The city of Sanford, Fla. had already contributed a paragraph to the narrative of race relations in America decades before Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman were born. Jackie Robinson, in the midst of his long and difficult path to breaking baseball’s color barrier, was booted from the ballpark in Sanford for the offense of being a black man in a white stadium. As a local historian puts it:
“While playing in Sanford, Florida, Robinson singled, stole second base, then scored a hit run only to find the Sheriff waiting on him in the dugout with handcuffs. He was removed from the game.”
67 years later, Sanford is a much different place. Formerly a steamboat port dependent on the citrus trade, it is now a cosmopolitan bedroom community for Orlando, which sits 20 miles to the south. Sanford is not quite the Southern hamlet it once was, as U.S. 17/92 now bypasses the quaint downtown area to get tourists to the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens or to the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Auto Train. Interstate 4 carries thousands of daily commuters within a half-mile of the Twin Lakes gated community where the Martin shooting took place.
I do not know whether or not George Zimmerman suspected, accosted and shot Trayvon Martin because he was black. The words that pundits have spoken, written and yelled before, during and after the trial have been based on speculation. Zimmerman himself is the only one alive who really knows what happened. Those who were convinced of his guilt before the trial are angry that he was acquitted. Those who were convinced of his innocence before the trial feel vindicated.
Regardless of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, the trial has exposed what blacks in America have known all this time: racism is alive and well in this country. We cannot dance around the issue any more.
Americans make the mistake of identifying racism as a personality trait, creating an imaginary dichotomy between those who are “racist” and those who are “not racist.” Being called a racist angers people because they take it mean that they are being lumped together with Nazis, Klan members and other undesirables. However, identifying racism as a trait not only creates labels (which is kind of how we got to racism in the first place), but it also misses the point. Missing from the racism debate is the very Christian notion that it is not “racists” who are bad, but racist thoughts and actions.
To understand the history of race in this country, we have to go to its source: the trauma of slavery. We are so far removed from the era of legalized slavery that we can sanitize it as an academic concept. Textbooks have terms like “peculiar institution,” “slave states,” “free states” and “abolitionism,” which provide the objective descriptions of what happened, but miss out on the horror of a social and legal system that put one race of people under the brutal subjugation of another. And since it was so long ago, so foreign to our modern sensibilities, it is hard to process that slavery was a broadly accepted reality for nearly a third of our republic’s history. Slavery is not just an exception to the story of American liberty, it is a part of our national identity, whether we choose to face that reality or not. African Americans started out in our nation as a second class, considered higher than the animals but not quite human, either. They had already been lapped in the race long before the starting gun sounded at Lexington.
Add to that the sad reality that Jim Crow held sway over African America for nearly a century after the Civil War. Freed slaves returned to their plantations as sharecroppers, free to leave but denied the economic ability to do so. The right to vote granted by the Fifteenth Amendment was blocked by intimidation, poll taxes and other nullifying effects. Segregation, endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, reminded blacks that the whites in power still wanted to keep them in a position of inferiority. It would be decades before any worthwhile legislation addressed injustices committed in the name of race.
It wasn’t until after World War II that change seemed to be on the horizon. Robinson successfully broke baseball’s color barrier. President Harry S Truman integrated the military. The Supreme Court overturned Plessy, and ruled that segregation of public places is unconstitutional. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the reins of a movement that was instrumental in the passage of sweeping civil rights reforms.
But the work of the Civil Rights Movement was never finished, and the distance to those events on the timeline grows greater. The Civil Rights Era was recent enough that we can still talk to people who were there. But they will not be around forever. 50 years after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the Civil Rights generation is aging. Soon, if not already, we will have a new set of sanitized terms that exist to us only on paper: “segregation,” “integration,” and even “civil rights” come to mind.
We cannot let that happen. We cannot view the March on Washington or the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as events that ended racism in this country, because they did not. Though racism is not considered acceptable today by society, racism still exists.
When we insist that racism is dead because people like Colin Powell, Jay-Z, Maya Angelou, Charles Barkley and Barack Obama have succeeded in life, racism still exists.
When we look at the tragically high numbers of impoverished and incarcerated black people in this country and fail to take responsibility for the social and legal structures that got them there, racism still exists.
When we drive past a street named after Dr. King and reflexively lock our doors, racism still exists.
When we hear about a black driver who was pulled over by police offers because he or she seemed out of place in an affluent neighborhood, and respond with, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should have no problem,” racism still exists.
And when we fail to see the injustice of a black teenager being treated with suspicion because he is a black teenager, racism still exists.
Let us leave George Zimmerman alone. Hauling him back into court for a civil rights charge will not bring Trayvon back. Threatening Zimmerman or his family will not bring Trayvon back. But unless we start talking about racism in the present tense instead of the past, we can expect more and more Trayvons in the future.