Sunday, July 29, 2012
Though I wasn't in the US when it happened, and didn't follow the news commentary that followed and surrounded it, I do have my own take on the Trayvon Martin shooting, based on the straight reporting of the facts of the case that I've been able to access. As I understand, an unarmed teenager was accosted by an armed vigilante with an extensive history both of crime and of neurotic, pathological playing policeman. The vigilante trailed the kid in a car, got out of his car, a struggle ensued including a pleading of the teenager for his life, and the vigilante finally shot and killed him. We don't know many more facts of the case, and even these that we know are murky, but I don't see how any aspect of what we know could cast doubt on the fact that there was one armed vigilante and one unarmed teenager, and the latter was killed by the former's close-range gunfire. What we have now is much like the situation of a hit-and-run car accident with no witnesses in which the perpetrator is known by all but protected by a ridiculous claim that he was somehow justified in killing the victim.
I don't see or care much about what race has to do with this particular incident. Obviously Martin was a black kid living in what used to be one of the most racist, murderous, awful places for blacks to live in the US (central Florida). But the tragedy for me is that a kid was murdered, and that the state of Florida has a law on the books that would allow a vigilante psychopath to kill someone and run. Race doesn't enter into my understanding or interpretation of this particular situation.
A few months ago I read this piece from James Howard Kunstler about race in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder. Basically he uses the shooting as an occasion to voice his opinion on what he describes as a generalized black failure to thrive in the US. I guess I appreciate hearing his reflections on the root causes of economic and social poverty and pathology. And it seems his blog post is a response to what he must have seen as an excessive deluge of racial discourse surrounding the Martin killing. That said, I don't see how the murder of an unarmed kid is a very appropriate occasion to take advantage of to voice your opinion on much of anything, especially when your thoughts seem to cast blame on that shooting victim and his entire ethnic group not just for their economic straits but even for getting murdered. In particular the ending line of "people don't get shot for nothing" seems to me a very ugly and sinister thing to say.
At any rate, Kunstler's post seems to me indicative of a common thing we do in the US, which is see everything in racial terms. How else could you explain the focus on race from so many commentators on the Martin murder, and especially the tone of people like Kunstler who see black failure and laziness even in the shooting of an innocent kid?
I am currently in the US, in my hometown of Chicago which, among its few flaws, is obsessed with race. We are consistently rated the most segregated city in the US, and in my few days here this time I have already been reminded multiple times of the white working-class ritual of peppering their conversations with scorn for black people. In the same breath I have had close friends imply that blacks are lazy and shiftless, and then heap scorn on preteen black kids that come up to my neighborhood to play buckets like drums to get money from Cubs fans. I mean, if you don't want someone to be lazy, how can you then fault a kid for having the initiative to make some extra money by working hard? It's a clear demonstration of how incoherent and stupid racism is, that stereotypes can simultaneously affirm a thing and its very opposite of a racial group and its members.
Anyway, this trip our sightseeing has taken us to the city's South Side, which in the areas I have reason to go to is mainly black in population. We've gone to Rainbow Beach, different museums, and today an amazing, uplifting Catholic Mass at St. Sabina's Church at 79th and Racine. I would highly recommend this latter sight, which my wife said was the most exciting and enjoyable and least boring Mass she'd ever been to.
What has most jumped out at me in these few visits to black Chicago is that, contrary to what many white Chicagoans might think, the black side of town and the people in it are not that different from whites or any other group in Chicago. At the beach they mainly do beach things, at the church they do church things, at restaurants they do restaurant things, and on the street they do street things (I mean "street things" in the sense of walking and talking and sweating more than the sense of illegal, violent things, though of course there's plenty of that too in some black Chicago neighborhoods). They may do them with a different accent or while listening to different music, but the idea that many whites entertain of a different, weird, almost scary way of living and doing things in black neighborhoods is silly. The flipside of this is explored very well by Eddie Murphy's ridiculous, funny imagining of how white folks act when black people aren't around.
Another point that follows from this is that black people in a big city don't mind white people too much, any more than anyone in a big city pays much attention to strangers of any color. I think white Chicagoans avoid going to places with mainly blacks in part because they imagine they'll stand out, or everyone will point at them, or rob them, or something like that. Racial neuroses reduce adults to the level of self-centered teenagers that think everyone is looking at their zit! As it so happens, my wife and kid and mother and I have indeed stood out in the recent all-black venues we've visited, but no one seemed to care very much that we were there. I imagine it's like when I or someone from my neighborhood sees four or five blacks in a crowd of a hundred people. We notice them, but we don't give them much thought, hostile or otherwise. When people did take notice of us (especially in Mass), they were if anything welcoming and warm and happy to share with us.
I am not saying that race doesn't exist, or that it isn't an important factor in many social realities. But I think we'd all do well to sort of get over ourselves and our dear ideas of how big a deal race is. Sociologists say race is a social construct, which is probably true but is a very abstract idea. My wife made it more concrete for me. Because she comes from a mestizo and mulatto society outside the US, it is difficult for her to distinguish who is actually considered black in our culture, and certainly to understand how much we obsess over color. My wife felt that most of the people in the black church we went to would be considered white in Colombia, because they don't have dark skin and unquestionably, exclusively "African" features. Blacks in the US come in many colors, with different noses and eyes and ears and even hair than what you'd see in an African country. If it weren't for her knowing that we were in a black church, singing black songs with black accents, my wife might not have determined clearly that these were all black people and not simply white folks with varying levels of tan.