Writing in The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb says that the shooting death of Tayvon Martin was a powerful reminder that the United States is—and has been—far from the post-racial paradise that we’d like to imagine:
…the shooting death of Trayvon Martin…did not so much raise questions as it confirmed suspicions: that we remain stratified or at best striated by race, that “innocent” is a relative term, that black male lives can end under capricious circumstances, and that justice is in the eye of the beholder—ideas that are as cynical as they are applicable. At this juncture, events in Sanford, Florida, suggest the benefit of the doubt in the shooting of a black teen-ager extends even to unauthorized, untrained, weapon-toting private citizens who pursue unarmed pedestrians.
This can’t be stressed enough. What most people remember about the 2008 presidential election is Barack Obama, and what most people remember about Obama is hope, change and the promise of a post-racial America. The thing about that, of course, is that Americans weren’t uniformly optimistic about the post-racial future. In a poll released that summer, Gallup asked Americans if they thought “that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States, or that a solution will eventually be worked out?” 59 percent of whites—expressing the racial optimism of the era—said that a solution would eventually be worked out.
Among African-Americans, the results weren’t so clear. Only 50 percent said that a solution would eventually be worked out; 49 percent were confident that relations between blacks and whites would always be a problem in the United States. Even still, compared to years past—where more than 60 percent of African-Americans were pessimistic about race relations—this was a large move toward the Obama-inspired optimism of white America.
Unfortunately, the last few years have been a mixed bag. The good news is that African-Americans have reached the heights of American political life. The bad news comes from all angles. Blacks are still under-represented across the political spectrum—there is one African-American among the 150 senators and governors in the United States—and they are still most likely to suffer from a whole host of socioeconomic ills.
Black people have also been reminded that status isn’t a shield against racism. Barack Obama is the most powerful man in the world, but hasn’t stopped opponents from attacking his legitimacy, demeaning his heritage and questioning his citizenship. Hell, it remains profitable for demogagues to capitalize on the racial fears and anxieties of many people—the careers of Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart are a case study in how to race-bait for fun and gain.
To echo Cobb, Tayvon Martin is simply the most vivid example of the things that actually define race relations in this country. It should be said that Obama himself understands this. To wit, he offered a few powerful words this morning, commenting on the case. Here’s what he said:
…my main message is to the parents of Trayvon. If I had a son he would look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americas are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and we will get to the bottom of exactly what happened.