Like it or not, the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin story has triggered a national conversation about race. President Obama waded into the controversy with much-hyped remarks on the incident July 19, which provoked a harsh reaction from some conservatives. I’m inclined to agree with the Daily Beast’s Kirsten Powers that this reaction is indicative of why Republican outreach efforts to minority groups are unlikely to succeed.
The problem, I think, is not widespread racism, but enough examples of racial insensitivity to create the impression that conservatives don’t care about the African American community.
If somebody is going to criticize anything about Obama’s speech, I could see how one might argue it was fluff that tried to assuage both sides without saying much. But personally, as I said at the time, I thought he struck the right tone. And I don’t get the accusation that Obama was engaging in race-baiting.
What Obama was doing was attempting to calm a racially-charged situation, by both stating that there was a fair trial and calling for non-violence, while trying to explain why the episode struck such a raw nerve within the African American community.
For conservatives frustrated when liberals act like race relations are trapped in 1862 or 1962, Obama recognized that things continue to get better. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some relevant historical realities or that African Americans don’t face ongoing struggles.
It isn’t engaging in victimology to appreciate that the African American experience in America is unlike that of any other group. While many Americans can look back at family stories of their ancestors coming over to the country in search of a better life, overcoming adversity, and seeing their families’ fortunes improve through the generations, African Americans were originally brought over here against their will in chains and brutally forced into slavery.
Then, after becoming “free,” they were subjected to sanctioned discrimination for a century. Yes, things have improved dramatically. But if you’re an African American teenager who knows that his ancestors were slaves and his grandparents’ generation had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from separate water fountains, that legacy is going to have an enduring effect.
As Obama acknowledged, African Americans commit a disproportionate number of crimes in America. But there’s also evidence that they are disproportionately sent to prison, especially for non-violent offenses such as drug crimes
There may be a rational basis for a white guy in a suit to feel wary about walking through a predominately black inner-city neighborhood at night. But for the overwhelming majority of blacks who are law-abiding citizens, it becomes demeaning when whites look over their shoulders or clutch their belongings at the sight of black males.
So, all Obama was trying to say was that – without even getting into the legal details – this is the prism through which African Americans viewed the Martin shooting.
Conservatives often are angered by the false accusations of racism coming from liberals, and assume they’ll get tagged as racists whatever they say. And it’s true, I suppose, that in some quarters, merely being in favor of limited government, or opposing national health care, or advocating federalism, makes one a racist.
But the correct response to this is not to simply throw caution to the wind and be dismissive of any suggestion that racism still exists in America. There’s plenty of room for white conservatives, without surrendering their limited government beliefs, to at least be sensitive to the historical struggles of African Americans as well as the ones they still face, and to apply an extra level of scrutiny to what they say and write regarding race.
Will this change voting patterns? Perhaps not. But one thing is for sure. In the current environment, arguments conservatives make about the dangers of government dependency, the problems with out-of wedlock-births, or the benefits of school choice – no matter how genuine or heartfelt — are reflexively viewed with suspicion by African Americans and treated as coded racism.
Until conservatives can broadly learn to speak about race with more compassion and sensitivity, the African American outreach effort is, as Powers writes, likely a lost cause.