After Trayvon, black families are angry. They should be.

July 30, 2013

It’s been 10  days since George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin. Although I was disappointed by the verdict, I don’t believe Zimmerman woke that day wanting to kill anyone. He’s another pathetic man who caused a needless tragedy with a gun in his hand.  We’ve seen that before.

I’ve been more horrified by Zimmerman’s race-conservative defenders than I’ve been by the defendant himself. Their post-trial reaction suggests amazing social distance from African American communities. Many Americans don't understand what’s happening in minority communities, or why many residents of these communities are so angered by this verdict.

Harold Pollack
Rally for Trayvon. (Harold Pollack)

That same lack of familiarity informed widespread fears that there would be rioting — a danger some claimed was heightened by President Obama’s measured but critical reaction to the verdict. Such fears misread the vibe of black communities, and overlook the positive cathartic impact in these same communities of hearing the president of the United States calmly express what many people were thinking and saying at home.

Last Saturday, I stopped by Chicago’s "Justice for Trayvon" rally downtown. A few thousand people filled Federal Plaza to see the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Reps. Danny Davis and Robin Kelly, the Rev. Michael Phleger and other local notables. Dozens of similar events took place throughout the country.

Maneuvering within the throng, I found a good spot and was about to snap a picture when a beefy hand thwacked down on my shoulder and rested there. I swiveled to stare straight into the chest of a conspicuously large man in a white tee and White Sox cap: "Professor Pollack, how’s it going?" he asked. He’s one of the violence prevention workers I’ve met around town.

A few far-left organizations hung around the periphery. One guy from Chicago Anonymous walked the crowd in an unnerving Guy Fawkes mask. Another group raised a sign: "Break with the Democratic Party of Imperialist War and Racism!"  For the most part, though, these onlookers were politely ignored.

From the rally. (Harold Pollack)
From the rally. (Harold Pollack)

A police helicopter hovered overhead. A few dozen bored cops hovered nearby, too. The only time they were needed was to help one woman with heat stroke. The event was serious and calm. Maybe that’s why coverage was relegated to a short, page-25 story in the Trib.

The cursory coverage was unfortunate. Many people would have learned something if they had seen it. They would certainly have heard much about the disproportionate rate of violence committed by and against African American youth.

Many conservatives are claiming that black leaders choose to downplay these problems. "Black-on-black crime widely ignored, say African American activists," blares one headline in the Daily Caller.  Rich Lowry put things more sarcastically in Politico:

Let’s not talk about the 90 percent of black murder victims killed by other blacks. … Why should we get worked up about something that happens on the streets of Chicago literally every night? If you are bothered by routine slaughter, sadly, you just don’t get it.

Bill O’Reilly spent much of last week delivering impassioned "talking points memos" on this theme. As Foxinsider.com put things, O’Reilly "tackled the race problem facing America and the lack of leadership by the president to solve these issues." Confronted with social pathologies such as high rates of violence, "the civil rights industry looks the other way or makes excuses," O’Reilly says. "When was the last time you saw a public service ad telling young black girls to avoid becoming pregnant?" He hammered away at the (genuinely juvenile and misogynist) hip-hop lyrics of Lil Wayne and others. O’Reilly then harangued the head of the venerable National Urban League to "Stop the BS!...on Black Crime."

O’Reilly’s comments could hardly be more distant from everyday life in minority communities.  Stern messages of sobriety, personal advancement and moral uplift are pervasive at school, on talk radio, in churches and at after-school youth programs. Ironically, some of the most emphatic messages against violence, teen pregnancy and school failure are delivered by people such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Minister Louis Farrakhan and others outside "The O’Reilly Factor's" usual demographic.

Youth violence may be the most talked-about issue in black America today. It’s a rite of passage for prominent black leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama to speak at length regarding this problem. Whatever politically correct code might once have constrained the discussion is well behind us. How could things be otherwise, when violence is such an intimate reality?

Such leaders talk about crime policy differently from outsiders, not least because they are more likely to feel obligations to the people most affected by punitive criminal justice policies. Yet if they place more emphasis on anti-poverty measures and social services, and gun control, this hardly means they care any less about the crime happening in their own communities and to their own constituents.

Banner at Chicago's rally for Trayvon Martin. (Harold Pollack)
Banner at Chicago's rally for Trayvon Martin. (Harold Pollack)

I asked Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, about these issues. He noted that the NAACP has always supported "swift and certain prosecution," and has sought to increase police clearance rates for such crimes. He also noted the NAACP’s support for community watch, the Brady Bill and assault weapons bans, work of local NAACP chapters seeking to avert violence by "meeting with gang members and trying to steer them in a different direction away from gang life:"

We’ve seen the issue of black-on-black crime as a scourge on our community for a long time…  WEB DuBois recognized these problems in the early 1920s. [But] this issue is being raised the way it is now to distract attention from the obvious racial justice problems in the Zimmerman case.

We also know, from the work we've done, that poverty is a major purveyor of violence in our society. Violence is at its heaviest in poor communities regardless of race. And we know that our members are disproportionately poor.  Averting crime, for us, is also the work we’ve done to create more jobs.

I posed similar questions to Rev. Jesse Jackson. He, like Shelton, noted that most crime is intra-racial. He also noted economic hopelessness as a key factor in promoting crime:

In 31 cities, unemployment among black males is above 40%. In six cities, it’s above 50%. Add that to the arrest pattern, with 500,000 blacks arrested a year for marijuana, which wrecks your record for the rest of your life. … Can you imagine if whites faced a 40% unemployment rate?

Jackson scoffed at the idea that he has ever downplayed black-on-black crime: "We were marching in the community with Father Phleger against the violence last Friday." Sure enough, a moment’s Googling yields a 1984 headline, "Jesse Jackson decries black-on-black crime," a 2012 headline, "Jesse Jackson rallies to stop black-on-black carnage," and many similar entries in between.

Asked whether the Martin/Zimmerman case received disproportionate attention, Jackson responded that "Trayvon is the canary in the coal mine. He is a symbol of a national pattern:"

Because of the history of racism, there’s something about white-on-black crime that has the impact of arousing fears and anger and hurt. It’s Oscar Grant in Fruitvale in Oakland. It’s Diallo shot forty times in his doorway in New York. It's Michael Mineo …  It’s Stephon Watts, a 15-year-old autistic kid. … We’ve had 57 police shootings in Chicago, 93% black and brown.

Various sympathetic accounts of Zimmerman’s apparent racial profiling sound even stranger. Richard Cohen wrote in this newspaper:

Crime where it intersects with race is given the silent treatment. … It is, like sex in the Victorian era (or the 1950s), an unmentionable but unmistakable part of life. We all know about it and take appropriate precaution but keep our mouths shut.

This might seem superficially street-smart. It’s actually rather crazy when applied to a 17-year-old whose main suspicious behavior was to be tall, strong and black heading home from the convenience store.

Of course, young men of color are responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of crime. The grim statistics do not undermine a basic truth. Everyday fears of black youths  reflect much ignorance borne of social distance, and vastly exaggerated fears of their individual criminality. My neighborhood is filled with young men who faintly resemble Trayvon Martin. They are my daughters’ classmates, the kids shooting baskets in my driveway.

Many of us walk around believing that we are in much greater danger than we are. So we are much more frightened than we need to be. Chicago is reputed to be a tough town. Our annual homicide rate among non-Hispanic whites is actually three per 100,000. That’s less than one-fifth the risk of death in an auto crash.

I spend much time in low-income minority neighborhoods affected by crime and violence. I try to be careful, and I’ve had some scary moments. No one has placed an unfriendly hand on me in 20 years.

When I wandered Chicago’s "Justice for Trayvon" rally, I saw surprisingly few youths who might resemble Trayvon Martin. I saw many more people who might have been Trayvon’s parents or his older siblings. From the podium and in the crowd, people angrily noted experiences of teenage sons being profiled by police or facing everyday suspicions in their daily lives.

These middle-aged parents are not rioters; they are not to be trifled with, either. Some are frightened by what could happen to their son or daughter in some tragic misunderstanding on a street corner. Others simply resent having their precious children continually viewed by others through the lens of their potential for violent behavior. They are angry. I can hardly blame them.

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He is a nonresident fellow of the Century Foundation.

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