The difficult, confusing issue of talking clearly about race

Demonstrators outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia last Saturday, protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.
Demonstrators outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia last Saturday, protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin. (CLARK DeLEON)

People talk about it all the time, in a way that implies these points are self-evident. But they often don't make sense to people of other races.

Posted: July 28, 2013

"Destroy Florida," read a protester's sign outside the federal courthouse on Market Street during last weekend's march in support of Trayvon Martin in Center City. The sign also had three red circles with a diagonal slash through them, and in the circles were hand-drawn images of a wad of cash, Mickey Mouse, and orange juice. Once again our balky, stop-and-start conversation about race in America takes a surreal turn.

Truth is, we talk about race all the time. We talk in blank impatient stares and imperceptible nods. We talk in rude shouts and menacing outbursts. We talk in embarrassed silences and excruciating politeness. We talk in Dr. Seuss rhymes and trembling oratory.

We talk as if these truths are self-evident, even though they don't make a lick of sense to the face staring back from the other side of the racial looking glass. We talk at and past each other, secure, even relieved, that the other side will talk at and past us.

Every now and then a national moment illustrates how clueless white people are to how black people perceive the same events and the same laws. The verdict in the Martin case is one of those times. Unlike the stunning racial dichotomy revealed on live TV at the announcement of the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict - white people silent, open-jawed, disbelieving; black people jubilant, cheering, even in a battered women's shelter - the George Zimmerman acquittal seemed to sadden more than outrage African Americans.

Such sadness crept into the White House, where President Obama, usually so sure-footed, articulate, and dispassionate when addressing racial controversies, volunteered to share his pain.

In a way, Obama's surprising comments comparing his younger self to Trayvon reminded me of the remarkable public letter Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1863 addressing the criticism of "peace Democrats" who wanted to end the Civil War at any price. Point by point Lincoln rejected each military or political argument mustered by his critics before dramatically changing the topic.

"But, to be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro," Lincoln wrote.

". . . You dislike the Emancipation Proclamation; and, perhaps would have it retracted.. . .

"You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you, but, no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union.. . .

"Peace does not appear so distant as it did," Lincoln concluded. ". . . And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it."

When the story is finally told about the abject failure of Americans, both black and white, to speak honestly to each other with intelligence and compassion about the vexing issue of race, there will be more than enough malignant, deceitful, and hindering hearts to blame.

Imagine if we just admitted that every one of us is, or has been, corrupted by racism. We didn't choose to enter this arena; we were conscripted into it at birth. Some of us embrace the hate, and some of us reject it. Some of us simmer, and some of us dream. All of us resent the helplessness at being accused of acting out of racial bias, of being racist.

What is both remarkable and amusing is that most of the white racists that I know - good guys, many of them, but racist - are offended by the word. "I'm not a racist," they argue. "I just don't like . . ." Insert the N word there, though of course they don't use the expression N word.

Obama's remarks seem targeted toward the millions of households that needed to be reassured that, yes, the president of the United States remembers what it felt like to be a "young black male," to be profiled by society and on the streets as a target or a suspect.

However, many white people, like me, for instance, can't help but wonder how one interracial homicide in Florida rates such unrelenting national attention and such painful demonstrations of the sense of injustice and betrayal felt by African Americans when the staggering daily slaughter of young black males by other young black males has gone on for decades.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington, there were 279,384 African American homicide victims between the years 1976 and 2011, more than 50 percent of the total number of homicides in the United States, despite blacks representing only 13 percent of the population. The vast majority - 94 percent - were murdered by other African Americans, most of them male, most of them young

On the same weekend as the announcement of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial in Florida, eight men were shot to death in Philadelphia, most of them black. The youngest, Tremaine Rogers, was 17, the same age as Trayvon Martin when he was killed. Tremaine was shot dead by two black males in the backyard of his West Philadelphia home about 4 p.m. on the day a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of murder.

This is the unspoken conversation about race that white people have with themselves while pondering whether or not the answer to the problem is to destroy Florida.


Clark DeLeon will discuss his new book, "Pennsylvania Curiosities, Vol. 4," during a free event at the Free Library on Logan Circle at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 8.

E-mail him at deleonc88@aol.com.

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