For a brief and wondrous moment, America engaged in something akin to a lucid and thoughtful conversation on race, a dialogue sparked by the tragic and unjust killing of Trayvon Martin. Across lines of color, class and political ideology, commentators and ordinary citizens weighed in on the stereotypes and prejudices that may have prompted so-called neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman to follow Martin, a teenager, around a gated community outside Orlando, Fla.
Republicans and Democrats, liberals and libertarians, wealthy and working class joined in criticizing the police for the ineptitude or bias or both that characterized the immediate aftermath, leaving Zimmerman a free man with no charges against him. GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum initially skirted the subject of race but acknowledged a criminal justice travesty that demanded further investigation.
That national unity didn’t last long. It was quickly consumed by an ugly backlash against the idea that racism lingers, that racial bigotry has not been eradicated. The backlash has taken the form of a campaign of character assassination against Martin — as if the young man’s family has not suffered enough.
From leaked reports about his school suspensions to a misidentified photo allegedly showing him in a gangsta pose, the forces of dissension, denial and, let’s face it, racial discrimination have stopped at nothing to try to paint Martin as undeserving of sympathy. In National Review Online, conservative academic Victor Davis Hanson wrote: “Martin is emerging not quite as a model pre-teen, Skittle-eating student with a slight truancy problem, but as a 6-foot-2-inch teen with troubled Twitter allusions to criminal activity, an obscene n-word Twitter ID, and suspensions entailing possible drug use and theft.”
His mother, too, has been vilified in some quarters for seeking to copyright two phrases — “Justice for Trayvon” and “I Am Trayvon” — and accused of trying to profit from her son’s death. She has responded, quite sensibly, that she is trying to protect his memory from exploitation, but that has hardly silenced the critics. Meanwhile, Gingrich and Santorum have claimed that Obama injected race into the case.