As debate rages over the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, it is important to remember that the initial outcry was not based on the sense that George Zimmerman was obviously guilty. Rather, it was based on the sense that authorities confronted with the body of another young, black man had not even taken seriously the possibility that his white shooter acted unjustly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was quick to point this out in a post Sunday. But yesterday, while concluding that the verdict was on the mark legally, Coates cast the Martin story in the American tradition of virulent, and violent, racism. He makes a strong case, but in my view, the more pernicious force undermining our justice system today – the one highlighted in the initial reaction to the Martin killing – is a subtler one. It is our callous, even malign, indifference to the fate of young, black men.
We acquiesce to the killings of young, black men every day – killings generally perpetrated by other young black men. When national leaders have discussed the violence afflicting our inner cities, it has generally been in a shrill tone aimed primarily at exploiting the problem, not solving it. For the most part, however, we have delegated responsibility for this crisis to stricken cities and their police. Even in the brief moment when we actually had a national conversation about gun control, the focus was on weapons of mass murder – not on the simple steps we could take to stem the mundane but far more lethal flow of illegal handguns into crime-ridden communities.
Likewise, we are only beginning to have a national conversation about mass incarceration. Prison has become a routine experience in the lives of young black men – more like a coming-of-age ritual than a shocking deterrent. As Steven Teles and I have argued, that conversation is currently being led by conservatives, who are slowly waking up to the many ills of our prison system. Injecting race into this conversation will complicate it substantially. But it is an issue the reformers will inevitably have to negotiate as they seek to build broad left-right alliances to shrink the American prison-state.
Trayvon Martin’s fate was noticed. What about the others?