July 22, 2013

Skin in the Game: An American Gothic, in Black and White

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For the crime of Walking While Black, armed with Skittles and an AriZona Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail, a young man lies murdered.

As everyone not living in a Klavern knows, he was an unarmed 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch patroller jittery from a series of break-ins in the neighborhood, deemed Martin suspicious, and trailed him in his car. “Just walking around, looking about,” the hoodie-wearing youth was clearly “up to no good,” Zimmerman told a police dispatcher, on the evening of February 26, 2012. (Martin, we learned too late, was visiting his father’s fiancée, as he had done many times.) As the world also knows, a confrontation ensued; it ended with a shot in the dark—Zimmerman firing his semi-automatic pistol into Martin’s chest.

The neighborhood in question was a gated community in Sanford, Florida, aptly called The Retreat—aptly, because digging in, hunkering down in our safe rooms and our doomsday bunkers, hollering damn the torpedoes and bring it on is what we do. Circling the wagons. Making a Last Stand. Remembering the Alamo. Living the frontier dream of lighting out for the territories, far from federal meddling, where every man—every white man, at least—is a law unto himself, meting out justice with a Peacemaker and a hanging rope, a mob of upstanding citizens at his back.

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For a would-be democracy, it’s a paradoxical fantasy, one that exposes the fault line in our national psyche, between our founding doctrine of “We, the People” and E Pluribus Unum and our folk religion of self-reliance and rugged individualism—phrases usually appended, in elementary-school textbooks, to pictures of Jeffersonian yeomen and Little House on the Prairie pioneers, but which also attach, in the American imagination, to public enemies like Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde. (Passing through Saint Joseph, Missouri on his 1882 lecture tour of the States, mere weeks after James had been shot dead there, Oscar Wilde took note of the “fabulous prices” paid at auction for such holy relics as the outlaw’s hearth-brush and door-knocker, observing, “The Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take heroes from the criminal classes.”)

Amid disheartening news of American decline—joblessness, a widening income gap, deteriorating infrastructure, dysfunctional government, the gutting of the public sector by the sequestration—the anomic-loner side of our split self is gaining the upper hand, in some quarters. We see it in the sociopathy of shooting sprees, the fusion paranoia of doomsday preppers, the antigovernment secessionism of far-right militias. Gnawed by economic anxiety, rubbed raw by political impotence, too alienated (or just too American?) for class consciousness, too historically illiterate to grasp how we got here, there are those who imagine a gun in the hand will give them back their lost dignity, restore some sense of power over their lives.

An uglier subset are looking for a scapegoat, someone to put a face on the societal forces, so maddeningly abstract, closing off the avenues of escape from their dead-end jobs and underwater mortgages and moribund main streets. Consider the Tea Party, most of whose members are white, male, over 45, and self-identified as conservative. According to a 2010 poll by the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas, Tea Partiers are haunted by premonitions of white decline: “46.1% of Tea Party members think the future for White people will be worse or much worse, as opposed to 24.5% of Non-Tea Party members. When the sample is restricted to only White respondents, Tea Party distinctions on racial issues are clearer. … Nearly two-thirds (62.8%) of White Tea Party members think ‘we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.’” By curious coincidence, 69.3% of White Tea Party Members “strongly disapprove” of America’s first black president, with another 22.8% merely “disapproving.”

Although the Tea Party constituted only 10.6% of the U.S. population as of 2010, their activism and voting-day turnout has made them the tail that wags the dog, in many districts. Then, too, the Tea Party is only one example of Angry White Guys of a Certain Age, yet varying classes, taking arms against what they perceive as a sea of troubles: on the economic front, the financial pain and social dislocation inflicted by outsourcing and the decline of the manufacturing; on the cultural front, by the demographic browning of America, compounded by the graying of white America. Obama, a man of mixed race with family ties to Kenya and Indonesia who identifies as black (and whom Tea Partiers are more than twice as likely as the general population to identify as a Muslim) is a lightning rod for free-floating anxieties and anger—as are all people of color, especially that centuries-old bogeyman, the young black male. In this charged atmosphere, the Niagara of guns flooding our nation, together with laws like the ubiquitous conceal-carry and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law (whose very name reverberates with echoes of John Wayne), threaten to turn back the historical page to the torch-lit terrors of Reconstruction and the lawlessness of the frontier.

Fill your hand, stranger.
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On TV, Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, who oversaw the prosecution of George Zimmerman, is smiling brightly at the assembled reporters.

Although an all-white jury of Trayvon’s peers has just found Zimmerman not guilty of all charges in Martin’s death, Corey looks positively beamish. Maybe it’s a Southern thing, that steel-magnolia mixture of debutante poise and Kevlar toughness we’ve heard about?

Now she’s percolating about being “so proud” of her office for “being part of the historical aspect of this case and show[ing] that the American justice system can only be done in a court of law.”

Which is odd, if you think about it, since the trial was occasioned by rough justice done on a residential street by a man with no authority vested in him—no authority, that is, beyond every American’s god-given right to bear arms.

Now Corey is falling all over herself to reassure Floridians that she is a strong supporter of the right to bear arms, “a right in which we all believe—I especially believe in that right.”

Preach it, teach it. Because The Gun, second only to The Bible and just above The Free Market, is a venerated icon in our national mythology. “What we want,” she says, “is responsible use when someone feels they have to use a gun to take a life.”

So take a life, my fellow Americans, but take it responsibly, won’t you please? Think of the children. Conceal and carry, stalk and menace a black teen who has lived his life in the crosshairs of racial fear and loathing, make him know who has the whip hand, now, goddamit, over the “punks.” When the police dispatcher admonishes you to let Sanford’s boys in blue (whose own record when it comes to race relations is not, shall we say, unimpeachable) handle the matter, confront the little menace to society. When he fights back, blow a hole through his heart and chalk one up for every would-be Dirty Harry’s right to use deadly force whenever the whim crosses his rage-addled mind. Chalk one up for conceal-carry laws, and Stand Your Ground Laws, and all the other lunatic contrivances of a Frontierland on steroids that won’t rest until the unborn bear arms, the better to defend themselves against abortionists, and the head of the NRA sits in the Oval Office with a belt-fed weapon mounted on his desk. Chalk one up, too, for race relations in a nation whose Supreme Court has seen fit to eviscerate the voting rights act and whose Republican lawmakers are busily redrawing voting districts to happy effect for white power, a nation that incarcerates and exterminates black men at a rate that would warm the heart of D.W. Griffith.

We are a Land of the Yahoos.

Mark Dery

I’m a cultural critic. I’ve written for publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, …

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