During the 1950s, two white sheriffs discover a black man's body hanging from a tree and shot through the heart. The first sheriff is befuddled. He is looking at the body and is very confused. The second sheriff asks him "what is wrong?" The first sheriff takes off his hat and starts scratching his head. He looks up at the body and turns to his friend, "I don't know how this niggrah hung himself from this tree and also managed to shoot himself through the heart?" The second sheriff starts to laugh. "Hell of a thing. That nigger must have been one hell of a gymnast or Harry Houdini type!"
I am unsure as to the origin of the above story. But, it does capture the essence of the George Zimmerman trial for his killing Trayvon Martin perfectly.
The trial has all of the combustible elements of race in America--guns, crime, violence, and the law. The Zimmerman trial is also an example of how attitudes about race and politics are intimates. Defenders of George Zimmerman automatically assume that Martin is a black male "thug" with no right to life. Defenders of Trayvon Martin see a person guilty of the crime of walking down the street while being black and male.
As others have pointed out, a thought experiment is helpful in exposing just how messed up this race business is in America.
If people were told a story about a teenager walking home carrying only a bag of candy and a bottle of iced tea, and a person who was a self-appointed defender of the neighborhood/failed wannabe superhero cop shot and killed them, the standing prior would be that the latter committed a crime. Public opinion would sympathize and favor the former. If the public was also told that the shooter did a national TV interview in which he showed no remorse and said it was "God's will" that he took a life, he would be even less popular as his guilt would be utterly transparent and all but admitted to.
However, when these events are viewed through the white racial frame, with the victim being African-American and the shooter being white, the narrative immediately changes.
How perverse. Justice is apparently not race neutral. Given that America was founded as a white republic by law, and that people of color for four centuries in this country have had no rights that whites are bound to respect, such an outcome should not be a surprise.
Race is also a story of contradictions.
The United States can elect a black man as President. This moment can coexist with an increase in white racial animus towards black people since Obama's election, a fictive belief that white folks are oppressed in the Age of Obama, and research which demonstrates how white people are generally not empathetic towards the pain and suffering of black people.
I like to share readers' comments when they are particularly sharp and insightful.
In the following comment on my site We Are Respectable Negroes, CSM summed up the national spectacle around the murder of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman perfectly:
If ever there was a test to determine if what motivates the tea bagging/right wing/GOP is racism, the Zimmerman case is it. They support Zimmerman, even though he clearly is someone who they would normally hate as a "Mexican." Yet he's been taken up as a cause celebre by the racists not so much for who he is, but for who he shot. Before any of the latest Zimmerman story came out about Martin ambushing him from non-existent bushes, when all we knew was Zimmerman saw Martin, followed and shot him, while he was minding his own business coming back from the store, they were already calling Martin a "thug" who deserved to be killed on the basis of nothing else but his race. If this were 1955 they would be cheering on Emmett Till's killers. If it was 1963 they'd be cheering on the killer of Medgar Evers. They would have said no need for a trial in those cases. And if it was 1869 they'd be cheering on the Klan for destroying Reconstruction.I am in agreement with CSM. As I have said previously, Zimmerman's supporters and the Tea Party GOP racial reactionaries would probably not commit the personal act of murder at a spectacular lynching. However, they would cheer it on, buy souvenirs, and make sure that their kids and grand kids are in attendance to learn the lessons of Whiteness as an identity predicated on domination and authority over the Other.
The comments on Twitter, right-wing websites, and other spaces defending George Zimmerman as a "victim" work through a twisted logic, one predicated on a foundational assumption that black people have no right to safety and security in their own persons--especially when faced with White authority.
The two cops who pondered how a black man can lynch and then shoot himself would be perfectly at home as news commentators on Fox News, or some other part of the Right-wing echo chamber. They speak not in isolation; their supporters are (unfortunately) legion; they are still with us decades after the Civil Rights Movement.