Commentary: The Myth of White Innocence and Black Guilt

The Trayvon Martin tragedy shows we aren't living in a post-racial era.

Posted: 04/02/2012 10:06 AM EDT
Keith Boykin on Trayvon Martin, white innonence and Black Guilt

Well, I'm glad it's finally in the open now.

 

For 40 years, from the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 to President Obama's election in 2008, many Americans believed they lived in a post-civil rights era. It was a time when white Americans, and some Blacks, pretended that widespread racism had magically disappeared because of the passage of civil rights legislation from the 1960s.

 

Now we can finally put that theory to rest.

 

The level of overt racism expressed by some conservatives about the Trayvon Martin case suggests we still have a long way to go. After completely ignoring Trayvon's death for weeks and complaining about the excessive media attention focused on it, conservatives switched gears last week and quickly identified the real evil villain in the case — the Black leaders who are exploiting Trayvon's tragedy for their own benefit.

 

The conservative New York Post went so far as to dredge up a previously unknown Black conservative pastor from a small town in Texas and slap his comments on the front cover of their newspaper as an "NAACP leader" attacking Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson as "race hustlers."

 

To keep the momentum going, George Zimmerman's father told a Florida TV station that the real problem is not that his son shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old kid, but rather the "hate coming from the president, the Congressional Black Caucus, [and] the NAACP" in an effort "to get notoriety or profit from this."

 

Meanwhile, conservative sites like The Daily Caller, The Drudge Report and Breitbart.com have engaged in a ruthless and relentless campaign to demonize and vilify Trayvon as a foul-mouthed, gang-banging, drug-dealing, weed-smoking, candy-stealing thug. His death has become just another opportunity for the overzealous right to attack and silence the usual suspects on the left.

 

For the record, even if Trayvon had been all those things, Zimmerman never could have known it, and it still would not justify the killing of an unarmed teenager walking down the street with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. And, similarly, even if Zimmerman were, as his supporters say, a former altar boy who mentored Black youth and never had a racist bone in his body, it would not negate the mistaken assumption he made that Trayvon had no legal right to be where he was the night he killed him.

 

Facts, logic and reason will never satisfy some people. In a world that is rapidly changing demographically, their rage is rooted in perpetuating the simplistic and mythical narrative of white innocence and Black guilt.

 

In this conservative fantasy narrative, white racism ended eons ago with the collapse of segregation and bears no impact on a modern society aspiring to be "color-blind." Racists are reductively defined as hood-wearing, cross-burning Klansmen, and all those who have wisely learned to disguise or bury their bigotry are absolved of any culpability for a social system that still disproportionately benefits them at the expense of the people they once oppressed. The real victims, according to this narrative, are the Zimmerman family, Police Chief Bill Lee and everyday white citizens, who are once again forced to listen to publicly aired complaints from African-Americans.

 

President Obama may share little in common with Trayvon other than his skin color and his gender, but that, it turns out, is enough in America today, where Black males of all ages and levels are still required to prove they have a right to occupy traditionally white spaces, from selective college campuses to competitive workplaces to exclusive gated communities.

 

Many questions remain about the events that transpired the night Trayvon was killed, but one question will never be answered to the satisfaction of some conservatives. When conservatives took the unprecedented step of challenging the authenticity of the president's birth certificate, they were essentially asking him the same unanswerable question that George Zimmerman, in so many words, asked Trayvon Martin the night he was killed in a non-Black space: "What you doing here, boy?"

 

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