On February 18, 2009, less than a month into President Obama’s supposedly postracial presidency, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder commemorated Black History Month by declaring America “essentially a nation of cowards.” The reason: “We, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. .
. . If we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.” Holder’s words left many commentators flabbergasted. Too little discussion of race? Race has long been our national obsession, a pastime more widely followed than football (which itself regularly gives rise to racial conflagrations) or Oprah Winfrey (who’s never averse to fanning the flames). Liberal commentators refuse to shut up about race; college students have it pushed in their faces from the first day of orientation to the de rigueur pieties about “diversity” and “social justice” at graduation; most every Fortune 500 company has instituted policies aimed at hiring and promoting minorities, and woe to those recalcitrant managers who adhere to more traditional standards of merit.
Holder’s invocation of Americans’ supposed cowardice on racism was most notable for its timing. He spoke at what was understood everywhere to be a celebratory moment. Even most of us who’d strongly opposed candidate Obama, shouting ourselves hoarse that his policies would be disastrous, were gratified by what his election said about the citizens of this great land: that easily bamboozled as we can be, we are not bigots. That though parts of our country abandoned legally sanctioned bigotry a mere two generations ago, we have traveled farther, faster, than once would have seemed possible, embracing true racial tolerance—which is to say, indifference to skin color—more deeply than any other people on Earth.
Yet clearly this was not the message some in administration circles took from Obama’s election, and certainly not the one they wanted Americans to hear. For the world as they see it to make sense, racism must be ever-present, since it’s the all-purpose explanation for every problem that minorities in America confront. It soon became apparent that this was the thinking Holder brought to his own vital department. Rarely has the attorney general hesitated to snatch up the nearest available race card—from his startling decision early on to drop a case that his predecessors had already won against members of the New Black Panther Party for intimidating white voters at a Philadelphia polling place, to his claim that criticism of himself and the president over the disastrously botched Fast and Furious program was “due to the nature of our relationship and, you know, the fact that we’re both African-American.”
Which brings us to the Trayvon Martin case. From the outset, mainstream coverage overwhelmingly reflected the narrative on contemporary race relations that Holder and other prominent liberals hold dear: one relentlessly focused on white racism and black victimhood. As the story went viral, the media consensus was close to unanimous: 17-year-old Martin was murdered essentially for the crime of being a black kid in a hoodie walking in a white neighborhood, and his racist killer was getting off scot-free. “Rallies Across US Demand Justice,” ABC News summed it up. It is evidence of how firmly this version of events took hold that when, early on, Jesse Jackson likened Martin to Emmett Till—the 14-year-old black boy slaughtered in 1955 Mississippi, whose smirking murderers were acquitted in an hour—the appalling comparison went all but unchallenged.
In fact, over the first few days, as the media covered march after march and rally after angry rally, those less inclined to jump to judgment prudently held their peace, lest they risk an accusation of condoning murder or blaming the victim or (for of course this was implicit) being soft on racism. But then those stubborn things, facts, began to emerge, and suddenly the story was no longer so clear. Far from the classic racist, George Zimmerman turned out to be a guy with black friends who tutored black kids on weekends. Equally damaging, he was half-Hispanic—or, as the New York Times hopefully called him, clinging to the white-racism line, a “white Hispanic.” Nor was the dead boy necessarily as angelic as he’d been portrayed—partly by the ubiquitous photo taken when he was just 12. According to the Miami Herald, he’d been suspended from school three times for possessing marijuana residue, scrawling “W.T.F.” on a school locker, and having in his backpack, which was searched by a school security guard, “women’s rings and earrings and a screwdriver, described by the staffer as a ‘burglary tool.’”
His supporters furiously countered that such revelations were no justification for what befell him—and that’s absolutely true. No one in his right mind would suggest that the killing of Trayvon Martin is anything less than a tragedy or that his past has the remotest bearing on the events of that night. Nevertheless, the new information helped start a different and very vital conversation, one that goes well beyond the specifics of this one terrible case. For it began to shift attention toward a subject liberals have long sought to define as illicit—the degree to which real-life experience shapes perceptions on race.
For those in the streets, defining George Zimmerman—and the society that produced him—as racist not only fosters anger and a sense of ill-use, it offers the comfort of an easy answer. It is a lot harder to confront, and ultimately deal with, the reality that there’s a valid reason why a black teen in a strange neighborhood is likely to arouse greater suspicion—and, yes, fear—than a white one: he is far more likely to be up to no good. Indeed, the statistics that have emerged again in recent days—blacks are roughly 13 percent of the population but responsible for more than half of all violent crimes; young black men commit murder nearly ten times as often as their peers of other races—are startling and sobering, even to many who thought they knew how bad things were. Among the most harrowing numbers of all is that, according to the Department of Justice, homicide is the leading cause of death for black males between 15 and 34. Nine of every ten black murder victims are killed by other blacks.
If the outcry over the killing of Trayvon Martin has served any useful purpose, it is to have brought some attention to what young black predators are doing to their own communities. As the story evolved, it became possible to ask: Where’s the public outcry about that? National Review editor Rich Lowry, in an especially poignant piece, listed a number of recent murders of young blacks in their gruesome particulars, calling them “the murders that don’t count.” “If Martin had been shot by a black classmate,” he rightly observed, “if he had been caught in a random crossfire, if he had looked at a gang member the wrong way, his death would have been relegated to the back pages of the local newspaper. Not a cause, not even a curiosity: Just another dead young black man. Nothing to see here. Please, move on.”
No one disputes that it’s humiliating to be judged a miscreant for the color of your skin. But to begin and end the conversation there is a grotesque disservice to those for whom liberals so tirelessly profess compassion. At this juncture in our history, racism as the all-purpose answer is a delusion and a trap. If as a society we are ever seriously to deal with why, in this freest and most prosperous of nations, so many minorities continue to lag so far behind economically and educationally, or why rates of criminality in the inner cities are so appallingly high, we have to begin with a commitment no longer to turn away from hard truths. That means, for starters, focusing less on racism and far more on culture—the values that too often hold sway in those inner-city communities. Such a conversation would address children having children, kids raised without fathers, attitudes about education, work, and accountability, and a great deal more.
Admittedly, given how effectively the racism charge has been wielded as a weapon by those who’d bitterly resist such a national dialogue, it is hard even to imagine such a thing occurring. Then again, the fight for welfare reform that ultimately nudged millions from dependence toward personal responsibility and what writer Daniel Akst calls “the aristocracy of self-control” was also long and ugly. It finally succeeded because enough decent people concerned about the well-being of the country realized that it had to, and so were willing to take the heat.
Holder and others who cling to today’s rotting hulk of a civil rights establishment are increasingly an anachronism, for all their moral posturing standing as an impediment to genuine racial progress in this country. For them, the possibility of losing white racism as an issue—as a weapon—is intolerable. It would be bad enough if this were purely a cynical tactic to arouse other true believers in the base. But it’s not: they truly believe it, facts—and the possibility of a better life for those suffering in the inner cities—be damned. They have become what they despise, their mantra a tragic twist on George Wallace’s as he stood in the schoolhouse door: “Racism now, racism tomorrow, racism forever!”
Harry Stein is a contributing editor of City Journal. His new book, No Matter What . . . They’ll Call This Book Racist, will be published this month.