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Protesters rally in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, July 14, 2013. (KEITH BEDFORD/REUTERS)
Protesters rally in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, July 14, 2013. (KEITH BEDFORD/REUTERS)

David Shribman

Zimmerman verdict puts heat back on U.S. race debate Add to ...

As much as the death of Trayvon Martin itself, Saturday night’s verdict in the George Zimmerman trial has prompted a new round of American introspection on the difficult questions of race – questions, it turns out, that Americans have been examining with new energy and fresh urgency in recent months.

That’s because the legal battle over what happened at the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Florida was about more than two men caught in history’s crossroads and in its spotlight. It occurred at a time of unusual reflection among Americans of all races and social position, and especially the political and judicial classes that adjudicate tensions nearly five centuries old in North America.

The death of Mr. Martin and the trial of Mr. Zimmerman occurred at a sensitive pressure point in the American body politic. They occurred as some Americans believe the centre of the civil-rights agenda, which already had moved to embrace rights of the disabled, was now planted firmly in the soil of the struggle over gay rights.

They occurred as some Americans – mostly white, but probably not most whites – believe that the decades-long emphasis on black rights has run its course and that the country should declare victory on racial issues. They occurred while other Americans – mostly black but not exclusively so – believe the agenda needs to be widened, to include an unsentimental look at the justice system and the state of the races and to address the achievement gap (weighing heavily against blacks) in elementary and secondary education and the incarceration gap (also weighing heavily against blacks) in the nation’s prisons.

This difficult American conversation is being conducted in a unique environment:

New developments in voting rights
Only last month the United States Supreme Court ended special standards that several states, mostly in the South, have had to meet for the threshold political experience in American life: voting. Many conservatives, including a high-court majority, feel the robust rates of black suffrage in those states was evidence that the need for such vigilance had passed and that the unusual conditions the Voting Rights Act imposed had outlived their usefulness. At the same time, many liberals and blacks believe the court decision was an abandonment of hard-earned assurances that Americans of all races would have equal access to this fundamental right.

Continuing pressures on historical remedies to racial barriers
Many American colleges and businesses continue to employ a form of affirmative action to assure the presence of blacks in the classroom and the workplace. This is consistent with practices dating to the late 1960s and to a more modern practice, with roots in the Bill Clinton era: the celebration of a broader “diversity” – a word that remains an emotional touchstone well into the second decade of the 21st century – in all venues across the country.

The pressures come from lawsuits and from the demands of other groups, including Hispanics and Asians, for spots atop the commanding heights of American life. At the same time, there is a growing feeling that the emphasis for preference in college admissions and business hiring should be economic status, not racial identity.

Barack Obama in the White House
Seldom has a single presidency had such emotional and symbolic resonance. A black president has been a hardy perennial in American films and novels, including The Man, a popular novel that became a popular 1972 cinema attraction starring James Earl Jones as Douglass Dilman, an accidental (black) president.

These novels and films became elements of popular culture primarily because they upended the governing assumptions of American life. Hardly anyone really thought a black politician would actually govern the nation any time soon, or in their lifetimes.

That is why the Obama ascendancy is of such significance. Unanticipated even one election cycle before it occurred, the 2008 election catapulted to the presidency an unknown politician and memoirist only four years out of the Illinois state legislature. It was a substantial geological event in American politics.

But the question remains: Did Mr. Obama’s election shift the tectonic plates in American life, or did it reflect shifts in those plates that already had occurred?

It is impossible to measure the extent to which Mr. Obama’s race is a factor in his political frustration – he was, after all, re-elected by a healthy margin only eight months ago – or in the ferocity of Republican opposition to him and his policies. But it is possible to sense the frustration that some black leaders and black activists feel toward the President, who very rarely mentions racial issues.

A year after the Civil War ended, the American war poet John Greenleaf Whittier departed from form with “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll.” With much of the United States in the grip of remorseless heat and remorseful reflection, it may be worth pausing to reflect on Mr. Whittier’s hope that a new generation “[s]hall Freedom’s young apostles be” and on his dream that the country, still suffering the wounds of war, might enjoy a new spirit that would “[u]plift the black and white alike.” It’s an apt thought for one of the most heated debates, now burning again in one of America’s hottest weeks.

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

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