Monday, July 15, 2013

The Stars May Lie, But the Numbers Never Do

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.

Psalm 31:9-10

I am not in mourning. In spite of what I have seen, my eyes are not wasting away from grief. But they should be. And we should all be grieving for our nation.

Over the past few days I have seen dozens of internet postings about Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing what she called “warning shots” over her husband’s head. Her husband had a history of domestic violence and she fired the shots after a violent altercation. No one was killed. There were no injuries.

It took the jury less than 15 minutes to find her guilty.

Ms. Alexander is black. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

There are issues with Marissa Alexander’s case. But the broad outlines are hard to ignore. George Zimmerman is “not guilty.” Trayvon Martin is dead. And Marissa Alexander is in prison, while her husband with a history of domestic violence is alive and well.

Racism has been called America’s “original sin” and it is still with us.

We don’t need to argue the specifics of the Trayvon Martin case. On the face of it, it looks bad. But it is just one case. This one case is significant only because of the broader trends. If we look up rates of incarceration, sentencing, capital punishment, unemployment, income, education, or pretty much anything else, what we find is that black people are disproportionately on the disadvantaged side of the ledger every single time. We would like to believe that justice is blind but the statistics say otherwise.

To paraphrase Mary Chapin Carpenter, "The pundits and politicians may lie, but the numbers never do."

In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal a white person commented that white people had not rioted after the O. J. Simpson verdict, when a black man was found “not guilty” in the murder of a white woman, and that black people should show similar restraint. And, of course, we should all show restraint. And, so far, things have been relatively calm.

But seriously, O J. Simpson? That’s a great first example. Now we will all wait patiently for the second example.

What the Simpson verdict proved is that money makes a difference. And that in some cases, class may matter more than race.

In the recent court rulings on affirmative action, someone cynically observed that colleges and universities were more comfortable with defining diversity in terms of race rather than class. Racial diversity could be achieved by focusing affirmative action on income. If a colleges and universities achieved economic diversity, they would also achieve racial diversity without ever considering race as a category. Lower income blacks and whites would all benefit. But the present focus on racial diversity allows the colleges to select students from families with higher incomes, regardless of race. And the big gain for the colleges is that such a selection costs less in terms of financial aid.

We know that racism is still a problem in America. We don’t know whether or not George Zimmerman is a racist. The evidence is mixed. We don’t know whether or not the judge, and the jurors and the police officers are racists. But we know that racism is a problem in America. And we know that we have work to do.

We also know one more thing with a reasonable certainty. If George Zimmerman had not had a gun, then no one would be dead. Without a gun he would not have followed Trayvon Martin and the altercation between them would never have taken place. And without a gun, Marissa Alexander would not be in prison. She was not in danger when she fired the warning shots.

Maybe we need to do something about the guns.


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  2. We do not know if George Zimmerman would still be alive had he not defended himself. We can't.

  3. We don't know for certain that he was "defending himself" in the altercation. My contention is that if George Zimmerman had not had a gun, then he would not have followed Trayvon Martin and there would have been no altercation.

  4. I think you're right Bill. And if George Zimmerman had followed the 911 operator's instructions and not continued to follow Treyvon Martin, there would have been no altercation. Whether he was actually defending himself or not, the fact is that he was told to back down, and that's what he should have done.