The Pot on Boil

Wednesday 24 July 2013 - Filed under Uncategorized

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, opines on the racializing of the Trayvon Martin shooting:

But let’s pause with the examples and consider the script itself. The trope, of course, is that black suspects are mercilessly hounded, even if they are innocent; and white suspects stroll free, even if they are self-evidently guilty. It is plainly true that both things have happened in our recorded history. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they still happen, though we are long past the point where they are common or that they go unremarked or that they are allowed to stand if exposed to the light of day. Still the collective memory of this sort of racial injustice is so powerful that it can blind us to the facts at hand.

The Trayvon Martin shooting just isn’t a very good fit with the racial injustice narrative. Martin was not a poor put-upon innocent; Zimmerman was a man of mixed race, living in an integrated neighborhood, and possessed of a life history that contained only friendly relations with blacks. And both the police and the jury believed he acted in genuine self-defense. The narrative of the white neighborhood watch guy gunning down in cold blood the innocent child who went out to buy Skittles didn’t stand up to facts.

Academics in our post-modern age, however, are rarely daunted by facts. When the facts get in the way of a good narrative, the narrative tends to win. What’s going on?


One way to think of this willingness to let a narrative trump the facts is that it is a victory of poetry over reason. A story retold often enough in an emotionally compelling way becomes “true” even if it isn’t. That heartfelt truth can indeed flatten almost any obstacle, especially if it is rooted in real events. When it comes to instances of blacks unfairly accused and whites getting away with murder, we have both a tragic national history and a poetic consciousness of what happened.

[. . .]

If you arrange the keys on a typewriter one way, they remain that way for generations and for new technologies, such as keyboards, no matter the inconvenience. If you set the width of the railroad tracks at a specific gauge, it too will remain that way seemingly forever. Economists call this “path dependency.” Initial decisions, sometimes intended just as improvised answers to a situation, tend to stay with us.

That can happen with misinformation too. In the early hours of a story, reporters often get things wrong. NPR did a telling round-up of the misinformation reported as news in the early hours following the Newtown shootings. Some of those misstatements are still in circulation.

One of the misstatements in the Trayvon Martin case wasn’t actually a statement at all. It was the picture of the 17-year-old Martin as a twelve-year-old, which was widely circulated and heightened the sense that Zimmerman had murdered an innocent child. But the most consequential mistake was the report that Zimmerman was “white.” This became amended over time to “white Hispanic,” but the truth was more complicated. Zimmerman is of mixed race, and was raised in a household that included two African-American girls. This had no bearing on the question of whether he had committed a crime in connection with Martin’s death but it has a great deal of bearing on the aptness of the narrative presented by Burnham, Potter, Goodwin, Dennis, Kelley and so many others. In that narrative Zimmerman was “white,” or as Goodwin puts it, a person who “identifies as white,” and that identification was crucial to turning the story into an allegory of racial injustice in modern America.


The Trayvon Martin story has one other crucial element: it is a story meant to inflame. Indignation is a worthy response to real injustice, but indignation can also be a force in its own right. Anger feels empowering, and it can become a kind of mob rule of the emotions over our better judgment. Several years ago I wrote a book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, about our cultural shift from the slow burn to the fast fuse. We Americans over the last half century gradually relinquished our sense that real strength lies in self-control and that anger has to be governed. Instead we became convinced that repressing anger is psychologically damaging and letting it out is empowering. Vituperative anger became not only destigmatized but admired and celebrated.

In a sense, we now wait around for opportunities to get angry and we have supplied ourselves with an arsenal of occasions in which we are licensed to let loose. Righteous indignation over racial injustice is near the top of the list.

This applies in nearly all contexts of American life, but higher education holds a special place in that arsenal. Our colleges and universities are the nation’s primary font for racial ressentiment. The American college campus is the place where we accentuate racial division as a matter of policy via preferences in admissions, organization of students into grievance-based groups, and curricula that foreground the narrative of racial oppression as the central story of American history. In this environment, the need to stoke grievance is never-ending, and the opportunity to turn tragic events into fodder for protest is almost irresistible.

[. . .]

So the anger-is-empowering theme and the readiness to grab hold of an event and fit it to the anger narrative is in great part a university invention, supported by a substantial portion of the professoriate who have little to offer other than their commitment to keeping the pot on boil.

Having spent my fair share of time in academe, I can certainly attest to the idea that, in academia, believing that race relations have dramatically improved since the 1950s is in itself racist. They have racism tied up in a nice little bow, especially in the Trayvon Martin case. Zimmerman shot Trayvon because he’s a racist, and he’s a racist because he shot Trayvon. There are no other possibilities to someone steeped in the academic lore of racism. Trayvon was shot because he was black. That there is no evidence of racism on the part of Zimmerman (and to acknowledge that there is ample evidence that he wasn’t racist at all) matters not; to not accept it as an article of faith is itself racist.

2013-07-24  »  madlibertarianguy