Commentary: Moral cowardice and the Trayvon Martin case

The Miami HeraldApril 6, 2012 

Once upon a time in the late ’90s, a certain black newswoman was awarded her own column. She wrote 12 pieces, three of them about race. That was too many for her boss, who told her to tone it down. Confused, she went to a white colleague for advice. He explained that, being black, she lacked the judgment to decide if a given racial matter merited a column. In the future, he suggested, if she saw some racial issue she thought worth writing about, she should bring it to him and let him decide.

That paternalistic offer is brought to mind by a recent on air statement from Tamara Holder, a contributor to Fox “News,” about the killing of Trayvon Martin. “The blacks,” she told Sean Hannity, “are making this more of a racial issue than it should be.”

One is reminded that the more things change, the more they don’t. One wonders how much of a racial issue Trayvon’s death should be, in Ms. Holder’s esteemed opinion.

There is a storyline coalescing here among conservative pundits. From Holder to Hannity to William Bennett to my colleague, Glenn Garvin, it says there’s been a “rush to judgment” against George Zimmerman, the man who stalked and killed an unarmed 17-year-old black kid he found suspicious.

Candidly, there is good reason to fear such a rush. Anyone who remembers the Tawana Brawley hoax and the Duke Lacrosse case, among others, knows many African Americans have proven prone to jumping to conclusions of racism even when the evidence thereof is dubious. Some black folks see racial mistreatment everywhere, always.

But some white folks see it nowhere — ever. That’s a corollary truth that seems apropos to this moment. Indeed, when a black man named Abner Louima was maimed in an act of broomstick sodomy by New York Police, Holder’s friend Hannity accused Louima of lying. Don’t rush to judgment, he warned.

For some people, that is less sage advice than default response. The Rodney King beating, said former Los Angeles Police chief Daryl Gates, “did look like racism,” but wasn’t. “This is not a racial issue,” said a school official in Louisiana after six black kids were charged with attempted murder for a schoolyard fight with a white classmate.

And so on.

There is a line — subjective but, there, just the same — between avoiding a rush to judgment and avoiding judgment itself. If rushing to judgment suggests a reflexiveness that ill serves the cause of justice, refusing to judge suggests a moral cowardice that does the same.

Where this case is concerned, it is telling that judgments made weeks after the fact are being called rushed. The rapid response nature of media being what it is, we make judgments everyday based on much less than five weeks of reflection. We do this on matters of economics, war, politics, scandal.

But, of course, race is different. It scares some of us, particularly when it requires them to concede the continued existence of injustices they would rather deny. They are aided in this denial by a naïve belief that a thing can’t truly be racist unless it is wearing a pointed hood or spouting epithets.

But racial bias is seldom so conveniently obvious. More often, it lurks behind smiles and handshakes, unknown sometimes even to its host. More often it is deduced, not declared, seen in excuses that don’t add up, justifications that make no sense, logic that is not.

As in Zimmerman’s decision to stalk Trayvon. Five weeks later, for all the back and forth, push and pull, no one has yet explained what the boy did that made him suspicious. Five weeks later, the initial conclusion still feels like the right one: Trayvon did not seem suspicious because of what he did but because of what he was.

So fine, let us not rush to judgment. But let’s not rush from it, either.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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