Skip to content

On Politicization of Tragedies

March 27, 2012

My friend Connor of Cities of the Mind posted this article on his facbook recently:


Here’s my impromptu response:

Interesting. It’s important to avoid the trivialization of such a tragedy, but I also think that the article misses the real issue at hand. It presents a number of significant data that are quite alarming, but fails to deal with why it has become such a flashpoint.

In other words, the article presents the event as a tragedy, but removes it from the racial context that created it. It does this by picking some (apparently) pretty out-there things said by sharpton, jackson, and charles blow, and then refuting them with statistics. I checked out what jackson was saying about the issue and it was illuminating.

So at one point Jackson said “Targeting, arresting, convicting blacks, and ultimately killing us is big business.” which is true, apparently. The examples I found were the 100:1 ratio between automatic punishments for crack and powder cocaine, which favors affluent (read white) communities over poor (black) ones. This explains why even though there are five times more white drug users, blacks make up the largest demographic in prison. When it comes to the death penalty, of those convicted and sentenced to death row, black males guilty of killing a white victim are more than twice as likely to be executed as a white male guilty of killing a non-white victim. On top of that according to Michelle Alexander, over a million jobs would be lost if we reduced the prison system to pre-war-on-drugs levels. Accurate statement? I think so.

Also, I couldn’t help but notice that the more moderate statements didn’t make it into the article, for instance: “We are doing this not for show, but to send a message that all humanity is sacred. And by saying all, we are including African-American boys and girls, and men and women who reserve the right to wear a hoodie in the rain and not be racially profiled and killed because bigots think that their appearance is suspicious, or threatening,”

And there’s the fact that Zimmerman wasn’t charged or arrested, which probably would have happened if he were black. or even had his gun confiscated, having just used it to kill someone and all.

I have heard some stuff on the side of Trayvon Martin that is unsettling. The fact that the circumstances of the event are still being investigated, and eyewitness accounts contradicting, but people seem to be calling for the blood of Zimmerman sets me on edge. Check out Tim Wise for an interesting article.

In general there is a trend for White people to try to remove race from the discussions, even when race really belongs there, and as a white man I get that. It’s not pleasant to be reminded that I am part of a few groups that have historically and continue to oppress others who happen to be different. If anything, that’s an even more compelling reason to look at race, and race relations.

To claim that the shooting of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy removed from the politics of race is to suppress the views, and experiences of those groups who have been marginalized for centuries.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. kevinw71 permalink
    March 28, 2012 10:07 am

    Good points!

  2. March 28, 2012 12:16 pm

    Dude, welcome back! I didn’t know you were still posting.

    I think this issue, and it’s treatment, shows a fundamental difference between what it means to be against racism, and what it means to say you’re against racism while actually getting people angry and cashing their checks. Instead of, say, coming out and saying, “This is a horrible tragedy that reflects what evil can befall two likely fundamentally decent people when one judges the other based on appearances. But the numbers show that things are getting better- a lot better-and what we have to do is mete out justice for the wrongs done in this instance, and allow it to inspire people to work to avoid this sort of sorrowful event in the future. We must maintain this momentum, and not let it further divide us.”

    I’m sorry, but if you’re running around all over town screaming “I hate fire!” while you throw Molotov cocktails, it’s pretty clear where you actually stand on the fire issue.

    • March 28, 2012 6:13 pm

      yeah, I’ve been working on a longer post, but with the new job I’ve been pretty busy. Anyway, I’m not really sure I understand your analogy, or the thing about people cashing checks. But more to your first paragraph, the article you posted marginalizes the main thrust of reaction to the Trayvon Martin case. The same people the article cites as speaking divisively are pushing for greater involvement from the black community in politics, including voter registration, as well as a call for a stop to violence between anyone, regardless of race:

      “Whether you are wearing a hood or a sheet, nobody has the right to kill anybody,” Jackson said. The civil rights leader extended his plea to end the violence beyond whites killing blacks, but also blacks killings whites and blacks killing blacks. “Stop the violence. Save the children,” Jackson said, leading the congregation in a chant.

      The other point the article tries to minimize is that the circumstances surrounding the death of Martin stem from systemic racism. So not just that Zimmerman happened to judge Martin on appearances, (which is racist, btw) but that he was treated radically differently than a black person would have been in his position. Which goes back to another source I cite, that shows white lives are valued over black ones.

      So my beef with the article is that it tries to remove race and racism by playing the holier-than-thou-look-at-how-we-don’t-politicize-things card, when actually they’re contributing to the suppression a dialogue about systemic racism in modern america.

    • ONM permalink
      April 18, 2012 9:14 pm

      People are upset about the killing itself, yes, of course. But what makes this news is the apparent lack of any sort of appropriate response. You seem to say that “getting people angry” runs counter to professed anti-racism. I think indignation and offense can be potent energizers for community action, activism, and pressure on authorities. And in this case, we need precisely those things. The events and the rhetoric around them do make me angry: at institutions, both legal and social, not at White people.

      Remember, racism isn’t about anger; it’s about hate. Misdirected anger and frustrated anger can certainly lead to hate, but (for example) Revs. Jackson and Sharpton have organizations to direct and to do actual work–important work–with the energy they work up through their public statements.

      Only *after* we “mete out justice”, whatever that may ultimately be, can we “allow it to inspire people”. We don’t want to “maintain this momentum”, because so far we have one young man dead and no legal action. We must reverse the momentum first, and passion is one of our best tools to do so. If you go around saying “I hate racism” but aren’t indignant at a racially charged killing, it’s not clear at all where you actually stand on the racism issue.

      As far as the National Review article in question, I would love to see those figures on murder and gun violence controlled for socioeconomic status, but they are also slightly beside the point. What would be more relevant are data on murders or attacks in which there is evidence to suggest race was a motivating or exacerbating factor.

  3. fig permalink
    March 28, 2012 5:41 pm

    Loved this.

  4. Jon Bonsall permalink
    March 28, 2012 8:21 pm

    Hey, man. Good post, but a couple of things caught my attention. One is that Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, is hispanic, not white. I would say that this complicates, but does not negate, the racial context of the tragedy. This seems to me to reflect a mix of wealth and racial prejudice, a situation in which affluent communities exhibit suspicion of outsiders possibly based on race, rather than one racial group exhibiting suspicion of another–although, that may be a factor, too. I don’t know what was going on in Zimmerman’s mind when he confronted Martin. On that note, while it is important to contextualize the event within broader issues of race, it is also important not to let that dissolve Zimmerman’s personal responsibility for what he did. From what I have read, he might have been eager to play-act as a police officer–we know that he studies criminal justice and aspires to become a cop. In other words, he may be trigger happy. We cannot say if another neighborhood watch volunteer, white or not, would have acted in a similar way, so we don’t know precisely how pervasive this prejudice is in this particular community. This goes back to the tension between personal responsibility and the pressure of social forces in producing events. I think there is a balance between these two things. Also, I don’t think that wealth is synonymous with whiteness, nor poverty with blackness, though poor black communities certainly face unique issues. Lastly, police did confiscate Martin’s gun.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: