“Should the Africa-American community be focusing on black-on-black crime and the carnage in our inner cities, and not on George Zimmerman?”
Chris Wallace said that a few days ago on Fox News. But you could pull a similar question from a range of sources. The sentiment is widespread these days–a common refrain from that portion of the American populace seeking to retake the moral high ground from those outraged that a grown man can follow an unarmed black teenager in the dark, shoot him when the fight isn’t going his way, then walk out of a courtroom free.
It’s a dumbass question, but the only way to defeat it is to answer it.
The first thing to note about this question is that it’s built on a false premise. Anyone asking some version of “Why is there outrage over Trayvon yet no outrage over any of the other black kids killed by members of their own race?” or “You know Trayvon, but can you name any of the victims of black-on-black violence?” is projecting their own ignorance and apathy on the subject of inner-city violence. Because anyone paying attention knows that there is constant outrage over “the carnage in our inner cities.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates settled this more than a year ago with a blog post called “Why Don’t Black People Protest ‘Black-on-Black Violence’?” He wrote it in response to Fox Newsman Juan Williams asking, “Where is the march” for “all the other young black murder victims?” Coates goes on to list seven recent examples of marches and protests and rallies against black-on-black violence.
In some neighborhood here in New York, there is an anti-violence march every time somebody gets shot and killed. In Jamaica, there was a march for D’aja Robinson. In Far Rockaway, there is an annual summer basketball tournament in memory of Rayquan Elliot. In the Bronx and Harlem, mothers who have lost a child to the streets hold anti-gun violence protests several times a year. In fact, there’s a rally in Crown Heights tonight.
But beyond the question’s false dichotomy (that protesting the Zimmerman verdict somehow distracts from black-on-black violence), the spirit of its point is closer to this: “Why is there more overt national outrage over Trayvon Martin’s death than the deaths of all those other black kids?”
The answer is race. Because, when you consider the historical context that President Obama discussed in his speech last week, race seemed infused in every bitter level of this whole thing: from Martin appearing “suspicious” to Zimmerman, to the police giving Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt on self-defense and not arresting him, to the county prosecutor not pressing charges, to one juror telling Anderson Cooper that “both were responsible for the situation they had gotten themselves into,” to the overall idea that a man can get let off after instigating a confrontation with then fatally shooting an unarmed 17-year-old 30 pounds smaller than him.
The outrage is not over Martin’s death, but over everything that followed it.
As Obama noted, “There is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws–everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” Rarely, though, does this disparity take center stage in our national discourse. Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal offered a high-profile example that the criminal justice system can work as it was designed to and still not bring justice. It illuminated the racial disparities that, over the course of American history, chewed up communities of color and spit out the seeds of black-on-black violence. It publicly displayed that “post-racial America” is a myth.
There is, of course, a chunk of the American populace that does not see it that way. And that, more than anything else, explains the outrage.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 23, 2013