During two weeks under Morocco’s sheltering skies, one loses a granulated sense of current American civil discourse. Sipping mint tea in the souks of Marrakesh, the world filtered through the International Herald Tribune, it appeared that Iranian nuclear policy, gas prices, and the health care challenge were sucking up American discursive oxygen. I was vaguely aware that a teenager had been shot in a small town in Florida, but across the ocean that seemed like a routine tragedy in a nation awash in firearms. Teens are often shot and often shooters.
Within hours of touching down at JFK, I learned that the killing (or, some insist, the murder) of Trayvon Martin in Deland, Florida, constituted that now-common spark that creates a blaze in the public sphere. As is so common when the insistent force of the image outruns mundane evidence, people were making forceful pronouncements, selectively parsing the facts of the incident. Trayvon was transformed from a Skittles-eating kid to a talking point. Anytime an adolescent dies, we should weep, but should we pounce?
As many have noted, from Attorney General Eric Holder on down, Americans have great difficulty – perhaps cowardice – in discussing the pathologies and the possibilities of racial contact. Even our president is palpably anxious behind his bully pulpit. So rather than discussing the broad structural challenges of race relations we often rely on idiosyncratic moments, often tragic ones: Bernard Goetz, the subway vigilante; the dragging death of James Byrd; the wilding attack on the Central Park jogger; and, of course, OJ. Now we discuss the shooting death of young African-American Trayvon Martin in a suburban gated community. Each of these instances is a rare and atypical moment, but they are magnified to reveal pervasive racial animosities and resentments. And frequently what we believe is at some remove from how the events evolved.
The jury is still out on Trayvon’s shooting, or perhaps with more accuracy the jury hasn’t yet been called in. But on that evening of February 26th, 17-year-old Trayvon, wearing a hoodie, was returning to his father’s home in a . . .