Eighteen. That’s how many black people are murdered per day in America.. If you don’t have the misfortune to live near one of those eighteen, you didn’t hear about any of them.
There are nearly 7,000 African American homicides a year, but only one has grabbed us by our eyeballs and won’t let go. The Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman killing has propelled itself to the front of our national consciousness, while the others go virtually unnoticed.
Why all the attention? What so different about this case?
Nothing. It’s not about the case; it’s about the cast.
It doesn’t even matter if George Zimmerman is guilty or innocent, that’s beside the point.
The point, of course, is race. When a gangbanger bangs one out, it’s a simple, common crime. But when a sort-of-white wannabe cop and neighborhood bully kills a black teenager, a couple of strange, powerful things happen.
First, the victim becomes a choirboy by popular acclimation. It’s as if the populace couldn’t understand the narrative if the kid had a pot bust in junior high.
And second, the killer becomes a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Look, I don’t want to trivialize this, or offend anyone’s sensibilities, but there is a direct parallel here with the use of the N word.
Nobody likes it, but if you use it, you better be black. A black man killing another black man is an all-too-common tragedy. A white man killing a black man is an act of race war.
Our collective memories know that there is something especially heinous about this kind of crime.
We hate murderers, but not all murders are considered equal. A killing in the hood is a shame. A serial killing is an outrage. If the details are particularly gruesome we make a movie about it.
But even an interracial school slaughter like Virginia Tech, where one person killed 32, has less impact on the nation than the Zimmerman case. The murderer was a disturbed Asian boy, most of the victims white. But race didn’t seem to be a factor in that crime, and it’s the act that sticks in our minds four years later, not the perpetrator.
I’m willing to bet not ten percent of my readers can bring the name Seung-Hui Cho to mind when thinking about Virginia Tech. I know I had to Google it.
But George Zimmerman’s name will be remembered in four years; those of us still alive will remember it in forty. Whether he’s guilty or not.
My wife pointed it out; whenever they talk about this case it’s always Trayvon and Zimmerman. We know the victim, affectionately, by his first name, the killer by his last. Why? Because we take this case personally. Otherwise the wall-to-wall coverage wouldn’t be there.
Even among hate crimes, this one is special. When some homophobes kill a gay man, it’s news, it’s an outrage, we hear about it. But the coverage and concern don’t reach Martin/Zimmerman heights. The history is entirely different. Gay people have been harassed and killed for years in America, but, as horrid as that history is, cities did not burn. A civil war wasn’t fought over that issue, six hundred thousand Americans didn’t die because of it.
Race has unique, terrible power over America’s moral conscience and with good reason. When a white man kills a black man it’s something more than a crime in our eyes, it’s something unspeakably worse. Which is why we must speak about it.
White people may not want to see it that way. In our hearts we may think, we are not racist, we elected a black president, we hate not. And all that is probably true for most white Americans.
It doesn’t matter. Some lessons must be relearned whenever something terrible happens that reminds us all of our nation’s original sin.
I hope justice is done to Mr. Zimmerman. If his version of that tragedy is the truth, I hope he doesn’t suffer for it any more than he has already. If he’s lying and killed that kid on purpose I hope they throw the book at him.
But either way, I know that justice is being served by all the saturating, 24/7 coverage and conversation. I know we need to work this out slowly, one painful step at a time.
Because, to white America, this is a case, a killing, a mystery, maybe even an annoyance. But to black America it’s one six-millionth of a genocide.