Trayvon Martin’s parents tell us that they do not wish to make race an issue in trying the man who shot their son — but it already is. They know, as should we all, that were this a black-on-black shooting, or a white-on-white one, or even a black-on-white one, this would not be national news.
And so we proceed as if we were walking on eggshells with far too many of us unwilling to be candid about what we are witnessing. Consider the issue of profiling.
The prosecution wished to be able to impute Zimmerman’s motivation to racial profiling, and thus to demonstrate that the shooter was a racist.
The judge, however, would not allow this. She has permitted the district attorney to use the term “profiling,” but not to link it inextricably with race. This, however, is turning out to be a distinction without a difference because the prosecution is doing all it can to plant the idea of racism with the jury.
Nevertheless, was Zimmerman profiling — and was this a moral transgression? It seems to me that the defendant was indeed profiling, yet this was the sensible thing to do. Under the circumstances it was something other whites would have done. It is also something a neighborhood-watch black would have done.
Let us remember that Zimmerman was on the outlook for potential criminals in a neighborhood that had been victimized by crime. Let us also understand that young black men are disproportionately responsible for crime. I am not talking about 6 or 7 percent more, but 600, 700 or 800 percent more.
Most blacks, to be sure, are not criminals; still when we are seeking to identify dangerous individuals, we must be on the alert to indicators of what we are trying to determine. Youth and race are such indicators. Whites know this, and so do blacks.
By now it is also common knowledge that blacks frequently use the N-word among themselves. Having worked with many black colleagues in Harlem and the South Bronx, I witnessed this first hand. As a consequence, I learned that the term is often used to designate someone as low-class, dangerous and/or vulgar.
Blacks do this because it is important for them to know whom they can trust and whom they cannot. With so many of them living in neighborhoods where crime is rampant, were they to refrain from making distinctions they would find themselves unnecessarily vulnerable.
Nonetheless, whites are asked not to note such differences. It is almost as if in having ancestors who victimized blacks, they are being asked to allow themselves to be victimized so as to compensate for those misdeeds.
The irony of this policy is that it runs counter to the goal of reducing discrimination. Discrimination occurs when we treat people differently because they belong to a particular social category. As such, solely handicapping whites contradicts our goal of universalization, i.e., of applying the same standards to all.
Indeed, if whites are required to abstain from profiling where blacks are concerned, they are being required to discriminate. Because they must treat blacks differently, they must make certain to notice differences in skin color. They cannot simply regard all of us as equally human.
And so when a young black man in a hoody is seen walking where no one should be walking, are we to demand that a white observer be artificially stupid? Is he not to notice what anyone who was merely being fair would notice? Must we then castigate him as a bigot and insist that he be punished?
How does this advance the cause of improved race relations?
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.