What you see depends upon how you see.
The sad case of the death of Treyvon Martin has become only the latest template upon which the warring factions in our fractured culture write their narratives.
I was listening to Sean Hannity yesterday; I know, this is like admitting that I glance at the tabloids in the checkout line, a shameful thing. And I listen to right wing talk radio for much the same reason: it’s always a good chance to be appalled.
Mr Hannity loves to find two clashing ideologues and let them duke it out, while he occasionally interjects, volume button in hand, ready to turn down whatever side he disagrees with. I call it “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Radio”. So yesterday he set it up: on the one hand a white liberal reporter, on the other a black woman, a conservative prolife activist, a Republican. She was, I suppose, meant to defend the man who killed young Martin, but to Hannity’s consternation the two women were not in conflict about the shooting of the young man. The woman may have been a conservative, but she is also a black person in America and had firsthand knowledge of the indifference with which local police treat the lives of young black men. Why, she asked cogently, when there was a 17 year old dead in the street, was the shooter not arrested, or even taken downtown to the police station for questioning?
But what you see depends upon how you see. First reports spoke of a decent young black man, an athlete and good student, with hopes of college, walking home from a convenience store after buying candy for his younger brother. Later, someone dug up the apparent fact that he had been suspended from school (but not arrested) for possession of traces of marijuana. A photo appeared, claiming to be Treyvon, wearing a sideways ball cap and holding his hands in a gangsta sign.
I’m sorry, traces of marijuana and gangsta hand signs do not a thug make. I suggest that some of those trying to make that case check out their own sons’ Facebook pages. To suggest otherwise is like finding a photo of someone from the 60s with a hand held up in the “V” peace sign and saying “Look! A leftist!”
Sometimes such things may be fad or fashion, not necessarily conviction or criminality.
But the other narrative, that George Zimmerman, the shooter, was simply a racist, also bears scrutiny: black neighbors speak of him warmly, he evidently tutored minority students.
We may never know the details of what transpired that Florida night; after all, one of the main witnesses is dead. The survivor has his own tale of self defense, and claims that young Martin attacked him. This may be so, but in a cell phone call to his girlfriend, Trayvon speaks of a man stalking him. A 911 call from Mr Zimmerman bears this out, though he says that when the operator told him to stop following Treyvon he did so. True or not, it seems evident that both young Martin and Mr Zimmerman were in the grips of fear and suspicion. If Treyvon did attack Zimmerman, he may have thought that he was acting in self defense as well.
Fear and suspicion led Zimmerman to stalk Treyvon. Fear and suspicion led the black lad to be wary. No doubt fear and suspicion led to whatever confrontation that followed.
And fear and suspicion are driving the competing narratives that surround his death.
It’s heartbreaking when some tragedy like this appears and makes apparent the chasm that lurks just beneath the normal facade of American public life. We are in reaction mode at this point; the truth has become secondary to tribal conflict, fueled by warring stereotypes. Blacks are reacting to long experience of injustice and oppression. Whites are reacting to perceptions about young black men and, not least, to what they see as opportunistic civil rights leaders.
It is likely that however this pans out, no one will be satisfied, that this will prove to be just one more fraying thread in the unravelling of our nation.