NPR reports that a poll shows a wide difference between blacks and whites about whether the Trayvon Martin case was about race. This is not new.  The wide difference between blacks and whites about the existence of racism or its presence in a given situation has shown up for all of the sixty plus years I’ve been alive.  Whites believe that without the intent of racism the act was not racist.  Setting aside for the moment whether an intent is racial or not, most African Americans decide whether an act is racist by the consequences rather than the intent. Even if the intent is not racial (or more commonly whites have rationalized the intent into the delusion that it is not racial) if the consequences affect blacks negatively they would label it as racial.

African Americans have a simple test.  If the races of the protagonists in the actions had been different would the consequences have been different? If they would then the act was indeed racist. Would Trayvon Martin have been pursued by George Zimmerman if Trayvon had been white?  Would Zimmerman  have felt in fear of his life if Trayvon had been white?  Would Zimmerman have shot Trayvon if Trayvon had been white? To the whites who support Zimmerman the answer would have been yes to all these questions.  They would argue that he was simply protecting his community and then himself. For blacks and some whites who condemn Zimmerman the answer to these questions would be no. They would argue that Zimmerman was himself responding to a picture of black youth as potentially criminal that permeates the media and popular culture. This is the image of Trayvon that his defense team apparently successfully conveyed to the jury.

The process of rationalizing intent as non racial is the subject of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism without Racists: Color Blind Racism and the persistence of Racial Inequality in America, which I recommend to all interested in this subject. In the book Bonilla-Silva shows that many whites believe unless someone shows personal prejudice holding racist views of the difference between whites and other groups (and many do) their actions cannot be called racist.  The fact that most objective studies verify the existence of racial inequality is attributed to history, failures on the part of African Americans, Latino or other non whites to get over historic racism, and systematic or structural racism for which no one is to blame. Any complicity (and most complicity is denied) they may have in these inequalities is rationalized away by attributing them to non racial motives.

I want to be fair here. To white America if the intent of an action can be shown to be racial the penalty is quite high. Paula Deen’s admission that she used the n word made the intent of her actions racial and brought down the wrath of corporate America upon her. The crime of which she was actually accused became secondary to her use of the word many years ago.  Conversely the Supreme Court in striking down part of the Voting Rights Law ruled that Congress had to provide a more recent proof that the criteria for proving the intent of voting restrictions was indeed racial in order to invoke the law. This is indeed consistent with the color blind racism that Bonilla-Silva discusses.

I will certainly defer to my colleagues in the legal profession as to the role intent or consequences play in the law. My layman’s view is that sometimes intent does as in the distinctions between first degree murder, second degree murder or manslaughter and in cases of libel. However most times it doesn’t. Lack of intent may mitigate the punishment for breaking the law but it doesn’t always show that no law was broken. So let it be with racism. If an action has the consequence of racial inequity whether intentional or not, that action is racist.  That applies to racial profiling, following innocent blacks around in stores, populating our jails with inordinate numbers of non whites, or treating non whites differently in our legal system. If the effects are racially unequal or disproportionate we should be alerted that something racial is going on. Blaming the victim is not enough.   Whites rationalize their actions as with the cop who says “most crimes are committed by blacks just look at our jails” or the store owner who follows blacks because he assumes they are most likely to shoplift from him (hello Winona Ryder.) Just as rationalizing the surveillance of non whites to fight terrorism allows the Tim McVeigh’s and Tsarnov brothers to have a clear path, the racial “assumptions” in other parts of our criminal “justice” system allow whites to get away with things while we are over-pursuing blacks. This cannot be in our best interests.


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