“I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”
Geraldo Rivera didn’t mean what he said. No one with half a brain could intentionally make such a stupid remark while posing as a news commentator on the national media (except, perhaps, for Rush Limbaugh, who presumably does have that much gray matter and has proven he can and will make just about any asinine comment).
Rivera’s remark may well have been intended to be sympathetic to the young 17-year old whose death has become at least as noteworthy a national issue as whether the Supreme Court will find the Affordable Care Act constitutional. Instead, it revealed a level of insensitivity that raised questions of bigotry in the eyes of some.
I don’t think Rivera is a bigot, but his comment does frame a meaningful question, to wit: is racial bigotry entirely distinct from racial insensitivity?
Of course, we are just talking about words here, so let’s not get too hung up on the relative pejorative aspects of the labels. But the Martin killing has brought race back into the national consciousness like nothing since the election of Barack Obama. Everyone, seemingly, has an opinion on the cause and meaning of the young teen’s death.
But before getting to what those opinions and reactions might indicate about those who have them, let’s recognize an important fact that almost everyone, in their haste to adopt one perspective or another, has conveniently overlooked: No one but the killer knows what actually happened leading up to the shooting.
Yes, there is some evidence of what had transpired up to a minute before it (the conversation between Zimmerman and the 911 dispatcher; the statements of Martin’s girlfriend of their conversation). But as to the actual killing itself, the record is essentially void of details.
So, while what evidence there is may suggest it entirely unlikely, it is conceivable that Trayvon did become the aggressor in an altercation with Zimmerman and may have punched him in the nose, causing Zimmerman to fall to the ground, and that Trayvon then appeared to Zimmerman to be preparing to continue his assault with violent fury, which led Zimmerman to fire his gun at him.
That scenario may describe what actually occurred, and if something like it did occur, then under Florida’s “stand your ground” law (a separate issue that definitely needs to be explored but is not under consideration here), Zimmerman would have been acting in lawful self-defense when he killed the teen.
But here is another fact that cannot be ignored: Had the roles been reversed, to wit: had the young black teen shot and killed the older white male and claimed the “stand your ground” self-defense, he would not have been released on the strength of his own testimony and declared free of guilt.
And it is that hard fact that leads to the question I posed earlier.
In today’s America, some people regard groups of individuals who have immutable characteristics as either inferior or undeserving of equal treatment. In common parlance, these people are called bigots. Their bigotry is evidenced by their attitudes and their actions. They speak ill of the members of the disfavored group and they do things with regard to members of the disfavored group that are intentionally hurtful of members of the group.
If the bigotry is of a group of a different ethnic race, we call those people racists. And there is evidence of racism in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and evidence of racism in the reaction of the local police force to the killing.
But what of the likes of Geraldo Rivera, whose grossly insulting comment was certainly hurtful of the parents and loved ones of Martin and of the racial group that he was a member of?
Insensitive, we say—spoken insensitively, to be more specific. (We can’t say thoughtlessly, because in this instance Rivera clearly had given the matter considerable thought, to the point of relating it to his own children, he says.)
And, of course, it was insensitive, but of what level of intent was it born?
If a person makes an insensitive comment in negligence, he or she may quickly recognize the insult and appropriately apologize. Such mistakes are usually forgiven because they are deemed innocent of bad intent.
But what of comments (or actions) that are not so easily dismissed as merely negligent? What of comments or acts that flow from a basic ignorance of the other person’s circumstances or of the other group’s history? Are such comments and acts merely negligent or are they evidence of something less easily dismissed? Are they, indeed, akin to manifestations of the innate prejudice that is at the heart of all bigotry?
So, here’s a little test you can take if you are game. I offer it only to point out how easy it is to claim insensitivity in lieu of bigotry.
How did you react to the news of Trayvon Martin’s killing? Was your first reaction to think negatively of the victim or of the killer? And if you thought negatively of the victim, what led you to that reaction?
And when you heard the early details that seemed to suggest that racial bias had motivated the killer, did you find yourself in agreement with those suggestions or did you object to them? Did you, indeed, find yourself making (or looking for) excuses or justifications to legitimize the killer’s action? Were you defensive of the Florida law that he claims as his defense?
Taking it one step further, do you have a sense of what it might be like to live the life of a black person in America today? Do you understand what it must be like to be continuously wary of how you appear in public? Or of how your actions might be perceived by non-blacks in positions of authority?
Are you aware of the reality of being black in America, even now in the age of Obama, or are you, in your ignorance, insensitive to issues of race?
Most of us pass this test with flying colors. And some of us tell ourselves that we do. We may occasionally be insensitive, but that’s not the same as racial prejudice, is it?