosecution. The chief of police was fired because he didn't think the evidence presented to him warranted charging Zimmerman with a crime. The local district attorney was removed from the case and replaced by a team from a different county because he reported honestly that he didn't have enough evidence to obtain a conviction. To insure their safety, the jurors had to be sequestered and their names and faces hidden to protect them from the wrath of a vengeful public that had been whipped into a frenzy by a dishonest media, political demagogues, and both the attorney general and the president of the United States.
In the end the American system of trial by jury worked because the jurors carefully considered the evidence, applied the law correctly and rendered the only just verdict possible. And the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death was not turned into a travesty by sending an innocent man to jail for the rest of his life.
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