Trayvon, Race and American Democracy

The irony of our history is that the further we move from discussing race, the more racism festers.

Protesting the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Trayvon’s death, just like Emmett’s, can be traced back to skin color, although prosecutors purposely avoided race throughout the Zimmerman trial. The irony of our national history is that the further we move from discussing race matters, the more institutional racism festers, like a cancerous tumor, on the American body politic and our national conscience. More than one year ago, President Obama, in one eloquent stroke, humanized this tragedy through the simple acknowledgment that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon.” 

In 1963 while languishing in a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of the civil rights movement transporting America back to “those great wells of democracy” that were dug deep by the nation’s founding fathers. But the architects of American democracy peacefully co-existed alongside chattel slavery and institutional racism, a circumstance that many continue to ignore and deny and over which King’s soaring rhetoric at times glossed.

Recognition that racism distorted and disfigured the nation’s democratic hopes and dreams proved fleeting, even after the Civil War and Reconstruction, only gaining substantive traction during the postwar civil rights movement. This movement proved both triumphant and tragic enough to jump-start our last national conversation about race, one that starred presidents and civil rights leaders, ex-convicts and priests, welfare mothers and literary critics.

An honest and historically informed conversation about race and democracy in America requires an unflinching look at our nation’s recent history and a more complex understanding and appreciation for the achievements and shortcomings of the civil rights movement’s heroic period. That period spurred an unfinished revolution that helped integrate public schools, end Jim Crow in public accommodations and secure the vote for African Americans.

But these historic victories were countermanded by racial violence, economic insecurity and the emergence of what Ian Haney López calls “colorblind” racism, which touts an “end of racism” mythology while stubbornly ignoring widening racial inequality. The postracial euphoria that greeted Barack Obama’s election helped promote an unearned celebration and narrative of racial progress that is upended by the ordinary reality of black life in America.

President Obama’s post-verdict statement asking Americans to engage in “calm reflection” fails to pass the muster of presidential leadership at this crucial moment in history. John F. Kennedy’s June 11, 1963, nationally televised “race speech” eloquently addressed the fact that individual reflection about the moral crisis of race in America required political action. Kennedy forcefully repudiated those who counseled for patience and delay, noting that a century had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation and yet the heirs to those who experienced slavery remained in bondage.

Lyndon Johnson praised the Aug. 6, 1965, passage of the Voting Rights Act as having removed the last shackles of that ancient bondage that Kennedy had addressed two years earlier. Do we now live in a nation where only white presidents can offer bold and effective leadership on race matters?

A half-century later, the Supreme Court has inexorably weakened the Voting Rights Act with its recent Shelby decision, and more black men populate federal, state and local prisons than during the March on Washington. President Obama’s failure to robustly address the fact that negative racial disparities have proliferated in the aftermath of his watershed election is a kind of moral cowardice that is unfitting any president, regardless of race, and made all the more tragic since he is the nation’s first African-American president.

Civil rights protesters have rightfully condemned the system that allowed a young black boy to be killed because of his race, but have been too reluctant to demand justice and moral and political leadership from the single most important figure in contemporary American politics — and the symbolic and elected head of our democracy. A fitting tribute to Trayvon Martin’s legacy requires the courage and tenacity, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s heroic example, to speak truth to power, even at the cost of criticizing the sitting president, whom many blacks still regard as the culmination of King’s dream.

Trayvon’s death offers definitive proof that we have not crossed over into a postracial land less bound by race. This painful acknowledgment may be the first step on the long road toward racial justice and democracy in the 21st century.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that in the George Zimmerman trial, it was the prosecution rather than the defense that “tapped long-standing negative stereotypes about black men that date back to antebellum America.”

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton Fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. He can be reached online at Follow him on Twitter.