Since America can’t seem to let go of the Trayvon Martin case, let me share an exchange with a reader that involves not the particulars of the Sanford incident, but some of the thoughts it inspired.
A number of people complained when I ran the cartoon above in Sunday’s paper, including a local reader who called it racist. Have you noticed that any acknowledgment of differences between the conditions and experiences of blacks and whites is suddenly being denounced as “racist” by conservatives? Did a memo go out on that? Anyway, here’s what my friend wrote:
“With respect to the cartoon, my kids always remember to floss. Instead, I remind my daughters that, as Buchannan notes below, if a crime is to be committed against them, it’s many times more likely to be perpetrated by black boys than anyone else–whether they chew skittles or not. Isn’t black behavior the basis of much to do about race? Why not raise some questions about this elephant in the room?”
He attached a column by Pat Buchanan detailing high crime and incarceration rates by minorities, which Buchanan has been citing as an excuse for racism since his days in the Nixon White House.
I replied to my friend that I hoped he wasn’t telling his daughters to watch out for black boys, to which he took great offense. He pointed out that Jesse Jackson had said he, too, quickens his pace when he sees black teenagers behind him on the street at night. Jackson said it with regret, as should we all.
Some situations are more dangerous than others, but consider the statistical argument Buchanan and my friend used. Blacks are more likely to commit crimes than whites, so people are right to be afraid whenever they see a black. But if you buy two lottery tickets you are more likely to win than if you buy just one. It does not follow that you should start running up charges on your credit card before the lottery number is drawn – winning the lottery is still highly unlikely. By the same token, the chance that any black male picked at random is a violent criminal is still small, and the chance he’ll attack your daughter is even smaller. Rationally, your fears are not justified by statistics.
Now look at the result of those irrational fears. It may seem only prudent, given the statistics, to follow the black kid around the store or lock your car door when you see a black man on the street. But Barack Obama, Cory Booker – and just about every other black male I’ve discussed it with – has experienced that from the other side, and felt the sting of presumed guilt based on skin color. There are worse outcomes to expressing unjustified suspicion than planting a small grievance in the head of a future president or future New Jersey senator: the same suspicion helped cost Trayvon Martin his life.
Some people would like to deny the reality of those experiences, but what good does that do? I’m not a big fan of “national conversations about race,” but belligerently ignoring America’s historic scar doesn’t seem right either. All parents worry about their kids. Black parents in particular worry about black sons, who can fall victim to a wide range of cultural pathologies, most of which can’t be directly tied to white racism. The jury’s verdict in a particular ambiguous Florida case may be the spark that reignited those concerns, but the issue is bigger than politics, and bigger than the Zimmerman verdict.