Channel Surfing With White America: Racism, George Zimmerman and the Power of Denial

This essay was originally published as “White America, the George Zimmerman Trial, and the Power of Denial,” at

And now, back to what really matters.

The Royal Baby is overdue. When will Kate deliver?

And Honey Boo-Boo is back! Oh Thank God, and with a scratch-and-sniff insert in People magazine and Us Weekly, which will allow viewers to experience the olfactory sensation of Mama June’s prodigious flatulence. Awesome.

What’s that you say? Black America is still grieving the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, and the sense that racial profiling of young black men has yet again been given the stamp of approval by most of white America? Well get over it already! Didn’t y’all hear Ted Nugent explain black folks’ reality to black folks the other day? Didn’t you hear him explain that Trayvon Martin was just a “dope-smoking,” “gangsta wanna-be,” and that racism against blacks was “gone by the late 1960s?” I mean, seriously, why can’t black people focus on what really matters, like Mad Men, or the fact that Kellie Pickler just got a new dog, or the fact that Adam Levine is engaged and got down on one knee to propose, because that’s, like, incredibly rare and unheard of, and thus, real news.

What’s that you say? The Supreme Court just pared back the Voting Rights Act, making it easier for states with a long history of electoral racism to once again throw up obstacles to the franchise if they so choose? Well of course. Because racism is over. Because John Roberts said so. Oh, and Ted Nugent (did I mention Ted Nugent?) And Rush Limbaugh who thinks it’s OK for him to say the n-word now.

That America is a nation divided is so cliche by this point as to be almost entirely banal; and yet here again, in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, the depths of that divide have been laid bare. And it’s not just — or even mostly — the racially disparate ways in which whites and blacks view the verdict itself. Although that divide is quite real, more disturbing is the utter inability of much of white America to accept that race had anything at all to do with the case, or with Zimmerman’s decision to follow Trayvon Martin that fateful night.

It’s one thing, after all, to look at evidence in a criminal trial and come to different conclusions — especially when claims of self-defense and confusing jury instructions are involved — but quite another to reject, out of hand, the lived reality of peoples of color: a reality that tells them, based on experience (not to mention the quantitative data) that suspicion all too readily attaches to young black men, irrespective of their behaviors.

That Zimmerman initially suspected Martin because of the latter’s color is incontestable to reasonable people. In fact, the defense all but admitted as much by using previous break-ins in the community (which they made sure to note had been committed by black males) so as to justify their client’s decision to follow Trayvon. So to say that race had nothing to do with the case is to add insult to injury. It is to say to black people that they are hallucinating, stark raving mad, or so weak-minded as to be incapable of evaluating social reality — their own social reality — and thus, are easily manipulated by smooth talking “race hustlers” who get paid to make racist mountains out of innocent little molehills.

Because we cannot imagine the possibility that perhaps it is we who are making the molehill out of the mountain.

And so we change the subject and get angry at black America’s unwillingness to go along with the deflection.

So we bring up “black on black crime” which is an inherently telling formulation seeing as how we don’t refer to the crime that mostly affects us as “white on white crime,” even though it’s two-and-a-half times more prevalent, numerically, than the black-on-black equivalent.

We castigate civil rights leaders for focusing on racism — ya know, a civil rights issue — while not (in our minds) paying enough attention to black folks’ misdeeds. But this is like blaming Mothers Against Drunk Driving for not talking about the far larger number of people who die from not wearing seat belts. Not to mention, if the fact that “more black people were killed last year by other blacks than have been killed by the Klan” (another point that Brother Nugent thinks important), actually meant it was wrong to focus on racism and anti-black discrimination by whites, then the entire civil rights movement was unjustified even in the ’50s and ’60s. Because black folks have always been more likely to be killed by other black folks than the Klan, just because that’s who black folks are most likely to be around. So what? Does that mean the fight against Jim Crow was misplaced?

Of course, this is pretty much where white America has always been: namely, in denial about the reality of racism in the lives of black folks.

So even in 1963, almost two-thirds of white Americans told Gallup that blacks were treated equally in their communities in regard to employment, housing and education. And in 1962, 94 percent said black children had just as good a chance to get a good education as white children. That these delusions are seen as such a half-century later doesn’t change their meaning for us today. What they tell us is that white folks — even when racism was blatant in this country, even before civil rights laws were passed, and even when we were a formal apartheid system — refused to face the truth.

So why would anyone assume that a people who have proved ourselves incapable of evaluating even the most basic realities of the nation’s racial drama — and even when those realities were incontestable — have suddenly become good evaluators of when racism is operating and when it’s not? And that people of color, who have always known that something was wrong (and have always been right in that assessment) have suddenly lost their minds and become incapable of intuiting their own lived experiences?

So long as white America, writ large (with exceptions duly noted) continues to channel surf, literally or figuratively, when matters of race explode in the news and national consciousness — something we have done forever and always, and long before anyone had heard of Reverend Sharpton, by the way — we can hardly feign outrage or surprise at the anger and frustration evinced by black America in the face of our steady refusal to stare truth in the face, let alone to learn something from it.

Comments are closed.