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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

America’s race curse Add to ...

There were always two conflicting narratives in the Trayvon Martin murder case. In one version, Mr. Martin was an innocent child who was stalked, accosted and brutally gunned down by a self-styled, hate-filled vigilante. In the other, George Zimmerman was a conscientious citizen who was attacked and beaten by a young punk in a hoodie, and sought to defend himself. To both sides, the case was always black and white.

The trial, and the jury’s verdict, changed nothing. The two sides are as polarized as ever. To some, Trayvon Martin is a martyr, and the verdict is a licence to kill any black kid on the street. “I live in a country that makes me wish my sons away, wish that they don’t exist, because it’s not safe,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, a black commentator, on MSNBC. The Martin family’s lawyer compared Trayvon to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till, two civil-rights victims who were murdered by white vigilantes.

The other side insists that the real martyr is Mr. Zimmerman – even though he was acquitted. A “sick show trial,” one commentator called it. His lawyer told reporters: “You took a story that was fed to you and you ran with it and you ran right over him.” Some people predicted the verdict would provoke race riots, which (perhaps to their disappointment) did not materialize.

A generation after the triumph of the civil-rights movement, the prism of race still dominates discourse about politics, crime, class and justice in America. It is the ancient wound that never heals. And everybody loves to pick the scabs.

Tragic as it was, this case was a local criminal trial that was blown vastly out of proportion by racial politics. The stereotyping on both sides ran rampant. To the liberal media, it was a clear-cut case of racial profiling. Awkwardly, George Zimmerman turned out to be half Hispanic, a fact that, according to the racial categories that warp American society, makes him about as white as Barack Obama.

Conservative commentators did a racial number on Trayvon, too. They portrayed the unarmed teenager as a hulking, menacing adult – a pot-smoker, a thief, a gangsta in the making. Mr. Martin, being dead, wasn’t able to defend himself. Juan Williams, a black commentator for Fox News, nailed it when he wrote, “Whatever the final verdict on Zimmerman, the media is clearly guilty of playing on the most primitive racial divisions in our society to fuel racial animosity and boost ratings.”

In fact, the case was never black and white. And in the end, the evidence did not support a guilty verdict. The justice system worked – although whether Florida’s gun laws work is another matter.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric from black leaders, who want the U.S. Justice Department to bring hate-crime charges against Mr. Zimmerman, comes from another era. America’s backward-looking black leadership is peddling old grievances at a time when the black middle and lower classes face acute new challenges. Racial discrimination is not their biggest problem any more. The black middle class has been hit especially hard by the recession. The lower class is afflicted by miserable school achievement, sky-high incarceration rates and a rate of non-marital childbearing that has soared above 70 per cent. The greatest threat to young black males does not come from white people. It comes from other young black males, who shoot each other at alarming rates.

No verdict in the Trayvon Martin case could change any of that. This case is not happy news for anyone – except, perhaps, the media, which has feasted on his corpse for months. America’s race debates are toxic. But they sure do make for terrific ratings.

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