(The Root) — Since George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin, the commentary — from professionals as well as those whose opinion pieces are limited by Twitter’s 140-character cap — has been plentiful.
And why wouldn’t it be? The story of the death of the 17-year-old and the man who killed him isn’t an everyday tragedy. It contains rich material for reflection on racial profiling, gun violence and the criminal-justice system. Plus, it’s a chance for those who hadn’t given it much thought before to know a little (just a little) about what it feels like to be an African-American male.
It’s also provided many of our fellow citizens with the opportunity to completely, and publicly, miss the point.
I’m not even talking about the responses that reflect unabashed hate (“This will teach black kids not to dress like thugs!”), a complete misunderstanding of our legal system (“See? The verdict proves Zimmerman wasn’t racist!”) or an opportunism by those looking for just one more talking point on their long-held gripes (“Black leaders are exploiting this — look how terrible they are!”). Those have been widely and easily disputed.
Instead, I want to take on the reactions that are simply misguided. The ones that, perhaps unintentionally, derail the lessons that can follow this type of loss. The ones that make us wish we could revoke the social networking privileges of dear friends who are mostly on the right side of the whole thing (or at least enroll them in their local college’s Introduction to Logic course).
Since that’s not possible, here’s hoping that someone out there takes this list as a lesson about how not to go on record trying to manufacture zingers the next time a race-related tragedy hits the news. (Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that there will be a next time.)
1. Oh, so you’re mad about this but not black-on-black violence?
First, please cite the source for the idea that each of us can care only about one thing. Right. There isn’t one.
Second, stop buying into the myth that black people are the only ones who kill each other.
To assert that black people simply shrug off the murders of their sons and daughters and cousins and best friends, that folks simply shake their heads and keep it moving is to assert that black people are constitutionally incapable of grief and outrage. It’s to assert, sideways, that black people aren’t fully human.
Yeah, you don’t want to do that.
2. There’s all this talking/tweeting/marching, but is anyone going to do something?
Please recall what led to George Zimmerman’s arrest, a full 44 days after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin: a whole lot of the activities mentioned above. So are we now in agreement that tweeting, talking, writing, marching and rallying all shape public opinion, attract media attention and can even pressure those in positions of authority to act? Great. Then from this point forward, they fall under the definition of “something.” Make a note.
3. Don’t riot, black people!
Black people riot. White people riot. It doesn’t happen without a lot of terrible consequences, but it does happen. Behaving as if this behavior were the exclusive territory of African Americans perpetuates the exact-same stereotypes that made Zimmerman fear for his neighborhood’s safety when he saw an unarmed teen walking home with a bag of Skittles. Mother Jones’ Lauren Williams wrote about “the riot question” in the midst of preverdict fretting: “That it keeps getting asked without any actual evidence that a riot will occur might say more about the biases and fears of the people asking than it does about African Americans.”
Not to mention, if someone were actually prepared to go run through the streets and cause havoc after the verdict, it’s safe to say that your public hand-wringing, passionate as it may have been, probably wouldn’t have defused the tension enough to stop that person.
4. Obama has to say something to fix this.
Listen. The president has been charged with fixing a lot of things, but undoing a decision of this kind isn’t on the list. As The Root’s David Swerdlick put it:
[N]o matter how demoralizing the trial’s result was, President Obama — the nation’s dad, if you will — doesn’t have the option of disrespecting the jury’s verdict, duly rendered, even if the trial that we all just saw couldn’t provide justice after the needless killing of a teenage boy. And any statement that the president makes now could later be seen to prejudice, and thus weaken, any case that the Justice Department might pursue.
Removing racism from the nation’s psyche isn’t on his official agenda, either. (Plus, don’t you think he did what he could to move things forward by getting elected in the first place?)
This is perhaps the most sincere and the emptiest of the reactions, often said with about the same level of intention as “Yeah, we should do lunch.”
Really, though, what does it even mean? “Race” is pretty broad as a topic. It’s fascinating. We talk about it all the time! There’s a whole conference on it. But “race” doesn’t describe what happened here. It’s not specific enough. Race isn’t racism. Race isn’t racial profiling. Race isn’t a kid getting killed because he was black, or making sure that it doesn’t happen again.
Plus, “national dialogue” suggests that everyone gets to weigh in and everyone’s opinion, no matter how uninformed or harmful, is equally valid. I disagree. In fact, it’s clearer than ever that some people just need to listen.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s staff writer and White House correspondent.
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