The atrocity at first seemed undeniable: A white vigilante, with a Germanic name no less, hunted down and then executed a tiny black youth — who, from his published grammar-school photos, seemed about twelve — while he was walking innocently and eating candy in an exclusive gated community in northern Florida. The gunman had used a racial slur, as supposedly heard on a 911 tape, and ignored the dispatcher’s urging him to back off.
The apparently racist, or at least insensitive, white police chief and district attorney then covered up the murder. Understandable outrage followed in the black community, but the killing also brought out the usual demagogues. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and the New Black Panther Party all alleged that the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was an indictment of a systematically racist white society. They demanded justice, and the Black Panthers announced a $10,000 bounty on the supposed killer. Even Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter got into the act, dubbing the shooting an “assassination.”
The dispute went national and was soon further sensationalized along racial lines. Others, mostly non–African Americans, countered that the facts were still in dispute and information was incomplete, while noting that just a few days earlier in Chicago ten youths were murdered and at least 40 others shot. Most of those victims and shooters were African Americans, but the carnage did not earn commensurate national attention from black leaders. President Obama himself, who had been silent about the slaughter in his adopted hometown, weighed in on the Martin case and, unfortunately, highlighted the racial undertones — lamenting that the murdered Martin looked just the way his own boy might, had he a son. The latter statement was true but also, of course, true of some of those murdered in Chicago. And given that the black minority currently commits violent crimes against the white majority more frequently than do the nation’s 70 percent whites against its 12 percent blacks, the president’s evocation of race in the Martin case seemed inappropriate to many.
But no crime proves quite as simple as initially reported in our sensationalized 24/7 media. Amid the blaring reports of a racially inspired murder, it turned out that the shooter, George Zimmerman, was actually part Hispanic, with a Latino mother (he was dubbed “white Hispanic” by the media, whereas Barack Obama is not referred to as a “white African-American”), and that he was perhaps not the quick-on-the-draw nut he was caricatured in the press as being. The 911 tape was scratchy, and it was unclear on another recording who said what, or who later was screaming for assistance.
The deceased, Trayvon Martin, was not a pre-teen, but 17 and 6′2″, and the gated community was ethnically mixed and may not have a white majority. True, the supposed vigilante had shot Martin, but he was also a neighborhood-watch designee, assigned to look for supposedly suspicious individuals. And the shooting occurred during some sort of fistfight in which Zimmerman may have been losing. The police, whom most thought should have at least filed manslaughter charges, seemed dumbfounded by a Florida law called “Stand Your Ground,” which could be stretched to mean that almost anyone could use deadly force if he believed that his life was endangered. In sum, what had seemed from media accounts to be a racist first-degree murder, horrifically covered up, on closer examination might have been either second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, some sort of criminal negligence, or even simple self-defense — the point being that we will not know the degree of Zimmerman’s guilt, if any, until all the evidence in the case is released to the public. Daily, new information has emerged, and, daily, the previous day’s narrative has changed.
In other words, the president waded into an ongoing investigation, in which the facts of the case remain murky and in dispute. And instead of playing down the racial component of the tragedy in polarized times, he seemed instead deliberately to have emphasized it.
President Obama had entered into another news story just a few weeks earlier. A law student at the Catholic Georgetown University, Sandra Fluke, had complained in testimony before a congressional committee that religious conservatives, in their wish to thwart provisions of Obamacare, would soon ensure that she, and millions of other women at Catholic institutions, would continue not to have access to free contraceptives. She noted that her present contraceptive needs were not covered by Georgetown and had cost her as much as $3,000 a year. Rush Limbaugh immediately jumped in and in crude fashion labeled Fluke a “slut.” He thundered that her sexual life should not be subsidized either by taxpayers or by reluctant Catholic institutions. Outrage followed Limbaugh’s various smears — which went on for at least three days until, under growing pressure, he apologized.