I was not present that evening in Florida, so I don’t know what happened. I was neither present in the jury room with the six jurors nor was I in the courtroom where I could see the reactions of witnesses and other participants. I did not even watch the trial on television or the internet, and only gave a passing thought to what the media presented or friends, colleagues, and acquaintances discussed. All that I can state with confidence is that one young man died as a result of a gunshot wound, and another man perhaps 10 to 15 years older than the victim fired the weapon which inflicted the fatal injury.
One life physically ended that fateful night, and the lives of those connected with both of these men changed. Those people with connections to both men rightfully demanded answers as to what occurred, and the media along with many in the general public began conducting a trial in the court of public opinion.
Nothing changed when the trial moved from the court of public opinion to one of bricks and mortar. We all know how court proceedings should take place. The jurors, peers of the accused, are presented with evidence which is in essence placed upon a balance scale which teeters precariously from one side to the other as each item of evidence allowed admissible according the codes of law in place gets placed on this apparatus. The laws differ with location and offense charged, so sometimes the jurors only seek to discover a preponderance of evidence or a noticeable tip the scale and at other times it is necessary to have the scale shift to a degree beyond all reasonable doubt. Justice is blind, so they say, and conviction or acquittal relies upon the final angle of the last check of the scale with all the evidence positioned in its proper location.
Justice may in fact be blind. It may not be capable of visual sight. Being blind, however, does not mean that one is incapable of seeing. Often when people lose one sense, they gain a heightened acuity in their other senses. It may not compensate completely, but smell, sound, touch, can afford a realm where someone who is blind may in fact see more than someone who still has visual awareness.
Was justice served? To some yes, but to others no. Myself, I don’t know because like I wrote I was not there at the time, and I did not avail myself to look at or qualify any of the evidence. Mr. Martin is dead and that is a tragedy. Mr. Zimmerman fired the shot which killed Mr. Martin, and Mr. Zimmerman will have that remain with him for an eternity. That fact is not a burden that I would enjoy having to carry with me for moments let alone a lifetime. Both men suffered, albeit differently. One had his life cut short, while another lives with that fact. Whether the outcome is justice, I’ll defer to others to cast that judgment.
To restate for clarification, it is not my intent to discuss the events which took place the night Mr. Martin lost his life. I’m not discussing rationalizations for or against “Stand Your Ground” type laws here. I’m not discussing the decision rendered by the jury of not guilty in reference to Mr. Zimmerman. I was not there, and I do not have any information upon which I could render a judgment that might rest comfortably in my own mind as being the just decision.
My observations and assessments here relate to the proverbial “race card” which for many is the most powerful theme in both the tragedy of the loss of life, the trial, the verdict, and now the aftermath of that verdict. As a Professor of Southern History and sadly more as a human being many assertions being tossed out by self proclaimed “conservatives” and “liberals” disappoint, no honestly disgust me. Seriously, despite what the partisan sides want to believe about themselves and others, both sides have basically morphed into one in terms of attitudes and actions. When you look at many positions essentially it now seems that accusations such as “indoctrination” no longer refer to the advancing of a particular agenda. Apparently indoctrination now means that an ideology other than your own is also being presented. One set of thought is acceptable and sadly desired as long as it complies with your own position.
Both sides select factoids that are applicable to their argument and discredit any legitimate collection of data upon which to base their stance. In the days when “conservative” and “liberal” described differing opinions, one would typically accuse the “liberal” of factoid reliance because ignorance allowed for greater governmental control. Today, however, you often find the “conservatives” trying to limit information and studies to obtain data. George F. Will in his 14 July opinion piece “Know thyself, America” closed with a profound observation: “…if conservatives do not think information about society—the more the merrier—strengthens their case, why are they conservatives?” The answer in my opinion is that they are not “conservatives” and no different from an earlier example given in the same piece of President Obama’s State of the Union Address where he presented an argument for early childhood education with unsubstantiated dollar cost estimates. I think most would agree that the quicker a child is introduced to the educational world, the opportunity for success is more probable than if the child is introduced years later, but do we have the data for absolute cost effectiveness?
How does this apply to Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman? What does any of that have to do with racism?
Do you want a formal academic definition of racism, or can we simply generalize the term to popular perceptions? Is it one of those “isms” where you might find it difficult to pen a concise yet clear definition but instead rely upon an actual legal principle of you might not be able to define it, but you certainly recognize it when you see it?
I’m adopting the second position in regard to this piece, as I want everyone to consider their own opinions on what constitutes racism. I will, however, provide a basic definition of another term at play, profiling.
Profiling: Recording a person’s behavior and analyzing psychological characteristics in order to predict or assess their ability in a certain sphere or to identify a particular group of people.
I defined that term to clarify that I am arguing that profiling is a conscious cognitive process to separate based upon predetermined criteria. I’ve written before that for many people and this applies both historically and today, profiling is regarded differently depending upon whether you are the one being profiled or you are the one conducting the profiling. I cannot say that I agree with profiling as a final answer to an issue, but used within limits it can be beneficial in identifying a specific pool which can then be pared down by more specific and often time consuming methods.
For example, consider a scenario where I’m in the process of trying to fill an appointment for a 1 year visiting assistant professor with the job listing specifically stating the professor will teach primarily survey sections. The position is available because a long time faculty member needs to take leave to help care for a spouse about to undergo a series of surgeries. The professor will continue to work with graduate students, and I already have members in the department to take over the upper level courses and graduate seminar the professor would have taught that academic year. If everything goes according to plan, my long term faculty member returns the next academic year and hopefully the need and funds are available for me to keep the visiting professor if he or she does not find a tenure track position.
With the search, we are going to begin with some basic profiling of individuals applying. First, we check if the applicants have submitted the necessary material which lists the qualifications for the position. About 10 percent of the applications might be culled from that initial profile. Then the committee begins reviewing the remaining applications in more detail and ranking those which they believe to be superior. Meetings, discussions, and possibly arguments will create a smaller pool which is then scrutinized further. Ultimately, I’m hoping that a few applicants stand out on paper where we can then begin verifying their credentials and checking recommendations. If all goes well, of the 200 applicants I can invite 3 or 4 to campus for an interview, teaching demonstration, and if applicable a research discussion. Then we decide who or sometimes if we will offer the position to an applicant to accept or decline. Do we always get the individual best qualified for the specific position and the person who will succeed far and beyond what you hoped because of how well they interact within the school and become a part of the community? Of course not, but since it is people dealing with people the system cannot be perfect.
In the above example, profiling is a tool which if used with care and thought can serve a useful purpose. If the tool is overused or used incorrectly, however, the potential and the likelihood of damage will escalate accordingly.
That’s one of the complexities with racism when viewed from the perspective of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America. To reference back to “Know thyself, America” by George Will, here is something which apparently “does not matter” in terms of historical presentation by either “conservatives” or “liberals” because the deeper one delves the politicizing of events for truly partisan political purposes results in more than enough dirt to bury both agendas.
The following is an oversimplification of historical events, but they are for the most part accepted by historians of the period. When a self-proclaimed “conservative” website received something similar in response to an article labeling the Democratic Party and the President as the once and always racists, the reaction of the commentators to the information presented below consisted of the “attack the messenger” vitriol. When another website which labels itself as “liberal” received the same information in reference to an article which argued that the United States has at best reverted back to Plessy v. Ferguson, the commentators remained silent.
I began those commentaries by stating that in my opinion any attempts to isolate or associate racism or segregation from a historical standpoint to a singular group of political party merely exacerbates misunderstandings today. (Keep this statement in mind because later it might appear that I contradict myself, but I do hope the difference becomes clear).
The Post Reconstruction South was a single party as the “conservative” suggested. Only the Democratic Party existed in the region but that was a response be it justified or not to the Radical Reconstruction Acts and carpetbag and scalawag rule. For many Southerners of this time-period, the Republican Party pushed for Federal control over these defeated individual “states” as evidenced by Radical Reconstruction. For some race played a major factor, but just as many focused on the belief in State’s Rights.
Additional 19th century segregation measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, Black Codes, and other Jim Crow laws were Southern Democrat in origin, but the disenfranchisement state Constitutions in the South during the 1890s followed a political power threat from the Populist Party expanding from the Midwest. Imagine what might happen to the existing political hierarchy if the poor white and the freedman joined together politically? In classroom settings, I typically have students read of the Farmers’ Alliance Movements, and which 2 branches of the 3 primary ones had the most interaction and collaboration.
There is no denying that the South did in fact practice de jure segregation under this Democrat Party rule. The North with both Republicans and Democrats, however, were not much different with its practice of de facto segregation. In terms of ways of life, the primary difference was that the Great Migration of the freedman and his or her descendants did not occur until following the Great War or World War I. Therefore, population numbers based on race are still skewed.
A point that both partisan sides ignore is that the old KKK of William Bedfort Forrest had died out. In 1915, a new KKK formed under the direction of William Simmons. While many often associate this reformation with the film Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, the new KKK opposed more than race. Anti-Semitic feelings and opposition to Roman Catholics were dominant. Actions against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe became violent and rampant in industrial areas in the North and Midwest. This KKK was not 100 percent Democrat or strictly southern based. Many of the leaders of this new group were in fact Republicans. For example, Edward Jackson, the elected governor of Indiana, was a public leader of the Klan.
The Post WWII period saw both Republicans and Southern Democrats opposed to Harry Truman’s desegregating the Armed Forces, and his pushing for the Fair Employment Commission. This support pushed the Party split on domestic issues with J. Strom Thurmond becoming the “Dixiecrat” Presidential candidate in 1948. Some locations did not place Harry Truman on the ballot. Thurmond technically was still a Democrat when he filibustered in the Civil Rights Act of 1957 even though he had endorsed Eisenhower in both 52 and 56, and in 1954 won reelection as a write in candidate only to resign and then force a Democratic primary election which he won. At the time, it was impossible for a Republican to win office in the South as the Democratic primary was the election which mattered. Even though it was a “Solid South” with only the Democratic Party, each state had its own de facto 2 Party system with different factions of the Democratic Party. When more Civil Rights pushes began in the still one party South, Thurmond officially became a Republican in the 1960s.
Some try to counter with Robert Byrd and his admitted membership in the KKK. Byrd did in fact act as a major participant in the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Strom Thurmond did as well even though he now sat on the other side of the aisle.
It’s hard to disprove that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 votes for and against were more along regional lines than any Party lines. You also have that impossible to quantify effect of the assassination of President Kennedy on the votes cast upon the Floors in each Chamber. LBJ, a Democrat, signed both pieces of legislation into law, and even Robert Byrd voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
My position to both the “liberal” and “conservative” articles was that the issues of racism and segregation from Reconstruction to the present should not be argued from a political party position. The South only had Democrats. Truman, JFK, and LBJ were Democrats who promoted or signed major pieces of Civil Rights legislation into law. IKE was a Republican who promoted Civil Rights issues. If anyone today tries to make our country’s post Reconstruction period Civil Rights issues the fault or the credit of a particular political party, the evidence is simply not there. Even if one does not want to accept that political parties change platforms during a period of time, just look at the make-up of Congress and the last time the Republicans Party controlled both Chambers. That would be the Congress sitting in 1930, and as far as the House is concerned many of you might remember the attention given to Newt Gingrich as Speaker since he was the first Republican to hold that position since the Honorable Joe Martin in the 80th Congress. Regions, State’s Rights, and Federal Power stances are far easier to argue from a historical perspective. When you consider that for some David Duke was the face of the Republican Party in Louisiana during the breakup of the Solid South, it should make you think that party affiliation on the issue mattered far less than the individual.
Obviously in my opinion racism did exist in the United States of America, but does it still exist today?
When looking at mainstream United States, and by mainstream I mean the majority of individuals within a couple of standard deviations from the mean and not outlying data points on the fringe, I would argue that the practice of racism has changed significantly from let’s just say the period following the 2nd World War. I honestly believe that most people would not accept actions and beliefs by individuals of earlier generations such as a Bull Conner in Birmingham or a Leander Perez back home in Louisiana. We would feel uncomfortable seeing separate restrooms and facilities with admission dependent upon the pigmentation in one’s skin.
I would hope that as human beings that we have moved beyond events such as the murder of Emmett Till. While some try to frame the death of Trayvon Martin in the same picture of Emmett Till, I find the comparisons apples to oranges in many ways. Both young men lost their lives, but apart from race the variables are too different to equate one event to the other.
In commenting on the existence of racism in the United States today, I think a few disclaimers are necessary. My skin color is white. I was reared in rural Livingston Parish, Louisiana, and attended integrated public schools K through 12. I can honestly pass a modern “proof” test of not being racist by stating that I did and still have many friends who have black skin color. For some I think that so-called “proof” actually sways some people.
Now I can get lagniappe points on the modern “proof” test because not only do I have friends of a different race, I have worked alongside many of these friends out in the fields and other manual physical labor. I’ve also worked alongside many in the world of shirts, ties, and jackets. I’ve been a visitor to their homes, and they to mine. We have broken bread together on many occasions and at different locations.
At a wedding with approximately 200 guests, I was the only white person in attendance. There is a side story there in that I was friends with the groom and knew his parents well. His Dad had retired as a Professor of Speech and Communications and was gracious to share his professional experiences to assist me in my own career. His wife loved me because I was the only person who liked garlic in my food as much as her, and the lady regarded cooking as art. The bride lived in the same town, but she had many elderly family members and wanted to be married by her Uncle in his church which was approximately 200 miles away. The bride and groom decided to have the wedding near her family, and then have a reception in the town where she and the groom lived. Most people on the groom’s side simply decided to go to the reception so the wedding consisted almost entirely of the bride’s family and their neighbors and friends.
I became involved because the groom’s older brother was to be his best man, but his flights were delayed. Initially, I had only planned to attend the reception, but I wound up standing in for the best man at the rehearsal and was prepared to fill that role during the ceremony. At the wedding, however, the groom’s brother arrived just as the ceremony began, and he and I did a quick switch with me moving to sit next to his Mom and him moving to stand alongside his brother. At the ceremony, I did sense some extra eyes on me as I appeared different from the others in attendance. Being part of the wedding party until the “real best man” arrived accounted for some of the attention. Still, I might have been made more conspicuous when the Professor introduced me to guests as his eldest son, and joked about my being the “white sheep” of the family. In all seriousness, though, I was not treated any differently than anyone else in attendance that day.
I do know people who have experienced the opposite, and that is not limited to either race. It does depend upon the people involved. With that I believe another variable is at play. That variable is if you or someone you know has experienced any negativity because of race. When you think about it honestly, it’s true of everything. If you or someone you know has been hurt by anything, it is reasonable to have a heightened fear that event may and can happen again. I think that is natural.
Well I hear people point out that slavery ended in 1865, and the days of Jim Crow and the height of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s and 1960s are over. Those points are valid. We have progressed from where we were 150 years ago and even from 50 years ago. A person of my generation can present an honest and legitimate position that we can learn from the past, but we can also learn to let the past rest. The reality, however, is that we have a vast number of citizens old enough to not just remember but who experienced the discrimination and that height of the Civil Rights Movement personally.
I’ve probably conducted about 200 hours of oral history interviews with people directly involved in the events of the 1950s and 1960s where the primary topic was Civil Rights. In addition, specific events such as the integration of specific schools, service at various public venues and facilities, participation in school and community events including athletics, and politics of the era are portions of several hundred more hours of oral history interviews regardless of primary topic. Civil Rights is something that cannot be isolated from other happenings in society.
In all of these interviews, I can count the number of times that I encountered animosity or where I even felt like I was under some microscopic examination using the fingers on a single hand. Men and women who had been physically beaten for things as outrageous as entering a restaurant by the public front door instead of going to the back displayed no negativity to me asking questions about their experiences and remembrances. With additional research, I discovered that more often than not, these individuals actually downplayed some of the violence they encountered. The impression left on me was one where they wanted the events and attitudes to be remembered, but remembered to honor sacrifices and not to hold any grudge.
Of course the children and grandchildren of these individuals would hear the same stories. Unless you were a part of the generation who experienced the segregation and the feelings, it is virtually impossible to comprehend. Most of my generation and younger generations have not lived in similar circumstances here in the United States. I believe that contention is credible, and I also believe that despite the progress someone with my skin color cannot fully comprehend what it is like for someone with a black skin color.
I know several people want to label me with that statement and argue that position in itself is a major cause of division today in that I seem to argue different standards for whites and blacks on what they feel and perceive. What I’m doing, however, is making an explicit observation involving a conscious cognitive process. My argument is that instead of these explicit observations, racism and profiling have delved more into implicit reactions.
These implicit reactions are often unconscious, fast, and effortless cognitive processes. In other words, we are influenced by initial impressions and often do not even realize it. Scholarship in history in many ways does not acknowledge these implicit reactions or initial biases. In Political Science, however, the amount of scholarship using dual process accounts of social cognition is growing. In the July 2013 issue of Political Science and Politics, Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz and James Hedrick who are doctoral candidates at Rice University write:
The implicit system is called “associative” because the individual is learning, largely outside of conscious awareness or control, to associate in memory the attitude object and the evaluation. By contrast, in this model, explicit attitudes are formed through a deliberative process that takes into account the perceived truth or falsity of statements and uses those to adjust prior beliefs.”
With the above in mind, please listen to this discussion on CNN and the statements made by Levar Burton:
Honestly, I never thought about being pulled over on the highway by law enforcement in that manner. I know several individuals in law enforcement, and a “routine” traffic stop can be one of the most dangerous activities they perform in a given day. They have to be cautious because they do not know the individuals in the vehicle that has pulled over. These perceptions are not limited to skin color.
Consider this question: Does physical size unknowingly alter our perceptions regardless of the effort we make to prevent explicit reactions?
I was a graduate student teaching my own sections for only the second semester. One of the students was a star football player. Standing about 6 feet 3 inches and weighing about 280 pounds of solid rock, he was a physically imposing individual. Before returning to school after earning my MA degree, I worked for this young man’s uncle to push for some state legislation to assist wounded veterans. The nephew was highly intelligent and was among the best in the class when it came to discussing positions. On the first exam, I had some multiple guess questions, and he was the only member of the class to answer all correctly. The two essay questions on the exam he left completely blank. The omission was intentional, and I felt clueless.
I spoke with my teaching mentor, and he said that he had met the young man earlier in the week when the student met his girlfriend following a committee meeting. The girlfriend was a graduate student like me and served as a student representative for engineering students on the committee. There seemed to be no logical reason why someone who spoke as well as he did in class, had a well educated uncle to whom he was very close, and a doctoral candidate girlfriend should fail a freshman level history course.
To cut to the chase, I made it a point to strike up a conversation with the girlfriend at a campus wide graduate student event later that day. She and I were talking outside when my student walked up to take her to dinner. I stood on some bricks which formed the border of a flower bed, and got into the face of this giant young man about why he “refused” to write on the essay. We actually wound up shouting at each other, but instead of swatting me like the mosquito I was, he sat on the ground. Because he was a large athletic black football star, teachers at his old high school simply passed him. Nobody ever required him to write, and he was embarrassed to try.
He agreed to meet with me, my teaching mentor, my major professor, and his girlfriend to discuss writing. His girlfriend and I coached him. I had him write outlines for his essays and said to just use simple sentences and not to worry about his writing being much simpler than his ability to answer the same question verbally. He began to improve, and he continued to work.
It was the following Fall semester when I was walking to the library when suddenly I found myself elevated about 4 feet off the sidewalk. I had been snatched by the defensive lineman who wanted to show me his English composition paper. Of course the paper was in his book bag, so he shifted me around to sit on his other shoulder and pulled out the paper marked with an A grade. Along comes his girlfriend who acknowledges me up in the air and asks to look at the paper. As I passed the paper down I comment about being let down from my height, but she replies that her little brother is always up on her boyfriend’s shoulder. Of course, her little brother had played linebacker for Grambling and Coach Eddie Robinson. I just sat quietly while they talked about his paper, and then one of them said something about lunch and they started walking toward the student union. I spoke again, and he looked up and said sorry Mr. R. I forgot I had you up there, would you like to join us for lunch? I said sure, so he tossed me up into the air while he adjusted his book bag and caught me on my way back down before gently lowering back to the ground.
That season he injured his Achilles tendon and learned that a real possibility existed of being unable to walk if he suffered a similar injury. He could still play football and most likely would have still been drafted high if he had played his senior year. The NFL no longer mattered to him. He played football because of his talent, not because he loved the game. He graduated with honors and became a teacher and counselor at his old high school. His goal was to prevent others from being able to slide by because people misjudged them because of their physical size and athletic ability.
When I first saw him my initial perception was this guy is a lot bigger in person than he looks out on the field. When he first spoke in class, I was shocked about how articulate he was. That shock faded when I learned about his uncle. Then, I encountered another shock with the failure of that initial exam. After our shouting match, however, his actions never shocked me because he had become another student and not a 6 feet 3 inch 280 pound mountain of solid granite.
These implicit observations occur with practically anything. We may have progressed beyond the segregation and racism of the past. Whether we intend to or not, we still have these implicit perceptions of who and what people are. In that manner, racism most certainly exists today. Bringing the subject up should not be considered as an attempt to divide and separate. The topic should be one to foster discussions and collaborate on ways to solve many issues facing society today. Instead of division, acceptance of being different in some fashions and similar in others should be about unification.
Are we still too hardheaded to understand that some things have to be different because we are all unique, but being different does not always make one thing inferior and the other superior? Just try to make a generalization about any subject, and then see how quickly you think of exceptions. Is it just me or have you also noticed that people who hark on race or other differences usually accuse someone else as being the one trying to divide and make the situation emotional?
What amazes me is how you can take a group of young children with different skin colors and speaking different languages and place all in a room with a ball. If left alone, more often than not, you will return to see all playing some type of game with that ball. They find ways to communicate.
As we grow more mature, I guess the explicit and implicit processes interrupt that communication.
On the subject of racism, here is a recommendation for a source which you may find odd until you view it. The setting is supposed to be the 1950s, but the action took place in the 1970s. The television show was called Happy Days. The episode was number 14 of Season 1 and premiered on 23 April 1974. The title was “The Best Man.” The description for the episode on IMDB reads:
“1950’s racial intolerance is explored from both sides of the aisle after Howard Cunningham is asked to be best man at the wedding of a black, former army buddy.”
The year of filming was 1974, the characters represented middle class America in the 1950s, but how much addressed in this episode still exists in 2013? Racism has changed, and I will say that we are better as a society, but it still exists. For some it may not be conscious, but for everyone and everything we all have unconscious perceptions, both accurate and false, whether we are willing to admit to them or not.
The verdict in the Zimmerman trial may not have been based on race. The death of Mr. Martin and the actions of Mr. Zimmerman that fateful night may or may not have been about race. If it was, we can’t really know if it was explicit or implicit in origin. The aftermath and public reaction from both sides, however, are about race. The loss of one life and disruption of another seems overshadowed by arguments about race. In the meantime, others of both races are still victims of violence. My question is why aren’t we in uproar over that sad fact? Many issues can be solved, but the process will not be easy or pleasant. Those seeking the spotlight will have it through hard work and not merely by speaking words to flame emotions.