The Trayvon Martin case has revealed as fallacies the memes of a "postracial" America and "post-black" identity. But that doesn't excuse the ridiculous amount of puffery and ego-tripping, as well as harmful stereotyping and merciless marketing, done in the name of justice for Trayvon — and done in defense of the man who killed him and of the law that so far has left Trayvon's death unprosecuted.
As the Trayvon Martin case has become the Trayvon media circus, the signal-to-noise ratio in our national conversation has degraded. But we can turn things around, in large part by managing our own fears and expectations.
Let me take you back a couple of decades. I was new to New York, and a friend and I were sitting in an outdoor café in a rapidly gentrifying but still edgy neighborhood. A black (to my eyes) waiter was wearing one of those shirts that read:
My friend was mixed race (black, white and Hispanic ancestry), often mistaken for white; I am black, with an African father and an American mother. Both of us could not talk enough smack about the shirt or what we assumed was the naïveté of the wearer. To us, his shirt seemed like racial pandering, an attempt to gloss over racial inequality with pop fashion.
Flash back to the present. After two decades as a reporter, and just being an American adult, I've learned that we are all what we are (black, white, brown … etc.), and yet we are all human. The murderers I've interviewed were human, as was a rapist and the perpetrator of a hate crime whom I tracked down at his church. The champions I've met — including Nelson Mandela and a white Southerner who stood up to his local Klan members in the '50s — are human, too. We're all human — a mix of fabulous and messed up.
People call flash points like the Trayvon Martin case "teachable moments," but to remix a line from a former president, "Is our adults learning?" Well, here are five things we can learn from the Trayvon case and the aftermath.
1. First, Do No Harm
There was no excuse for Spike Lee retweeting what he thought was the address of George Zimmerman's family. It was an incitement to vigilantism that sent a family (not the family of the shooter, mind you) into hiding. Lee has subsequently apologized. Let's be clear: Even if it were Zimmerman's family, providing any information that could lead to tit-for-tat violence is unacceptable.
2. It's Not About You; Really
Let's look at the broadly covered showdown between CNN's Piers Morgan and MSNBC contributor Touré. Part of Touré's "post-black" theorem is judge not (someone's racial authenticity), lest ye be judged. But he quickly leaped to the judgment that Morgan could not understand race. I guess "post-black" is good, but stereotyping people of other races is fine.
Touré is known for viral but tonally inconsistent tweets and a fair dose of self-promotion. Like Lee, Touré apologized — by Twitter, of course — saying, "I should not have gotten caught up in 'winning' the debate with Piers. I got caught up with 'winning' on some masculine bravado BS when my whole point has always been justice for this boy. I lost sight of that." So, apparently, have many others — in the media and the streets. Those who bring more heat than shed light are getting far too much attention.
3. Follow the Money
One of the basic tenets of journalism is to follow the cash and expose the manipulation of laws and justice. Although 21 states have "Stand your ground"-style laws, that didn't happen by chance or come from a grassroots movement. The National Rifle Association has lobbied ceaselessly (to the tune of $35 million annually) for concealed handgun and "Stand your ground" laws. In a perverse sense, they benefited from the election of President Barack Obama. Fear of a Black President sent gun sales through the roof.
On March 20, just weeks after Trayvon's death, a U.S. senator from South Dakota introduced Senate Bill 2213. Called the "Respecting States' Rights and Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act," it would permit people who have concealed weapons in their states to carry their concealed weapons anywhere in America. So much for states' rights, huh? The NRA also happens to have a concealed-weapons hoodie in its merchandising line. Keep it classy.
One of the best things we can do to honor Trayvon Martin's memory is to call out the laws, lobbyists and lawmakers that have increased the number of deaths of unarmed men, women and children. A lot of people have changed their social media avatar to Trayvon, a bag of Skittles or an image of themselves in a hoodie. Our country needs these people who can react instantly on social media to also plan ahead and vote in elections. And don't stop there. Engage with your lawmakers between and during elections, and track campaign contributions. That will help create a fairer and safer America.
4. Don't Live in Ignorance
People are more likely to perceive threats from crime — particularly interracial crime — than statistics support. Annual Gallup polls show that a majority of Americans now perceive crime to be rising, with just 43 percent believing that it was rising in 2002, but 68 percent believing the same thing in 2011. In fact, however, violent crime has dropped sharply and continually since 1994, when there were 50 victims per 1,000 Americans. Today, there are 15 per 1,000.
Add to that information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics: Between 1976 and 2005, 86 percent of whites were killed by whites; 94 percent of blacks were killed by blacks. Even in the category of murders by strangers, 75 percent of those people were killed by someone of their own race. Every death is a tragedy. But we can't get paranoid and crawl into the bunker. (Actually, scratch that: We can get paranoid and crawl into a bunker. But that's no way to live.)
Nor can we get fatalistic about the big picture. Just as perceptions about race and crime likely shaped the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the heated aftermath of the case may give African Americans in particular a sense that the country is more hostile and has achieved less progress than it has. Someone on my Twitter feed wrote to me: "blks R no better off than we were sixty yrs ago." Actually, we are — significantly, by measures from voting rights to income to health. Is it enough? No. Is it progress? Yes. Can we do more? We must.
5. Don't Live in Fear; Live Big
There is a different kind of "Stand your ground" at play when you explore a nation still as raw and unfinished as America. You must stand your psychological ground when you venture into territories unknown or unsafe. I remember once camping with friends in Joshua Tree, one of the most beautiful parks in this country, full of wonders. A group of white campers shot me sullen glares as I quietly passed them, perhaps because I was black. (Not being psychic, I couldn't say for sure.)
When I exited the park to buy some supplies and returned, the truck in front of me had a Confederate-flag bumper sticker. Not my favorite symbol. But the weekend was magnificent. While exploring the spindly Jurassic trees and climbing boulders, I met people of many races and nationalities, friendly rather than sullen or hostile.
Bottom line is, I pay my taxes, and I'm going to enjoy my country. Black, white, yellow, red or brown — we all deserve to live well, live safely and live free.
Farai Chideya is an award-winning author and journalist and a spring 2012 fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics. Follow her on Twitter.