Off the Cuff: May 2012

Race-baiting and the Trayvon Martin tragedy

In their hysterical push to make the Trayvon Martin killing proof that racism is still very much alive in America, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, along with their media partners, had lofty goals. This tragic shooting has revealed a great deal, finally, about racial tension in this country—though it’s not exactly the message the ever-present, entrepreneurial Jackson and Sharpton intended.

We have all recently learned that how we speak about race in America is dishonest and tired and guilt-ridden and outdated. Our racial dialogue has also made a mockery of a young man’s untimely death. Trayvon Martin’s shooting immediately became useful—especially to the media and Jackson and Sharpton and their band of race-baiters. Almost no one has had the guts to stand up and say how shameful that is.

There are, though, a few audacious voices. Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of White Guilt and other books. His voice among black leaders and intellectuals is distinct not only for its insight, but in how he’ll take on the conventional narrative on race that we revert to again and again. Last month, Mr. Steele wrote about Trayvon Martin’s killing in the Wall Street Journal:

The civil rights community and the liberal media live by the poetic truth that America is still a reflexively racist society, and that this remains the great barrier to black equality. But this ‘truth’ has a lot of lie in it. America has greatly evolved since the 1960s. There are no longer any respectable advocates of racial segregation. And blacks today are nine times more likely to be killed by other blacks than by whites.

“If Trayvon Martin was a victim of white racism (hard to conceive since the shooter is apparently Hispanic), his murder would be … a bizarre exception to the way so many young black males are murdered today. If there must be a generalization in all this—a call ‘to turn the moment into a movement’—it would have to be a movement against blacks who kill other blacks. The absurdity of Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton is that they want to make a movement out of an anomaly. Black teenagers today are afraid of other black teenagers, not whites.

What’s more, pandering to America’s racist past, as the media is so willing to do, simply throws more gasoline on the outdated divide between whites and blacks as oppressors and victims. This is horribly counterproductive. In Philadelphia, there are more than 300 murders a year, mostly, as Steele points out, blacks shooting other blacks. So why is the national story on race that my colleagues trumpet straight out of Mr. Jackson’s old playbook? Because white guilt—not to mention the risk of being branded a racist—is a powerful inducement to follow the safe groupthink on race. Besides, it still sells.

Shelby Steele concurs:

After the ’60s—in a society guilty for its long abuse of us—we took our historical victimization as the central theme of our group identity. We could not have made a worse mistake.

“It has given us a generation of ambulance-chasing leaders, and the illusion that our greatest power lies in the manipulation of white guilt. The tragedy surrounding Trayvon’s death is not in the possibility that it might have something to do with white racism; the tragedy is in the lustfulness with which so many black leaders, in conjunction with the media, have leapt to exploit his demise for their own power.

I agree with Shelby Steele. And I think the shame of the Trayvon Martin tragedy lies in how few voices are willing to deliver the message that it is high time we move on, instead of pretending that it is still 1968 in America.