I’ll believe we’re having a conversation on race relations when it is not just President Obama imploring the nation “to do some soul searching.” I’ll believe it when it is not just Attorney General Eric Holder baring his soul, saying how George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin caused him to talk to his 15-year-old son about interacting with police “like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down.”
I’ll believe it when the likes of Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and John Boehner start a new tradition of asking fellow white Americans to search and bare their souls about stereotypes, unconscious bias, and the white privileges that still permeate daily American life, including something so simple as being able to wear a hoodie without stirring fear.
No such reciprocity has yet been heard, a week and a half after the nearly all-white jury said Zimmerman acted in self defense, even though he initiated the tragedy by getting out of his car and following the 17-year-old Martin against the instructions of a police dispatcher.
House Minority Leader Pelosi said on MSNBC she was “sad,” but added meekly, “I’ll leave it to others to take the lead on commenting on it.”
Senate Majority Leader Reid did say Florida should revisit its “stand your ground” self-defense law. But when asked on “Meet the Press” if there was a “new racial wound” that needed healing, Reid could not say yes or no. He merely praised race discussions in Sanford, Fla., where the shooting occurred, and said Obama has a role in speaking out. Reid offered no role for himself.
And that was from Obama’s top Democratic allies. Republican House Speaker Boehner and GOP Senate Minority Leader McConnell have been utterly silent and were let off the hook on the Sunday talk shows by hosts who did not ask them about the verdict.
This white leadership vacuum has been filled by the likes of Representative Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who praised the verdict by saying, “That’s the way the American law system works. Get over it.”
Plenty of evidence suggests he is a loud spokesman for the silent majority.
A Washington Post poll this week found that nearly 9 in 10 African-Americans felt Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin was unjustified, compared to only 3 in 10 white Americans. In a Pew Research Center poll this week, 60 percent of white respondents said the issue of race “is getting too much attention,’’ compared to 13 percent of African-Americans. While 78 percent of African-Americans thought that the verdict raises important issues “that need to be discussed,” only 28 percent of white Americans thought so.
The poll had disturbing findings for the future, despite Obama’s praising of better racial interactions in his daughters’ generation. Even though younger white voters put aside centuries of stereotypes to help elect Obama as the nation’s first black president, 52 percent of white respondents ages 18 to 29 thought the issue of race was getting too much attention. Only 32 percent cited a need for further discussion. Did they think racism was solved on election night?
The attitudes of young white respondents should set off discussions among white Americans, most of whom have no experience of living daily as a less-powerful racial minority. Having more black friends and being more accepting of interracial marriages certainly represent social advances, but most whites seem unconcerned about how racial attitudes continue to shape the structure of many of society’s institutions. African-Americans with the same credentials as white peers are still more likely to be rejected for jobs, housing, and research grants, and face unconscious bias from doctors. Even names perceived as “black” and “white” trigger dramatically different callback rates for jobs.
It’s not for Obama and Holder to forever lecture about these disparities and bare their souls, driving the discussion on race until it feels like they are carting around Miss Daisy. We will get nowhere until white Americans, from Congress to the family kitchen, talk about race as intensely and personally as Holder did with his son. Obama said Americans should be “vigilant” to “encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.”
So far, there’s not much evidence that white America is using this episode to have a discussion at all.Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.