Archives For Trayvon

A reader complements McWhorter’s point:

It isn’t just that there is no one new to be the new Jackson and Sharpton; it’s that there isn’t a new community to lead. On the positive side, there isn’t a standard issue black community anymore. Maybe there never was, but there are now black children of privilege, black hipsters, blerds, etc. – all who identify with another group before they identify as black. The segregation in our society is more economic than it is racial. Poor, uneducated whites don’t really have it any easier than poor, uneducated blacks or Hispanics. There is nobody to come to the defense of the poor (no matter what the facts of any given situation are) in this country like Jackson and Sharpton did for African-Americans. The issues are more complex, and Jackson and Sharpton’s message has always been awfully simplistic. I don’t know if there CAN be a new one of them.

On the negative side, racism is a lot more sneaky then it used to be. Drug policy is perhaps the number one way the government is racist, and who stands up for that? The country as a whole just won’t open their eyes to that problem for myriad reasons.

A word from the great president:

Abraham Lincoln discussed this romanticization of violence in 1838, in one of his earliest public speeches, “Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.” What, Lincoln asked, threatened the well-being of American democracy? Only one thing: vigilante violence, “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” He detailed the epidemic of violence and then located its cause in the need for what we would now call identity politics. Constitutional institutions might be equitable, but they were not lacking in (and it’s striking that Lincoln used exactly this word) “authenticity”—the dry, rational legal system that the revolution had insured could never satisfy Americans’ need for an emotional connection with the past and with each other.

Lincoln’s own call, in response, was for an ever more radical rationalism: “Reason, cold calculating unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.”

As Adam Gopnik notes, Lincoln even cast the Civil War as the defense of the arid, legal principle that the Union was indissoluble – not a matter of honor or pride or culture. And that, of course, was his key difference with the dueling, honor-driven culture of the South (and Wild West). Adam Cohen also helpfully contrasts English and American self-defense laws:

Nearly 250 years ago, William Blackstone included in his classic Commentaries on the Laws of England a well-established rule: “[T]o excuse homicide by the plea of self defense, it must appear that the slayer had no other possible means of escaping from his assailant.” Sir Blackstone understood why people should be required to retreat before using deadly force: “the right to defend,” he warned, “may be mistaken as the right to kill.” …

[In contrast,] [i]n 1921, in Brown v. United States, the Supreme Court rejected the obligation to retreat. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the author of the decision, later explained: “a man is not born to run away.”

Holmes, our most epigrammatic Supreme Court Justice, got at something profound about the “stand your ground” doctrine. It is not the product of elaborate empirical research or deep philosophical debate. It is, fundamentally, based on a notion of honor: that a man (and presumably a woman, though they seem to invoke it a lot less) should not be required to run away. That honor-based rationale is particularly American. Maybe because of our Wild West origins — the no-duty-to-retreat doctrine is sometimes called the “Texas rule” — or maybe because we are the world’s only superpower, we are a nation that is uncomfortable with retreat. We live in a culture in which avoiding conflict is considered cowardly, or, at best, humorous.

More readers talk about overcoming their discomfort of neighbors of a different race:

I’d like to add my $.02 to the thread, from personal experience.  Years ago, I was assaulted in my apartment in L.A.  At least ten of my white friends either assumed or asked if my attacker was black. I told them no – the only black guy around was my big, scary-looking neighbor who rushed to my rescue when he heard me screaming.  When the attacker was caught, he turned out to be (a) a serial rapist, suspected in hundreds of crimes and (b) a white, married Mormon.  I hadn’t thought much about racism up to that time, but the lesson couldn’t have been more clear, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Another reader:

A few years ago, I lived in and around NYC jumping from sublet to sublet with two travel suitcases and one condition: $500 rent. This brought me to a plethora of places I had never experienced in college: Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, etc. And my Mom was terrified. And honestly, I was too. A child of the ’80s, I had grown up with the firmly held belief that New York was a war zone. This was on top of the fact that I lived in closet spaces that had a curtain (or hung up sheet) in place of a door.

But money was tight, so I just buckled up. And after a few months, it barely even registered. I felt safe – safer than I had ever been. At first, I wrote my parents off as paranoid, but over time I began to realize that things just used to be a lot worse.

Having said that, I’ve never erased the dread that seeps in when I find myself on an empty street – late at night – with a stranger my brain identifies as poor, male, and non-white. But there’s a difference between having that fear and acting on it – and certainly institutionalizing it. I could concede to Cohen that his idealized version of racial profiling could reduce even more crime, but like terrorism, there is a point where pure, practical security infringes upon liberty and justice for all.


I currently live in Crown Heights, a notable, new and exciting (and “gentrifying” – wink, wink) part of Brooklyn.

There’s still lots of black people here, and I hope it stays that way. There’s some tension in that regard, but I like to think the twenties to thirties-something white folk (and rough white equivalents – Asians/Indians like myself) and the black folk of all ages get along pretty well. There’s one bar in particular around here that’s known as a very mixed spot and it’s always a great time and no one – white or black, Asian or Jew – fears being shot. New York’s gun laws must help – so too, I will admit, the city’s policing tactics. NYPD is everywhere, but not in a very conspicuous way. It’s very smart, and I honestly admire their tactics, in this regard at least.

Some of the black people in my neighborhood are undoubtedly “thuggish” to the outside world. Sometimes they stand in groups of 8-10 dudes, maybe a few chicks, and they are not dressed in corporate attire. I’m not going to pretend some uneasiness didn’t cross my mind the first few times I walked through such groups of people. But I got over those feelings very quickly and now it’s like whatever. Sometimes I hear echoes of those feelings whenever my parents ask me if living in Brooklyn is safe, which makes me cringe every time I hear it. Granted, I’m a tall brown dude myself. But all the white girls I know, including my roommates, travel pretty long distances on foot at night without any trouble.

So I understand the feeling Richard Cohen is describing, but so do most people, and we all got over the feeling very quickly. That’s why Ta-Neishi is so spot on with calling it banal racism. Yes, we all sometimes feel afraid around people who are unlike us. That’s almost the most uninteresting point ever made. The interesting part comes in learning to overcome that feeling.


There is a video that has been making the rounds lately, and if memory services, The Dish featured it [we did]. It’s of Dustin Hoffman being interviewed about his role in Tootsie. He makes the point that society’s stereotypes about what a woman should be had “brainwashed” him into cutting himself off from meeting many, many interesting people. That idea also applies to race.

In the past two weeks in Denver, I have been checking out at a grocery store and a Target, and black ladies were the checkers. They were warm and I just felt that they were very loving people. When I was younger I had a lot of black male and female friends, mostly acquired by playing sports. I loved being around these friends. I don’t know what it was, but they were just warm and full of heart and funny. Not that my other white friends weren’t also, but it was different.

Now that I am a middle-aged white guy with a family, I find that the opportunities for those friendships are simply not as easy. It’s like after school – high school and college – my path just does not cross with blacks. And I really miss them and that opportunity.

A must-read from Conor.

The Story Of “Nigger Jeff”

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 18 2013 @ 11:40am


Alan Jacobs tells it:

All I can say in my defense is that I never hurled a stone at him, or shouted abuse. But I stood by, many a time, as others did those things, and I neither walked away nor averted my eyes. I never held anyone’s cloak, but then I was never asked to. I watched it all, gripping a rock in my hand as though I were preparing to use it — so that no one would turn on me with anger or contempt — and I always stood a little behind them so they couldn’t see that I wasn’t throwing anything. I was smaller and younger than the rest of them, and they were smaller and younger than him. In my memory he seems almost a full-grown man; I suppose he was eleven or twelve.

We called him Nigger Jeff. I have never doubted that Jeff was indeed his name, though as I write this account I find myself asking, for the first time, how we could have known: I never heard any of the boys speak to him except in cries of hatred, and I never knew anyone else who knew him. It occurs to me now that, if his name was Jeff, there had to have been at least a brief moment of human contact and exchange — perhaps not even involving Jeff, perhaps one of the boys’ mothers talked to Jeff’s mother. But we grasp what’s available for support or stability. It’s bad to call a boy Nigger Jeff, but worse still to call him just Nigger. A name counts for something.

Continued here. Update from a reader:

I read the story about “Nigger Jeff” and it brought back a memory from almost 62 years ago.

I was raised in a small coal mining town in Southern Illinois.  My dad owned a grocery store that served everyone in town, the black population included.  We all, of course, knew each other anyway (how can you not know everyone when there are only 350 people in town?) and as a young child, I remember our black neighbors as well as our white ones.  One in particular was a woman of generous size who made the best barbeque in the world.  Every year, twice a year, like clockwork, the smell of barbecue roasting on her outdoor huge grill would permeate the town and everyone would run to her house to buy ribs, pork for sandwiches, etc.  I can still taste it and have found nothing to compare.

She shopped at my dad’s store and one January she came into the store when I was there.  I had gotten a black doll from Santa that year and I ran to her and said so proudly…”look at my nigger baby”.  She sat down in the one chair in my dad’s store, said “come here baby” and sat me on her ample lap.  I’m not sure what the words she used but she made it clear to my five-year-old brain that that word was just not acceptable. I still have trouble saying it (writing it is hard enough).

I suppose if more of us had those kinds of connections with people who are not like us and who were willing to educate a five-year-old little white girl about the harm that a word can cause, the world would be a better place …

No one:

[T]here are not, and never have been, any new versions of the old Jesse and Al. Not a single young preacher or politician has even started to acquire national influence by taking a page from their old playbooks. The times have changed. If the more pessimistic strains in black America can be slow to fully acknowledge progress, we can take heart from the fact that Al Sharpton will be 60 next year, and a young version of his young self is now inconceivable as a national figure.

A reader writes:

Your comments struck a chord with me, because it really does seem that a lot of older white folks are stuck in the ’80s. I’m a young white guy living in DC, and every time I go home for the holidays or a party with extended family, after the usual small talk it always comes up: “How do you deal with the crime?” It’s honestly a question that drives me crazy. I’ve lived here five years and all I’ve ever witnessed is someone stealing something from CVS. I do know of friends of friends who have been mugged and such, but still … it’s far from a war zone. When I commented that I had recently moved to nearby Arlington, they said, “Well, of course – I mean, you can’t live in DC, really.” It’s apparent to me that despite my denials, my aunts and uncles are convinced that DC and other urban areas of the US are something akin to Baghdad. They just don’t seem to believe me when I tell them that, yes, there are a lot of black men around (“sketchy people”, in their words), and, no, they do not bother me. They are convinced there is mortal danger around every corner, just like Richard Cohen is.

Another DC resident:

Just this morning I reflected on the Metro that I hardly notice race anymore. I am trying not to sound like Stephen Colbert as I type that, but what I mean is that I am far less race-conscious than I used to be.

I am white, and I moved to DC several years ago, after living in smaller cities. It isn’t like I never interacted with minorities in other cities, but in a big city like DC it is harder to segregate oneself. In other cities, I lived in mostly white neighborhoods and so I mostly interacted with other white people when not at work. The people of color I worked with were well-educated professionals. I rarely ran into young black men in hoodies, but in DC, I see all kinds of people just on my commute before I even get to work or to lunch or whatever.

I promise I wasn’t an overt racist before moving to DC, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some unconscious prejudice before (and still now, of course). If I had been alone on the street with a young black man in a hoodie, I might have been suspicious for no good reason other than I didn’t recognize the guy. I am not proud of that, but it’s true.

It is different now. The increased interaction with all kinds of different people here in DC makes me able to recognize when to steer clear of a person or group, and race is really not a factor. A black guy in a hoodie isn’t notable. A guy eyeing my phone? Maybe. A guy walking back from 7/11 talking on his phone? Probably not a problem. Very few people commit robberies while on the phone.

I point this out only because for people like George Zimmerman who lived in a gated suburban community (and possibly Richard Cohen – not sure we’re he lives), the lack of exposure to black men in hoodies is what leads to the fear of a black man in a hoodie. I know this because I used to be much closer to their thinking than I am now, and I get where they’re coming from, to a degree. But what it reveals is not some “reality” of an intelligently honed fear of young black men as Cohen suggests. It reveals that we are still a segregated country in many ways and that Cohen doesn’t often interact with young black men.