It is customary in the wake of a major racial eruption to say that we Americans need to have a national conversation on race. Yet the fury surrounding the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin shows why it is so hard for us to hold that conversation.
The shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old has sparked nationwide protests and reignited chatter all the way to the White House about racial profiling, gun laws, hate crime laws and even the risks of wearing a hoodie sweatshirt, especially if you're a young black male outside after dark.
Among the few undisputed facts are these: Trayvon Martin was fatally shot on the night of Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who thought the black youth, walking through his gated community, looked "real suspicious." The teen turned out to be carrying nothing more sinister than a package of Skittles and a can of iced tea.
In the account Zimmerman gave police that night, which was later leaked to the Orlando Sentinel, he said that Trayvon had punched him and then repeatedly slammed his head into the sidewalk after they exchanged words in the moments before the shooting. Zimmerman's lawyer says his client was treated by paramedics at the scene for a broken nose and other injuries.
Police released Zimmerman, after he claimed he shot Trayvon in self-defense. The state's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law allows individuals to use deadly force against another person if they believe their safety or life is in danger. But in the released 911 calls, Zimmerman is heard deciding, against a dispatcher's advice, to follow Trayvon, whom he suspected was "up to no good." Sponsors of the controversial law say such pursuit would invalidate Zimmerman's "Stand Your Ground" defense.
Also, Trayvon's girlfriend says he talked to her on his cell phone just before his death. She says she heard an exchange of words between the two men and heard the youth get pushed to the ground.
Was Trayvon the one who was standing his ground? We have a judicial system to resolve disputes like this. A grand jury is scheduled to hear evidence on April 10. The FBI also is investigating to determine whether Trayvon's civil rights may have been violated,
We hear hints of Zimmerman's defense in his family and friends who have talked to reporters. In a letter to the Sentinel, his father, Robert Zimmerman, described his son as a nonracist child of a white father, a Hispanic mother and a multiracial family that included some black relatives. That doesn't mean he couldn't be racist, although it helps his case. If the alleged racial slur that many hear in an audio clip from his 911 call is introduced as evidence against him, he'll need all the help he can get.
All of which raises a larger question in this tragedy: How do you define "racist?" To some people, you have to be a cross-burning, hood-wearing Klansman to qualify. To others, any attempt to inject racial concerns into the public square is evidence of racism, judging by some of the mail I receive.
Conservatives in particular complain that they can't be candid about race with blacks or our white liberal allies without being guilt-tripped or accused of racism. I respect their complaint. We've all been invited to a "conversation" that turned into a one-way lecture. To avoid the guilt game, both sides have to relinquish some of their innocence. That's not easy, especially when each side sees injustice in the other.
Ironically, the election of the nation's first black or, if you prefer, biracial president has made it more difficult to talk about race. Newt Gingrich, among some other conservative commentators, even objected to President Barack Obama's mild acknowledgement of how the Florida case resonated with him personally. "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon," the president said. How can we deal with racism if we are so skittish about recognizing that race exists?
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com.(c) 2012 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.