The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last month by a neighborhood-watch volunteer was a sickening and — unless new facts come to light — unjustified loss of an innocent life. Unless Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, had reason to believe that Martin was armed, shooting him was a grossly disproportionate response to a fistfight, even leaving aside the fact that Zimmerman had initiated the encounter. If such a shooting is justified under Florida’s broad self-defense law, that law has licensed violence that goes far beyond legitimate self-defense. Every American shares the despair of Martin’s family over this heartbreaking tragedy and supports a fuller investigation (though the entrance of the Feds at this point is premature, absent evidence of Florida’s incapacity to conduct a fair inquiry).
But is the Martin shooting emblematic of a larger problem? Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the mainstream media here and abroad certainly are portraying it as such. That larger problem, of course, is lethal white racism and a criminal-justice system allegedly indifferent to the killing of blacks. At a rally Thursday night in Sanford, Sharpton said that “Trayvon represents a reckless disregard for our lives that we’ve seen for too long,” and warned that “they,” presumably whites, would try to trick black protesters into violence by “send[ing] in provocateurs.” “Blacks are under attack,” said Jesse Jackson on Friday from Chicago. “Targeting, arresting, convicting blacks, and ultimately killing us is big business.” MSNBC analyst Karen Finney claimed that “racist rhetoric” used by Rush Limbaugh and several Republican presidential candidates was responsible for Martin’s death.
Times columnist Charles Blow dealt with the complicating factor of Zimmerman’s ethnicity with a simple duality: “Trayvon is black. Zimmerman is not,” he wrote last Saturday, presumably conferring on Zimmerman putative white status. The Rainbow Coalition has apparently broken down.
Blow went on to claim that it is the “the burden of black boys in America” to be at high risk of being shot by non-blacks: “This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them ‘suspicious.’”
Blow’s fear that his children will be blown away by a white is particularly ludicrous in New York City. Blacks commit 80 percent of all shootings in the city — as reported by the victims of and witnesses to those shootings — though they are but 23 percent of the population; whites commit 1.4 percent of all shootings, though they are 35 percent of the population. Add Hispanic shootings to the black tally, and you account for 98 percent of all of the city’s gun violence. In New York, as in big cities across the country, the face of violence is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.
No evidence has yet surfaced to support the charge that the failure of the Sanford police to arrest Zimmerman results from racial bias, as opposed to ambiguities in the application of Florida’s self-defense law and the absence of eye-witnesses to the killing. But if such evidence of racial indifference does emerge, it would be not only shameful but also a great exception to the practice of police departments across the country. Far from showing a “reckless disregard for [black] lives,” in Sharpton’s words, it is the police and prosecutors who are the most reliable responders to black victimization, trying relentlessly to put together a case even when the witnesses to crime refuse to cooperate. Most police chiefs will say that they could solve every inner-city killing if the people who saw the crime or know the perpetrators came forward, instead of obeying the “no snitching” code.
And it is the concerted efforts of police departments across the country to bring safety to urban neighborhoods that have played a central role in the 50 percent drop in the black homicide victimization rate from 1991 to 2008. In New York City, over 10,000 minority males are alive today who would have been killed had homicide rates remained at their early 1990s highs; the largest cause of that crime drop is the New York Police Department’s policing revolution, which has created an unprecedented sense of urgency about protecting lives. The NYPD’s weekly meetings at police headquarters, known as Compstat, focus relentlessly on one overriding question: How can we save more people — overwhelmingly minorities — from being victimized by crime? Many an NYPD commander has lost his post because he has not had an adequate answer to that question.
The protesters in Florida and across the country are right to demand an explanation for the decision not to charge Zimmerman. A critical examination of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is absolutely warranted. But the racial storyline that has been imposed on the shooting does not fairly represent contemporary America. That storyline is not just wrong, it is dangerous, because it only feeds black alienation and anger. Family breakdown, not white racism, is the biggest impediment facing blacks today, producing such casualties as the 18-year-old gangbanger who fatally shot a 34-year-old mother picking up her child from school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, last October. Sharpton and the national media didn’t show up for that killing, just as they don’t for the thousands of other black-on-black killings each year. By all means, demand justice for Trayvon Martin. But when that justice comes, as it most surely will, perhaps some small part of the energy devoted to securing it could be redirected towards stigmatizing black criminals and revalorizing the role of fathers in families.
Editor’s Note: This post has been amended since it was originally published.